We’ve all had problems in the family, be it unruly kids, frequent arguments, a lack of understanding for one another, parents and teenagers not respecting each other’s boundaries, parents trying to keep their relationship stable for the children, or something else. Since family-related matters are something many people tend to conceal or keep under wraps, it’s easy to believe that you’re alone, but the fact is that all families have problems.
If you or someone you know has had family troubles, there is no shame in considering family counseling. There are many types of family therapies to choose from. The one we’ll look at is strategic family therapy. First, let’s look at what family therapy, in general, is.
What Is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is when members of a family attend therapy together. So, where you might go to individual therapy alone, or you’d go to couple’s therapy with a partner or spouse, you might attend family therapy with your parent or parents and siblings. You don’t have to have a nuclear family type to go to family therapy; it’s also common in step-parent families, single-parent families, and so on. Every family is different, and all families are welcome in family therapy.
What Is Strategic Therapy?
No one singular approach works for all clients or groups a therapist sees. That’s why there are so many different modalities of therapy. Strategic family therapy, sometimes abbreviated to SFT, is one of those modalities.
Created by Jay Haley, strategic family therapy is a brief form of therapy often used for families with kids between the ages of 6-18. It’s a model that focuses on symptom relief and may be used for children's concerns such as substance use* and other mental health or behavioral health problems. Not only is strategic family therapy effective, but the fact that it’s often short-term may be appealing to many families hoping to address these concerns.
*If you or someone you know lives with a substance use disorder or might be, help is out there. Please contact the SAMHSA hotline at 1-800-662-4357 or go to https://www.samhsa.gov to learn more about substance use disorders and treatment.
It’s a solution-oriented approach that, much like it sounds, is strategic in nature. There’s a recognizable plan or trajectory that typically exists in this modality, which is part of why it’s a good fit for families who have an identifiable concern that needs to be addressed right now.
The Steps Of Strategic Therapy
There are five main identifiable steps or stages in strategic family therapy or SFT. Here are those five steps and what they entail:
In this initial step, you work with your therapist to identify concerns that are showing up for your child or in the family as a whole and what you’d like to address or resolve during the therapeutic process. This works as a foundation for the next step, which is to create goals.
After problems are identified in therapy, you will create goals that mark progress in those areas. This is common in therapy. The emphasis on specific goals and symptoms in strategic family therapy is part of why many people drive home this modality as a solution-focused approach.
Here’s part of where the word “strategic” comes into play in this form of therapy. After you create goals, you will make a specific strategy or plan to move toward them. With the therapist, you find interventions to address the solvable problems you identified in the first step and move toward the goals you set in the second.
A good therapist won’t just set goals and push their clients on their merry way. They’re going to follow up with their clients and see how they accomplish the goals, or if they’re even doing so at all. If there are any hurdles to the goals, the therapists will intervene and figure out a new strategy to accomplish the goals. It’s not like a check-up or getting “graded.” Instead, it’s a time where you examine responses to the process so far and see what’s working as well as what still needs work. In therapy, it’s very common and necessary to revisit goals, address anything new that might come up during the process, and so on.
This is the step where you look at the outcome of the therapeutic process you have endured in the last four steps. This doesn’t necessarily need to indicate the “end” of therapy or treatment, especially considering that an adolescent or child may very well have an individual therapist or another form of treatment and support outside of strategic family therapy. Instead, it’s looking at what you’ve achieved and can potentially do to continue moving forward. For example, you might have a new goal now that things have improved throughout the therapeutic process and you have made progress or met your initial goals.
We mentioned that this is generally a brief form of therapy, but how brief is strategic family therapy?
Many families and parents wonder how long the therapeutic process usually takes, which makes sense, as many families and parents are busy. Often, strategic family therapy takes somewhere from around 12 to 16 sessions. However, it can be extended, and it’s crucial to note that if the first therapist you see isn’t a good fit for you or your family, you can switch providers and start seeing someone new.
Concepts Used In Strategic Family Therapy
The definition of strategic therapy, as provided by the APA Dictionary of Psychology, is: “any intervention that is based on the belief that an individual’s problems are caused by ineffective solutions and on a problem-solving approach that focuses on pursuing a therapeutic strategy to promote change in the individual’s behavior rather than to understand his or her underlying intrapsychic factors.” Strategic family therapy applies this idea or approach to families. While there are some similarities, strategic family therapy differs from other types of therapy used for families.
While this is by no means an extensive list, here are some of the concepts a provider acknowledges in strategic family therapy:
Strategic family therapy, essentially, takes your context into account. Or, rather, the context of your family. When a child or teen is having a tough time, many factors can go into not only the reason they’re struggling but also into the healing process.
Is Strategic Family Therapy Effective?
Alongside the question, “How long does it take?” one of the most common tasks people have about any kind of therapy is, of course, “Is it effective?”
Strategic family therapy is highly effective for various concerns that exist within families and children or adolescents. It’s known as one of the most effective. Perhaps due to how long it’s been present in the field, there’s a large body of research surrounding strategic family therapy and the effectiveness of this form of treatment.
What we know from research is that strategic family therapy can lead to:
If you’re having difficulty in your family, whether due to one of the concerns above or something else, like frequent arguments, trouble expressing feelings, or difficulty navigating changes in family life, such as a move or a divorce, seeing a mental health provider can help. No family is perfect, but it is possible to find solutions that help you better and more confidently address your concerns.
Therapy, of course, isn’t just for families. You can also seek counseling on your own or with a partner. Group therapy is also advantageous for many people, including adolescents.
Whether you seek individual therapy, family therapy, or another form of therapy, the therapeutic environment is a non-judgmental space where you can be vulnerable and human. Symptom relief, lower emotional distress, improved communication, and coping skills are only some examples of what you can gain from seeking help.
ReGain offers therapy for individuals and couples. All of the providers on the platform are licensed, and it’s often faster to get paired with a counselor or therapist through ReGain than when you seek traditional in-person services. The plans may be more affordable in comparison to face-to-face therapy you’d paid for out of pocket, too. Regardless of if you see a mental health provider remotely through a platform like ReGain or in your local area, you deserve to get the support and care that you need and will benefit from as a unique individual.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is strategic family therapy theory?
Strategic family therapy theory is the idea of a counselor or therapist seeking to diagnose and solve issues that arise from the constantly changing dynamics of a family.
Rather than focusing on specific individuals and solving one person's problems, strategic family therapy approaches issues by looking at the family as one big entity of interconnected moving parts.
This way, the therapist or counselor can solve problems with the system as a whole, which will, in turn, solve problems for individual family members. The therapist develops a strategic approach to solve specific issues within the family dynamic.
Family therapy combines listening to a family's problems and creating specific solutions and plans to solve those family issues. Strategic family therapy SFT is an extremely useful approach for families dealing with multiple issues and issues spanning multiple people.
Remember that it is quite common for families to designate one family member as the problem in practice called choosing an "indicated patient." In the case of an indicated patient, one person in the family outwardly exhibits problems that, in truth, affect everyone. In the case of an indicated patient, the family would better benefit from treating the whole family instead of just the one person who may be more outwardly exhibiting the problems affecting everyone.
What is strategic family therapy used for?
Strategic family therapy is a very useful technique that therapists or counselors can use to mitigate family interactions that are harmful to family members more successfully.
This theory relies on the idea that the family functions as a system in which all individuals live. If there are larger, systemic issues within the family dynamic, then the family is a failing system that will cause more individual concerns for each family member. Strategic family therapy addresses this problem by better understanding the entire system- all the family dynamics and each member's role, rather than each family member individually.
The strategic approach includes first identifying and defining the major problems within the familial system. Next, therapists seek to develop goal-setting plans and agendas that the family can work on. The goal isn't to change family relationships but rather to fix issues within the structural family that will lead to better outcomes.
Much of the research on SFT focuses on substance use, conduct disorders, and reducing aggressive behavior, but it can be used to address other matters, too.
What is the difference between strategic and structural family therapy?
Strategic family therapy is similar to, but not identical to, structural family therapy. To oversimplify a bit, a structuralist tends to look at the family as a whole, as one solid organism. In contrast, a strategic therapist may focus more on a specific symptom, then work with the family members to resolve that symptom.
In strategic family therapy, a therapist develops goals and plans to eliminate the symptoms of issues that arise in a structural family. The ultimate goal is to make each family member happier and healthier by dealing with the issues and, more importantly, the symptoms of problems within a family. Strategic family therapists view family interactions as important on an individual level. They may also focus more on repeated behaviors and generational trauma than the dynamics between groups in the family.
On the other hand, structural family therapy focuses on resolving the structural issues of the family. They view families as an "organism under stress" that itself needs therapy to function properly. Structural family therapy views families as one system with various subsystems; they look to their boundaries. While a strategic family therapist may focus specifically on the presenting symptom, structural family therapists focus on solving structural problems within the family.
Both of these strategies have their roots in aiding families who have a family member dealing with addiction.
Who created Strategic Family Therapy?
A psychotherapist named Jay Haley created strategic family therapy as a novel way to help families overcome issues that they may be having. Strategic family therapy combines many aspects of psychology and therapy that existed before but added in the novel concept of the family structure as vital to the individuals within, rather than simply collecting individuals.
What are the key concepts of structural family therapy?
The key concepts of structural family therapy are:
The key concepts of structural family therapy are similar to that of strategic family therapy but slightly different. Family interactions are also still important in structural family therapy, but therapists view the family as independent entities. The family structure itself can be thought of as an "organism under stress," Thus, the therapist is searching to solve problems within the family structure itself.
How is behavior therapy different than psychoanalysis?
Behavior therapy is different from psychoanalysis in that therapy generally attempts to ask the client what their problems are and then find solutions. In contrast, psychoanalysis deals more with a therapist digging into the unconscious of the client.
Psychoanalysis involves a deeper-level understanding of the human brain and subconscious, while behavioral therapy focuses more on the individuals' conscious actions.
Both approaches can be very helpful in the right scenario, and consulting a trained medical professional about which types of therapy would be most productive is a very helpful action to take.
What is a systemic approach in family therapy?
The basic idea of a systemic approach in family therapy is that the therapist or counselor will view the family system as a big factor in the family's experience. Rather than viewing the problems as an amalgamation of each member's problems, it looks at the family as a whole unit.
In strategic family therapy, family systems are viewed as another "character" altogether - and by fixing problems in the family system itself, the other problems of each individual can be reduced.
What are the main differences between Bowenian structural and strategic family systems theories?
The different theories of family therapy are all relatively similar but differ on some important factors. The Bowenian theory is based on the idea of intergenerational behaviors among family members. These family interactions can be thought of to pass down mental health issues from generation to generation. The structural family approach considers the family itself as an organism that needs attention. The goal is to work out kinks within the family structure itself to help the individual members.
Strategic family therapy is quite similar but with a slightly different approach. Strategic family therapy is based on identifying specific symptoms of problems within the family. For example, a strategic family therapist may identify the main symptom as an alcohol addiction among one of the children in the family. Next, strategic family therapists will create a strategic plan to mitigate the original issue and stop the problem's symptoms.
What are the basic goals of Bowen's approach?
The basic goals of Bowen's approach are very similar to that of other psychological approaches: find ways to help eliminate interpersonal problems and lead to better lives for each member of the family. The Bowen approach includes insight into intergenerational translation of ideas and mental attitudes. It focuses a lot on the relationships within a family. It understands that how one person feels or acts is immensely influential in how other family members behave and feel.
What is transgenerational family therapy?
Transgenerational family therapy is a broad category of therapies that deals with domestic issues that span multiple generations. The therapist seeks to understand generational dynamics and problems to solve better current problems based on the past and improve interactions further in the future. Specifically, the child-parent relationship is often a cause of many issues that may make a family unable to adapt to moments of trauma or transition. Other family interactions, perhaps involving grandparents or other tertiary family members, are also included in these types of therapies.
What is the goal of structural family therapy?
The goal of structural family therapy is to treat the family structure as its entity. Once the therapist understands the dynamics that exist within the family, they may work with those dynamics to improve the health and happiness of each family member. Structural family therapists do not create relationships within the family but rather awake dormant relationships to make the family more adaptable and supportive. Thinking about the family as an "organism" is very helpful in solving structural problems within the family. Therapists can then analyze the family structure, identify areas causing problems, and prescribe therapies to help reduce those issues.
What is the focus of structural family therapy?
Structural family therapy focuses on viewing the family structure as an organism. It doesn't view the family as a collection of individuals but rather a living, changing organism that greatly impacts and affects its members. Therefore, therapists can look to find structural issues within the family. Finding and fixing those issues can help with the individual issues of each family member.