ERIC Identifier: ED350526
Publication Date: 1992-04-15
Author: Smith, Robert L. - Stevens-Smith, Patricia
ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Basic Techniques in Marriage and Family Counseling and Therapy.
The area of marriage and family counseling/therapy has exploded over the past
decade. Counselors at all levels are expected to work effectively with couples
and families experiencing a wide variety of issues and problems. Structural,
strategic, and transgenerational family therapists at times may seem to be
operating alike, using similar interventions with a family. Differences might
become clear when the therapist explains a certain technique or intervention.
Most of today's practicing family therapists go far beyond the limited number of
techniques usually associated with a single theory.
The following select techniques have been used
in working with couples and families to stimulate change or gain greater
information about the family system. Each technique should be judiciously
applied and viewed as not a cure, but rather a method to help mobilize the
family. The when, where, and how of each intervention always rests with the
therapist's professional judgment and personal skills.
The genogram, a technique often used early in
family therapy, provides a graphic picture of the family history. The genogram
reveals the family's basic structure and demographics. (McGoldrick & Gerson,
1985). Through symbols, it offers a picture of three generations. Names, dates
of marriage, divorce, death, and other relevant facts are included in the
genogram. It provides an enormous amount of data and insight for the therapist
and family members early in therapy. As an informational and diagnostic tool,
the genogram is developed by the therapist in conjunction with the family.
THE FAMILY FLOOR PLAN
The family floor plan technique has
several variations. Parents might be asked to draw the family floor plan for the
family of origin. Information across generations is therefore gathered in a
nonthreatening manner. Points of discussion bring out meaningful issues related
to one's past.
Another adaptation of this technique is to have members draw the floor plan
for their nuclear family. The importance of space and territory is often
inferred as a result of the family floor plan. Levels of comfort between family
members, space accommodations, and rules are often revealed. Indications of
differentiation, operating family triangles, and subsystems often become
evident. Used early in therapy, this technique can serve as an excellent
diagnostic tool (Coppersmith, 1980).
Most family therapists use reframing as a method
to both join with the family and offer a different perspective on presenting
problems. Specifically, reframing involves taking something out of its logical
class and placing it in another category (Sherman & Fredman, 1986). For
example, a mother's repeated questioning of her daughter's behavior after a date
can be seen as genuine caring and concern rather than that of a nontrusting
parent. Through reframing, a negative often can be reframed into a positive.
Most family therapists use tracking. Structural
family therapists (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981) see tracking as an essential
part of the therapist's joining process with the family. During the tracking
process the therapist listens intently to family stories and carefully records
events and their sequence. Through tracking, the family therapist is able to
identify the sequence of events operating in a system to keep it the way it is.
What happens between point A and point B or C to create D can be helpful when
COMMUNICATION SKILL-BUILDING TECHNIQUES
patterns and processes are often major factors in preventing healthy family
functioning. Faulty communication methods and systems are readily observed
within one or two family sessions. A variety of techniques can be implemented to
focus directly on communication skill building between a couple or between
family members. Listening techniques including restatement of content,
reflection of feelings, taking turns expressing feelings, and nonjudgmental
brainstorming are some of the methods utilized in communication skill building.
In some instances the therapist may attempt to teach a couple how to fight
fair, to listen, or may instruct other family members how to express themselves
with adults. The family therapist constantly looks for faulty communication
patterns that can disrupt the system.
Developed by Duhl, Kantor, and Duhl
(1973), family sculpting provides for recreation of the family system,
representing family members relationships to one another at a specific period of
time. The family therapist can use sculpting at any time in therapy by asking
family members to physically arrange the family. Adolescents often make good
family sculptors as they are provided with a chance to nonverbally communicate
thoughts and feelings about the family. Family sculpting is a sound diagnostic
tool and provides the opportunity for future therapeutic interventions.
The family photos technique has the potential
to provide a wealth of information about past and present functioning. One use
of family photos is to go through the family album together. Verbal and
nonverbal responses to pictures and events are often quite revealing.
Adaptations of this method include asking members to bring in significant family
photos and discuss reasons for bringing them, and locating pictures that
represent past generations. Through discussion of photos, the therapist often
more clearly sees family relationships, rituals, structure, roles, and
SPECIAL DAYS, MINI-VACATIONS, SPECIAL OUTINGS
families that are stuck frequently exhibit predictable behavior cycles. Boredom
is present, and family members take little time with each other. In such cases,
family members feel unappreciated and taken for granted. "Caring Days" can be
set aside when couples are asked to show caring for each other. Specific times
for caring can be arranged with certain actions in mind (Stuart, 1980).
THE EMPTY CHAIR
The empty chair technique, most often
utilized by Gestalt therapists (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1985), has
been adapted to family therapy. In one scenario, a partner may express his or
her feelings to a spouse (empty chair), then play the role of the spouse and
carry on a dialogue. Expressions to absent family, parents, and children can be
arranged through utilizing this technique.
In family choreography, arrangements go
beyond initial sculpting; family members are asked to position themselves as to
how they see the family and then to show how they would like the family
situation to be. Family members may be asked to reenact a family scene and
possibly resculpt it to a preferred scenario. This technique can help a stuck
family and create a lively situation.
FAMILY COUNCIL MEETINGS
Family council meetings are
organized to provide specific times for the family to meet and share with one
another. The therapist might prescribe council meetings as homework, in which
case a time is set and rules are outlined. The council should encompass the
entire family, and any absent members would have to abide by decisions. The
agenda may include any concerns of the family. Attacking others during this time
is not acceptable. Family council meetings help provide structure for the
family, encourage full family participation, and facilitate communication.
This technique, often used by strategic
family therapists, involves meeting with one member of the family as a
supportive means of helping that person change. Individual change is expected to
affect the entire family system. The individual is often asked to behave or
respond in a different manner. This technique attempts to disrupt a circular
system or behavior pattern.
The stress level of couples and
families often is exacerbated by a faulty decision-making process. Decisions not
made in these cases become problematic in themselves. When straightforward
interventions fail, paradoxical interventions often can produce change or
relieve symptoms of stress. Such is the case with prescribing indecision. The
indecisive behavior is reframed as an example of caring or taking appropriate
time on important matters affecting the family. A directive is given to not rush
into anything or make hasty decisions. The couple is to follow this directive to
PUTTING THE CLIENT IN CONTROL OF THE SYMPTOM
technique, widely used by strategic family therapists, attempts to place control
in the hands of the individual or system. The therapist may recommend, for
example, the continuation of a symptom such as anxiety or worry. Specific
directives are given as to when, where, and with whom, and for what amount of
time one should do these things. As the client follows this paradoxical
directive, a sense of control over the symptom often develops, resulting in
The techniques suggested here are examples from
those that family therapists practice. Counselors will customize them according
to presenting problems. With the focus on healthy family functioning, therapists
cannot allow themselves to be limited to a prescribed operational procedure, a
rigid set of techniques or set of hypotheses. Therefore, creative judgment and
personalization of application are encouraged.
Coppersmith, E. (1980). The family floor plan: A
tool of training, assessment, and intervention in family therapy. Journal of
Marital & Family Therapy, 6, 141-145.
Duhl, F. S., Kantor, D., & Duhl, B. S. (1973). Learning Space and action
in family therapy: A primer of sculpting. In D. Bloch (Ed.), Techniques of
family psychotherapy: A primer. New York: Grune & Stratton.
McColdrick, M., & Gerson, R. (1985). Genograms in family assessment. New
Minuchin, S., & Fishman, H. (1981). Techniques of family therapy.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Perls, F. S., Hefferline, R. F., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy.
New York: Julian Press.
Sherman, R., & Fredman, N. (1986). Handbook of structural techniques in
marriage and family therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Stuart, R. (1989). Helping couples change. New York: Guildford Press.