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Modern family therapy largely developed from the work of Alfred Adler, who established clinics that focused on behavioural problems in children; and where he invited teachers, community members, and parents to attend sessions.
In its modern form Adlerian therapy works on the premise that children and their parents become stuck in non-productive interactions due to faulty goals. These problems with interactions are considered to be reflective of other families within the community at large and not just one family. Whilst therapy is private, these counsellors may also offer education through open forums.
Adlerian therapy is based on the notion that individuals are required to be social, purposeful and subjective beings. Children are nurtured by their parents and become an integral part of the family system in their search for meaning and relevance. They act in accordance with their subjective interpretations of things which may or may not be appropriate. Often children influence parents but it is the adults who should take control because they are the natural leaders.
There are three key ideas underlying Adlerian family therapy as follows:
1/ Family Atmosphere
The family atmosphere is regarded as the way in which family members relate to one another and is different in different families. Parents act as role models for children and as such the relationship between the parents sets the tone for the way in which the children perceive them. Family values are an integral part of the family atmosphere and are those values upheld by both parents. Each child will necessarily develop a view in relation to these values which form a blueprint for how they think the world should be.
2/ Family Constellation
The family constellation is the family system. It comprises the individual family members and extended family. Within the family system Adler pinpointed birth order as being significant. He was particularly focused on five birth positions, namely: first born, last born, middle child, second of two children, and only child. It is not so much the position that is important but how the child relates to that position. Adlerian family therapists are interested in how each child relates to other family members from their position in the family and how they regard themselves in relation to those other family members. Therefore it is the relationships within the family and the perception of family values and, consequently, family atmosphere which define the family constellation.
Adlerain family counsellors may ask for descriptions of each child by the parents in order to start building a picture of the family relationships. From here genograms may also be requested of the child with the problems to help reveal their perception of the family system. These are viewed as a beginning point from which the client can begin to explain their interpretation of life.
3/ Mistaken or Faulty Goals
Goals here are those concerned with day to day behaviour. Earlier work focussed on describing different types of mistaken goals as motivations for children’s misbehaviour. Dreikurs (1940) singled out revenge, attention seeking, power struggles, and demonstration of inadequacy as primary motivators. More recently, Dreikurs and Soltz (1964) developed a means of recognising goals through a combination of:
The mistaken goal theory has been expanded since to include additional faulty goals but the important point is that Adlerian family therapists use these goals to interpret children’s misbehaviour and the response of parents. By recognising these mistaken goals, family members are able to replace them by choosing more productive goals.
Adlerian family therapists seek to educate parents in order to re-establish or reinforce their leadership within the family system. This is achieved by describing the roles of each family member. By revealing behavioural goals Adlerians are also able to reveal motivations based on negative interactions which can then be replaced with positive ones. In so doing, family members become more aware of the family system. In this way the focus is more about modifying motivations than behaviour, though clearly the former necessarily impacts on the latter.
Role of Counsellor
The counsellor acts as both teacher and investigator. They strive to delineate the family system, the motivations behind mistaken goals, and the family atmosphere. This information is then used to teach parents ways in which they can amend mistaken goals and develop more useful skills for encouraging more productive interactions.
Adlerian family therapists still offer open forums in which parents, teachers, and community members are present and act as an audience. There will also be one ‘family-in-focus’ present represented by the parents. Observations about the family’s interactions are made and comparisons drawn with the audience so as to educate all.