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Family Therapy Model and Application: Structural Family Therapy Case Study

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2019


Families comprise different people who influence one another in unpredictable ways. This interrelationship makes family therapies difficult. The structural family therapy offers a theoretical and practical model that guarantees order to build and maintain a long-lasting and positive relationship.

In theory, the appreciation of the existence of a family structure is founded on the view that members of a family show some consistency in terms of their behaviors. From this theoretical paradigm, this paper confirms that families comprise living systems, which grow and undergo some changes with time.

Failure to adapt to the changes threatens their viability and the coexistence of the individual family members. From the basis of a case study, which involves Mr. and Mrs. Brown’s family, this paper identifies the structural family therapy as a therapeutic approach that recognizes that families have different strengths where each member plays a role to boost or bring down the family bonds.


Families encounter a myriad of problems, which may lead to psychological challenges among couples and their children. Families, which look for help from therapists or chancellors, are usually concerned about a specific problem. The problems may range from misbehaving children to couples who fail to get along with one another.

When therapists face such situations, they look beyond the provided specifics of the problems that affect a family by evaluating the efforts of the family unit to deal with the challenges. This strategy determines family interaction dynamics. For example, misbehaving children may be brought up by parents who repeatedly engage in scolding behaviors without rewarding any change of conduct.

In such situations, scolding, which is an attempt to resolve the child’s behavioral problem, contributes to further destruction of parent-child relationships. Some parents may differ in opinions and/or cannot engage in an open debate without using destructive arguments. In such a situation, destructive arguments increase the couple’s conflicts, although the underlying problem is a variation of opinions.

This observation suggests that through the deployment of the structural family therapy, therapists intervene to resolve family problems both in an organized and systematic way. Indeed, the structural family therapy borrows its basic theoretical tenets from the systems theory.

This paper discusses the structural family therapy together with its theoretical tenets that help to resolve familial problems. It first establishes a case study that forms the basis of discussion for this paper. The applicability of the structural family therapy to the case is based on the assertion that a family comprises a system, which is a part of a social grouping.

Since family members regulate each other, a change of an individual leads to a corresponding change in the family dynamics. Hence, in the process of administering family therapy, problems that arise from an individual can be solved. The model influences the behavior of other members by building long lasting positive family relationships.

Case Study Description

Several cases have been registered in schools where teens turned violent to the level of killing their fellow students and teachers. For instance, in 1999, on 20 April, Dylan Klebold and his friend Eric Harris staged an assault in a school that is based at Colorado. In the assault, 13 people were killed while 23 others were critically injured.

They later turned bullets against themselves. It is perhaps impossible to establish what caused this attack or even other recently established children-executed crimes. However, in the case of Dylan Klebold and his friend Eric Harris, a possible cause of the violent attacks was a video game that had brutal themes and characters (Ward, 2011).

Children‘s abusive behaviors towards their peers are commonplace in schools and in various other social settings. As it is revealed in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Brown’s family, abusive behaviors among children may be tracked from the familial structural problems. Mr. Brown’s family consists of his wife (Mrs. Brown) and their two children, James and Anthony.

However, the couple has divorced. Their separation is now turning two years. The divorce occurred because Mr. Brown engaged in repeated abusive behaviors towards his wife. The children witnessed all the abusive sessions before Mr. Brown shifted to a different state when the divorce decision was finally granted in a family court in New Jersey.

The children, Anthony (seven years old) and James (four years old), meet their father thrice annually. Mrs. Brown has a full-time job while Anthony attends school as his brother goes for the daycare. On 27 January 2015, Anthony’s principal called referring Mrs. Brown to a therapist who was based in the school.

Anthony’s behavior while in school underlined the reason the therapist requested Mrs. Brown’s family to undergo a counseling session. For more than two months, Anthony’s class teacher reported that he had been attacking his peers without being provoked.

Anthony also withdrew from social skills forums and any activities that could bring together all children to build their cognitive skills and/or foster social development. This conduct only occurred in the school settings. Mrs. Brown indicated that Anthony did not show the behavioral problem in the home settings. His brother, James, neither showed such behaviors while at home nor school.

The investigation by the therapist into Mrs. Brown’s family structure indicated that when the divorce occurred, Mrs. Brown had seized a sizable amount of power of family control. She had also been attempting to adapt to numerous changes that her family had experienced.

The therapist identified that her family had been incredibly flexible and organized in such a way that Mrs. Brown would adapt to changes following her divorce. Due to many cases that the school therapist handled, the chancellor felt it was wise to refer Mrs. Brown’s family to an external family therapist in the attempt to resolve Anthony’s unwelcome behavior.

In February 2015, Mrs. Brown and her two sons visited a New Jersey-based family therapist. In a preliminary assessment, the therapist noted Mrs. Brown’s possession of the power to control her family as evidenced by her two sons’ high degree of respect towards her authority.

For instance, when she requested them to do some task, they obeyed diligently without hesitation. She noted that she insisted on her children to maintain high standards of discipline while at the same time advocating any disciplinary action in any situation that involved deviance from authority. However, in school settings, this discipline was never witnessed.

Anthony did not respect authority. He could bully and beat weak targets and his peers. An emerging question is whether structural family therapy can successfully help to deal with this deviant behavior challenge.

The Historical Context of the Structural Family Model and its Founders

Salvador Minuchin founded the structural family therapy. Since its establishment, it has constituted a central model for family therapy. The model addresses problems of family functionality. This goal is accomplished through its attempt to gain access to a family system with the objective of identifying rules that regulate the functioning of a family.

For example, in the context of the case study about Mrs. Brown’s family, the chief rule that regulates the conducts of the children is strict obedience to her. Under the structural family therapy model, therapists “map the relationships between family members or between subsets of the family, and ultimately disrupt dysfunctional relationships within the family, causing it to stabilize into healthier patterns” (Vetere, 2008, p.138).

Indeed, Minuchin asserts that pathology only rests within a family system, but not within an individual. Writers such as Charles Fishman support the propositions of the structural family therapy by claiming that family structures have restrictions, which can be inflexible, apparent, and defined by tasks and connections (Vetere, 2008).

Other concepts of the model are that the family comprises hierarchies, substructures, cross-generational partnerships, and nurtured kids. The historical development of the model relates to its main concepts since the model views a family as a system that bears other subsystems that need to interact positively to ensure collective change to the system.

To this extent, one of the primary tenets of the structural family therapy is that therapists get into a family in the capacity of a catalyst that serves the purposes of inducing positive changes. This claim suggests that changes occur when a therapist builds a positive relationship with the family. He or she becomes integrated into the family boundaries such that any incepted changes can influence all components (individuals) that make up the family.

The theory regards families as structures that are organized as subsystems that have bendable or strict limits. The boundaries can permit or discourage contacts between different family members. An equally valuable concept in the historical development of the structural family therapy is the enactment technique.

Under the technique, family members are “encouraged to deal directly with each other in sessions that permit therapists to observe and modify their interactions” (Vetere, 2008, p.134). Therefore, every person’s influence in the behavior of a given family is inseparable from the other family members.

This situation has introduced the significance of the complementary concept in administering therapy interventions within families. Could the behavior of Mr. Brown (abusing a weak target, Mrs. Brown, in the presence of Anthony) have influenced Anthony’s bullying behavior that was directed towards his peers in school settings? Based on the ideas of the structural family therapy, this case is most probable.

The Role of the Therapist or Counselor in the Structural Family Therapy Model

The primary goal of therapists entails heralding repetition of sequences. This goal is accomplished through interruptions of familial hierarchical structures. This process involves power shifting through the alteration of interaction styles.

However, in the case of structural family therapy, the therapist plays the role of changing dysfunctional structures of a family by facilitating growth of various individuals with the objective of inducing positive transformation of the whole (family) as the strategy for developing new ways of interaction.

Through the structural family therapy, therapists also play the role facilitating system restructuring. They also act as choreographers and directors of the desired change. For example, in case of Anthony, a therapist has the role of building the cognition that Mrs. Brown is not the only source of power in the family.

Secondly, the therapist needs to demonstrate to Anthony that targeting weak peers with his violent behaviors is an unacceptable norm. Therefore, he can realize that his father was wrong when he was abusing his mother and that such behaviors have bad consequences on both, including divorce or suspension from school.

The structural family therapy closely relates to the theory of change. It advocates the alteration of family relationships to build different schemes that then influence all components of the family system. The manner in which a parent’s past shapes the social development of a child is widely not predictable.

Thus, “parenting can be viewed as a longitudinal trajectory–accumulative, sequential pathway in which continuities and/or changes occur across time” (Gutman & Feinstein, 2010, p.535). Therefore, parents should alter their parenting styles as their children progress age wise for them (children) to develop fully to meet the anticipated social developments at various specific ages.

The structural family therapy encompasses a model that helps therapists to join in influencing change in a family such that parents contribute positively to the process of child development. In situations such as the one that involves Anthony, change from the schemas that he has already copied due to his exposure to violence against weak targets is necessary. If structural family therapy can help to alter Anthony’s behavior in a school setting, the model relates to the theory of change.

An emerging question is, ‘what is the health or pathology view that applies to the case based on the structural family therapy?’ In the case of Anthony, a pathological condition that regulates his behavior is codependency. This concept refers to the psychological condition in which a person who experiences a pathological situation such as uncalled-for hostility depends on another person for control to encourage and uphold constructive behaviors (Mogford, 2011).

From this context, a healthy pathological view that is applicable to the case based on the structural family therapy model is that poor families’ experiences spread to influence all members because of their interdependency and inability to separate individual behaviors from the family behavior.

This observation may reveal why Anthony violently attacks weak targets just like his father without being provoked. This situation may comprise attempts to secure a high power of control just like his mother or father.

Analysis and Application of the Underlying Rationale of the Structural Family Therapy to Diagnosis and Assessment

From the discussion of the case study, the diagnosis of the family relationship problem is that domestic violence ends up affecting Anthony negatively to the extent that he justifies bullying his peers in school settings. The issue of concern here is whether this situation is unique to Anthony. School-based bullying is common in most nations, including the US.

In a study by Nansel et al. (2011), roughly 17% of the US learners complain being bullied in school. This prevalence level is lower compared to other places in the world. For example, Nansel et al. (2011) assert that some countries record up to 70% learners who claim to have experienced harassment. Schools across the globe have reported a high prevalence of frequent maltreatment.

For example, research on a Malta sample indicated 19% occurrence level while a sample on Irish school bullying reported roughly 2% frequency levels (Forero, McLellan, Rissel, & Bauman, 2009). Can one trace Anthony’s bullying behavior from domestic violence experiences in his life?

A meta-analytical research conducted by Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, Smith, and Jaffe (2003) concluded that domestic violence is harmful to children. It compromises developmental outcomes for children such as cognitive, behavioral, societal, and their wellbeing functioning. Nevertheless, the effects of domestic violence on children relatively vary depending on the context.

Experiences of the actual child violence increase behavioral and emotional damages relative to exposure (Wolfe et al., 2003). Therefore, it is most likely that Anthony’s exposure to domestic violence may have contributed to his normalization of violent behavior towards a weak target.

His watching of a shift of power control of the family from the father to the mother may also have created the necessity of authority towards weak targets. Before the divorce, the power of family control was vested in their father were the mother was a weak target. After the divorce, the power shifted to the mother.

Now, in the school setting, with cognition of power and authority, his peers become the weak targets such that he can exercise his learned power by harassing them. This situation suggests that Anthony’s behavioral problems can be attributed to his family structure. Hence, the structural family therapy becomes an effective therapeutic intervention.

From the above expositions, domestic violence denies children their overall good in the society. This good entails the right to grow in a socially conducive environment to foster their behavioral, cognitive, social, and emotional development in equal thresholds to those who grow in an environment where such experiences do not prevail.

In particular, in the case of Anthony, witnessing violence has been detrimental in his social development. Cases such as his missing in social skills development forums and the fact that he does not develop good social relationships with his peers since he bullies them evidence this claim. The parenting boundary is rigid enough to permit any misbehavior at home.

However, the boundary between Anthony and the external environment (school setting) is flexible to permit his childhood experiences to influence his conduct. Therefore, the intervention that is required to solve the problem should focus on restructuring Anthony-peers subsystem and his boundaries in the school setting.

Interventions and the Underlying Assumptions of the Structural Family Therapy Model

Structural family therapy assumes that even though family structures do not primarily cause complications, problems can be located within a family structure. Therefore, alteration of a family structure produces changes in the individual experiences. The model also assumes that to achieve long-term results, a therapist should not move directly from problems to solution development (Vetere, 2008).

Rather, excellent results are obtained by moving gradually. An important assumption of the theory, which is highly applicable in situations that involve Anthony, is that problems that children experience relate mostly to boundaries between them and parents. This case involves parental subsystem or the marital subsystem.

Consistent with the above assumptions, various interventions can be adopted. Structural therapy deploys family mapping to accommodate and/or join family settings. Areas of intervention include the family structure, rules, and family patterns. Minuchin identified six central areas of consideration when altering a family structure.

These areas are “transactional patterns, flexibility, resonance, context, the family development stage, and maintaining family interactions” (Vetere, 2008, p.132). To this extent, the necessary interventions involve modifying interactions, challenging any fruitless suppositions, and increasing the passion to permit system change.

The above interventions can be accomplished by joining Mrs. Brown with the children. Firstly, a therapist or counselor needs to communicate to Mrs. Brown that he or she (therapist) is joining the family to help in the situation, but not to blame the members for Anthony’s deviant behavior in school.

The second intervention entails restructuring Mrs. Brown’s perception that she only possesses the power to control and influence her children only in the home setting. Making her realize she also has the power to influence Anthony’s behavior in school settings is effective in restructuring the interactions between the home subsystem and school-setting substructure.

This strategy underlines the necessity for her to meet Anthony’s educators and jointly develop and exercise power on him. This move facilitates the restructuring of hierarchical power between the school system and the family structure. In case of Anthony, it is imperative to intervene while not regarding him as a bad child.

The intervention should involve making Anthony realize that he does not operate in the right way in school. This strategy leaves room for him not to accept blames in case things do not move well in school. It also permits him not to take up the blame for his exposure to domestic violence by developing antisocial behavior in school.

Rather, it allows Mrs. Brown and Anthony to understand the cause of the negative behavior. It also prepares them to embrace positive skills to cope with the problem.


Transcription of therapist’s half of the interview Identify model concept Revised questions
  1. Do you have access to Anthony’s records of behavior in the school (both positive and negative)?
  2. How often do you call Anthony’s educators to participate jointly in exerting authority over his school activities and interaction processes?
Boundaries (rigid, flexible, clear, and enmeshed)
  1. Are you aware of Anthony’s conducts in school settings?
  2. How does Anthony’s behavior in school compare with his behavior in home settings?
  1. Who exercises power over Anthony and his brother at home?
  2. Are your children justified to do whatever they want at home? Is it the same in school settings?
  1. Who should take charge of your children behavior while at school?
  2. Who comes first between teachers and your authority over your children while in school?
  1. What are your roles in influencing your children’s behavior while at home?
  2. What are your roles in influencing your children’s behavior while in school settings?
  1. Do you have a role to play in shaping your children’s behavior while in school settings or it is only in home settings?
Reference: Vetere, A. (2008). Structural Family Therapy. Child Psychology and Psychiatry Review, 6(3), 139.


Families have hierarchical structures that determine the role, responsibility, and behavior of each person. However, within the family system, during interaction processes, problems may emerge to the level of influencing the behavior of each family member in different ways.

This finding is perhaps the case for Anthony and his siblings, James, who have witnessed their father abusing their mother. Although James does not show behavioral problems in school, Anthony bullies his peers even when he is not provoked. The difference between the siblings may be explained by the fact that James had not acquired the cognition of using the power to abuse a weak target.

He was too young by the time Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown divorced. Considering that Anthony’s behavior is highly unacceptable, it is appropriate to engage Mrs. Brown’s family in therapy. The paper has proposed and discussed the structural family therapy as an effective therapeutic intervention to correct Anthony’s behavior by restructuring the hierarchy of power at home and school subsystems.


Forero, R., McLellan, L., Rissel, C., & Bauman, A. (2009). Bullying behavior and psychosocial health among school students in New South Wales, Australia: cross sectional survey. BMJ, 319(7), 344–348.

Gutman, M., & Feinstein, L. (2010). Parenting behaviors and children’s development from infancy to early childhood: changes, continuities, and contributions. Early Child Development and Care, 180(4), 535–556.

Mogford, E. (2011). When Status Hurts: Dimensions of Women’s Status and Domestic Abuse in Rural Northern India. Violence against Women, 17(7), 835-857.

Nansel, T., Overpeck, M., Pila, R., Ruan, R., Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2011). Bullying behaviors’ among US youth: prevalence and association with psychological adjustment. JAMA, 285(16), 2094-2100.

Vetere, A. (2008). Structural Family Therapy. Child Psychology and Psychiatry Review, 6(3), 133–139.

Ward, M. (2011). Video games and crime. Contemporary Economic Policy, 29(2), 261-275.

Wolfe, D., Crooks, C., Lee, V., Smith, A., & Jaffe, P. (2003). The Effects of Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence: A Meta-Analysis and Critique. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6(3), 171-187.

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