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Strategic Family Therapy

Learn how strategic family therapy is helping families

strategic family therapy

Using the word “strategy” before any number of terms always signifies a well thought out happening or occurrence - initiated, conducted, and completed with a great amount of forethought and planning. “Strategic” before the therapeutic practice of “family therapy” means exactly that and more.

Strategic family therapy (SFT) combines two major therapeutic models - strategic therapy and family therapy - a combination of therapies that necessitate a carefully crafted plan to effectively manage or ameliorate a family’s particular problems or issues.

What is strategic therapy?

Perhaps the best explanation for strategic therapy is to describe what it is not: strategic therapy is not a person laying on a couch describing what kind of inner turmoil or thoughts he or she is having or experiencing, what past childhood experiences contributed to a sense of self, or how a particular psychological issue could have arisen from past experiences.

Strategic therapists are problem-solvers and solution-finders. They are the referees and coaches, not the spectators passively observing the action played out before them. They aren’t concerned with where or how the problem started, only how to address it and solve it at this point in time.

Marriage Family Therapy

According to a website devoted to strategic therapy pioneer Jay Haley, “strategic therapy is any type of therapy where the therapist initiates what happens during therapy and designs a particular approach for each problem.”

The strategic therapist becomes actively involved and responsible in helping clients turn their lives around, in helping them strategically plan, execute, and measure “game winning” outcomes.

Haley outlined five integral stages that all strategic therapists implement:

  • Identify solvable problems
  • Set goals
  • Design interventions to achieve those goals
  • Examine the responses
  • Examine the outcome of the therapy.

What is family therapy?

Family therapy, also called family systems therapy, considers families as systems, systems that organically develop rules and interactions, and systems that affect the psychological health of all those involved. Just as a governmental or organizational system affects individuals, so does the family system. Psychologists consider the family system, however, to have the greatest influence on individuals’ lives.

Family therapists believe that any human problem can be addressed and helped by involving the entire family. Family therapists don’t draw a causative link between pathology and family dynamics but rather show how family interactions or the lack of interactions contribute to the problems, often supporting them in dysfunctional ways.

How does combining strategic and family therapy work?

Strategic family therapy combines a strategic approach to finding a constructive form of change for individuals within the individual’s immediate social context – namely the family.

Within the safety of therapeutic settings, strategic family therapists replicate family interactions and conversations, prompting and engaging participants with provocative questions and discussions. During these sessions, problems present themselves, and the therapist engineers the situation so that participants come to realize and understand the socially impaired interactions taking place.

The therapist also knows how to uncover the family’s strengths and abilities at solving its own problems, drawing on internal resources that they hadn’t before acknowledged or even realized that each family member possessed.

Haley believed that the therapist initiates the family therapy, and takes direct responsibility for influencing people.

His work in strategic family therapy began to take shape in the 1950s. During this decade, his observations, along with other psychologists, questioned the ineffective results in family therapy using traditional forms of psychoanalysis. The dismal results were especially apparent while working with populations from lower socio-economic classes, populations whose severe social problems stemming from poverty could not be categorized by “intrapsychic conflicts”- a therapy that was more of a panacea for those of the middle classes.

Haley’s model

During the 1950s and 1960s, Haley along with a number of others began developing alternative models for working with families employing more solution-focused techniques, and Haley’s model became known as strategic family therapy. However, a significant part of the strategic therapy model incorporated the work of another family therapy pioneer, Salvador Minuchin. (Read more about Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy model). Minuchin’s model also stressed a solution-focused approach over psychoanalysis, or other types of intrapsychic exploration.

Haley’s model for effective family therapy can be summarized as follows:

  • Individuals don’t develop problems in isolation, but as a response to their social environment.
  • In strategic family therapy, the therapist develops techniques for solving problems specific to the family’s interactions and structure.
  • The therapist sees the problem as part of a sequence of interactions of those in the individual’s immediate social environment.
  • Symptoms of a particular pathology or behavior must be studied in relation to the social unit or family system.
  • The emphasis of the therapy is not on the individual but on the social situation or structure.
  • The goals of strategic family therapy are to solve problems, achieve the family’s goals, and ultimately, change an individual’s dysfunctional or problematic behaviors.

How do you become a strategic family therapist?

If you have a passion for working with families, and are interested in using solution-focused interventions such as strategic family therapy, consider a master’s degree or Ph.D. in a counseling field like marriage and family therapy (MFT). To practice as a therapist or counselor, states require licensing, and each state has specific requirements in meeting its licensing requirements.

Additional coursework or certification in strategic family therapy is also required to utilize this specialized therapeutic model.

Request information from schools offering degree programs in marriage and family therapy or related counseling degree programs.

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