In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Family Therapy

  • Introduction
  • Classic and Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Professional Organizations
  • Practice Groups
  • Research

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Social Work Family Therapy
Catheleen Jordan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0162


Family therapy may be defined as a branch of psychotherapy wherein family relationships are the target of change. Most schools of thought consider the definition of the family in a broad way that includes related and non-related members. Examples are the traditional nuclear family of husband, wife, and biological children as well as stepfamilies, extended families, gay parent families, or families with adopted children. Family therapy is known by other names, such as marriage and family therapy or family systems therapy, and is characterized by a range of treatment modalities, from insight oriented (psychoanalytic family therapy) to action oriented (behavioral family therapy) theoretical underpinnings. The similarity shared by all modalities is a systems orientation. Considering the family as a system implies an interconnectedness among members; when one family member acts, a corresponding effect occurs on the other members. Clinicians (n = 2281) were asked about their treatment approach, and the results were reported in an article in the Psychotherapy Networker. While the most popular treatment modality was cognitive behavioral treatment, the second most popular treatment modality was marital and family systems. Specific populations may be helped differentially by the various treatment modalities. For example, while families with a child who has a problem may be most helped with narrative family treatment, families experiencing child abuse or family violence may be helped by more behavioral family treatment modalities. It should be noted that social work and family therapy have compatible philosophical underpinnings, in that both are concerned with the person (or family in this case) in the environment, active problem solving, and personal empowerment.

Classic and Introductory Works

The profession of social work and its concern with helping families emerged in part as a response to a modernizing American society. Some influences toward a family perspective included the development of the Charity Organization Society and the Settlement Houses, which served distressed families in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At that time, the popular Freudian psychotherapeutic approach was focused on individual, instinct driven behavior. However, Alfred Adler, a colleague of Freud, moved the field toward a less individualistic approach and toward a more social and family view of the person. Similarly, sociological theories at the time influenced psychotherapy toward a more ecological perspective. Satir 1964 outlines social worker involvement with the move away from individual therapy and toward family work in the 1950s. Watzlawick, et al. 1967 recounts the founding, by Don Jackson, of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California in 1959. Founding members are featured in Bateson 1972; Satir 1964; Watzlawick, et al. 1967; and Watzlawick, et al. 1974. Bowen 1978 describes the simultaneous development of family therapy systems perspectives, at the Menninger Clinic, with families with a schizophrenic member. Bertalanffy 1969 documents the pioneering of open systems; Minuchin, et al. 1967 presents structural family therapy, and Patterson 1975 describes behavioral family therapy. Palazzoli, et al. 1985 details similar development in Italy, where the first family therapy school, known as the Milan systems approach, emerged in Milan in 1968. See also Wiener 1948.

  • Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind. Worcester, MA: Chandler.

    A collection of Bateson’s work including the topics of anthropology, cybernetics, psychiatry, and epistemology.

  • Bertalanffy, L. 1969. General systems theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: George Brazziller.

    Thought of as the father of general systems theory (GST), von Bertalanffy’s book defines GST emphasizing open systems concepts. GST has numerous applications in fields such as psychology, sociology, social work, and others.

  • Bowen, M. 1978. Family therapy in clinical practice. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

    Discusses his treatment of families with a schizophrenic member and the development of his theory of family therapy. Concepts Bowen developed include triangulation, intergenerational conflict, and differentiation of self with the family.

  • Minuchin, S., B. Monalvo, B. Guerney, B. Rosman, and F. Schumer. 1967. Families of the slums: An exploration of their structure and treatment. New York: Basic Books.

    This book discusses the structural approach to family therapy developed by Minuchin. One unique technique was for a group of therapists to observe behind a one-way mirror while one therapist was in the room with the family.

  • Palazzoli, M., Stefano Cirillo, M. Selvini, A. Sorrentino, and V. Kleiber. 1985. Family games: General models of psychotic processes in the family. New York: Norton.

    Explains the Milan approach to family therapy, which includes a team of therapists from different orientations, observation behind the mirror, and half-day long sessions.

  • Patterson, G. R. 1975. Families: Applications of social learning to family life. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

    Theorizes that parents play a crucial role in the development of conduct disorder behavior in their children. Behavioral principles are used to explain the behavior and recommend treatment techniques for common and complex problems of children and young adolescents.

  • Satir, V. 1964. Conjoint family therapy: A guide to theory and technique. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior.

    Satir was the family therapy training director at Mental Research Institute, and her training manual evolved into this book.

  • Watzlawick, P., J. Beavin, and D. Jackson. 1967. Pragmatics of human communication. New York: Norton.

    Introduces the idea of communication as the source of human problems, rather than deep-seated psychological issues. The systemic characteristics of communication are defined, including psychotherapeutic double binds, meta-communication, the properties of open systems, paradox, and so forth.

  • Watzlawick, P., J. H. Weakland, and R. Fisch. 1974. Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: Norton.

    Considered by some to be the greatest book for psychotherapists ever written. The authors present a meta-theory of how change occurs, followed by case examples. The book differentiates between first- and second-order changes in working with families; families are described as doing the same thing over and over to fix a problem (first-order change) vs. introducing something new into the family system to create a space for change (second-order change).

  • Wiener, N. 1948. Cybernetics. Scientific American 179.5: 14–18.

    DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1148-14

    Cybernetics in communications engineering refers to systems feedback mechanisms and aims to predict the future. Wiener applied these principles to human problems, particularly problems of communication.

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