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History of family therapy: its stages of development and authors

History of family therapy: its stages of development and authors

May 24, 2022

Family therapy is an approach and a therapeutic practice whose approach considers the family as a significant social unit. This has as a consequence that the treatment and intervention are not centered on the individual but on the family system as a whole.

This discipline has different applications and schools that have significantly impacted the work of psychology. Its history goes back to the decade of the 50's in a constant dialogue between the most important trends in psychology and anthropology in the United States and Europe. We'll see now a brief history of family therapy, as well as its main authors and schools .


  • Related article: "Family therapy: types and forms of application"

History of family therapy

The decade of the 50's in the United States was marked by important changes derived from the Second World War. Among other things, social problems begin to be thought from a reflective field that had been overshadowed by political conflicts. A holistic and systemic understanding of the individual and human groups arises that quickly impacts the goals and applications of psychology.

Although psychology was developing from perspectives strongly focused on the individual (the most dominant were classical behaviorism and psychoanalysis); the rise of other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and communication allowed an important exchange between individual approaches and social studies .


It was these two currents in peak, one of focus the individual (predominantly psychoanalytic) and the other of social approach, together some proposals of mixed approach, those that represented the first bases of the familiar therapy between 1950 and 1960.

After its expansion, thousands of people were trained in systemic therapy, which reflected their growing professionalization, while expanding it. The latter in constant tension between finding the methodological purism of the systemic approach, or reforming the basic psychoanalytic concepts without necessarily abandoning them.

  • Maybe you are interested: "History of Psychology: authors and main theories"

Pioneers of psychoanalytic approach

In this period, psychoanalytic approach therapy did not give visible results in the treatment of psychosis , with what the specialists had to turn to see other elements beyond the individual, and the first of them was precisely the family.


In this approach, one of the pioneers was Milton Erickson, who placed special emphasis on the study of communication beyond the psyche. In the same way, Theodore Lidz, Lyman Wynne and Murray Bowen are representative . Another was Nathan Ackerman, who began working with families as a "child therapy supplement" from the same psychoanalytic approach. The latter founded the first family care service, the first family institute, and the main family therapy magazine of the moment: Family Process.

Carl Whitaker and the Philadelphia Group are also known directed by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, David Rubinstein, James Framo and Gerald Zuk. In the development of this approach, it was also important that Harold Searles, who works with people diagnosed with schizophrenia and, without focusing solely on the family, described the importance of the latter in the development of individual psychiatric manifestations.

From childhood to the family

On the other hand, some specialists they were studying the pathologies of childhood , field of study that allowed to attend the experiences and tensions of the family as a form of auxiliary treatment.

One of them, John Bell, witnessed the works of Englishman John Styherland in this area and soon reproduced them in the United States, to finally publish one of the pioneer books in North America: Family Group Therapy. For his part, Christian Midelfort published another of the first books on family therapy The family Therapy, in the same decade.

Pioneers in anthropological focus

The second key focus for the development of systemic therapy was an anthropological one, and in fact, initiated by concerns similar to those of the psychoanalytic. Interested in understanding how different elements of language and communication are generated and distorted, they ended up studying the group relationships marked by psychosis .

From there, different schools were developed that, without abandoning many of the psychoanalytic postulates, represent the most important bases of family therapy. We will see below what they are.

The Palo Alto group

In constant dialogue with the specialists of the University of Berkeley, this school was created from the work of Gregory Bateson, an English biologist and anthropologist especially interested in communication. He is the author most cited in family therapy for transferring the general systems theory of the also biologist Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, to anthropology and later psychotherapy.

The latter formed an important working group at the psychiatric veterans hospital in Menlo Park, California, where different psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts were incorporated and were already working with group approaches. Along with Paul Watzlawick and other specialists, he developed different theories about communication and cybernetics.

Palo Alto is recognized as one of the most representative groups in the history of family therapy. They are pioneers William Fry, Don Jackson, Jay Haley, John Weakland and, later, Virginia Satir, who is recognized as one of the main founders of this discipline.

Among other things, Satir introduced an extra profession in the area of ​​family therapy: social work. From there he developed a therapeutic model and directed many seminars and professional training programs. He also published one of the first books on the subject.

The Strategic School and the School of Milan

Subsequently, Jay Haley founded the Strategic School and is positioned as one of those interested in distinguishing the principles of systemic approach from the other streams of psychology and anthropology.

Haley knows in the decade of the 60's Salvador Munich, who was developing the Structural School across the United States. This gives rise to the strategic-structural approach of group therapy , which ends by uniting the proposals of Palo Alto with the ecological guidelines made in the North American east coast.

The School of Milan is also representative in this area, although with an equally psychoanalytic basis. It was founded by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, who along with other psychoanalysts gradually changed the focus of study of the individual towards work with families, their communication models and general systems theory .

Approaches to the unifying project

After the success of family therapy, also known as systemic therapy (not only in the United States but also in Europe), the unifying project of the psychoanalytic, anthropological and mixed approaches was based in particular on the analysis of the four dimensions that make up any system: the genesis, the function, the process and the structure .

The approach of the Second Cybernetics is linked to the unifying project, which problematizes the role of the person who observes the system in its modification; question that had remained absent in the antecedents of the therapy and that is strongly influenced by the contemporary theories of quantum physics.

In the 80's the paradigm of constructivism joins , whose influence turned out to be greater than that of any other. Retaking both the second cybernetics and the general theory of systems, the incorporation of constructivism proposes that family therapy is in fact an active construction of teraputa together with the family, and it is precisely this latter that allows the professional to "intervene to modify".

Thus, family therapy is understood as a therapeutic system in itself, and it is said system that constitutes the fundamental unit of the treatment . From this, and towards the decade of the 90's, new therapeutic approaches are included, such as narrative techniques and psychoeducational approaches, while this discipline extends around the world.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bertrando, P. (2009). See the family: theoretical visions, clinical work. Psychoperspectives, VIII (1): 46-69.
  • Pereira Tercero, R. (1994). Historical review of family therapy. Psychopathology Journal (Madrid), 14 (1): 5-17.

Theories About Family & Marriage: Crash Course Sociology #37 (May 2022).


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