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Welcome to the USF/MSW Family/Couples Counseling - Strategic Theory WikiaEdit

Social Work Strategic Family Therapy Overview


Strategic Family Therapy (SFT) is grounded in communications theory.  It is based on the premise that problems within families are a result of family members own actions or behaviors and that specific strategies designed specifically to meet the needs of a particular family can be effective in causing rapid and significant change  (Nichols, 2014).  According to the founders of SFT, all families operate within a set of family rules that are both spoken and unspoken and are different from from one family to the next.  There are no "right" or "wrong" family systems, but rather dysfunctional or problematic systems. resulting from "negative" or "positive" feedback from other family members trying to correct the problem.  Rather than correcting the deviant behavior of the family member, the reinforcement has the exact opposite effect causing deviant behavior to escalate further. This is referred to as a positive feedback loop.  SFT seeks to identify these  feedback loops and help the family engage in effective strategies to bring about positive change from a dysfunctional structure to a more functional family unit (Nichols, 2014).  In addition to the unique set of strategies tailor-made for each family, this intervention is heavily reliant on the role of the therapist to help the family transition, requiring the therapist to be flexible, active, directive and skillful.


Gregory Bateson was one of the first founders of Strategic theory, which originated from the Mental Research Institute and was later studied in the Palo Alto group (Nichols, 2014).  Bateson grew up with parents that emphasized ecology and studying one’s surroundings (Charlton, 2008), which seems to have affected his thoughts and theories in his career.  Bateson went on to become the scientific leader of the Palo Alto group in 1952, which aimed to study communication patterns with individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, but later turned it into a study of family communication patterns (Nichols, 2014).  The Palo Alto group was comprised of Gregory Bateson, Milton Erickson, Jay Haley, John Weakland, and Don Jackson (Nichols, 2014).  

  • Founders:

​         1.  Palo Alto Group:

- Consisted of Bateson, Erickson, Jay Haley, John Weakland, Don Jackson;
- Originated in 1952;
- Initially worked with families when studying communication with families with individuals with schizophrenia
helping the families cope;
- Focused on communication styles between family members;
- Family homeostasis- resistance to change and new behaviors as a family- over-emphasized in this modality;
- Symmetrical relationships and complementary relationships; and
- Family rules (Nichols, 2014). 
 2.  Gregory Bateson:
-  Scientific Leader of Palo Alto group (Nichols, 2014);
-  Anthropologist, psychologist, ecologist, studied animal communication (Charlton, 2008);
- Raised in a very ecological and nature-focused family (Charlton, 2008);
-  Atheist (Charlton, 2008); and
-  Named after Gregor Mendel, scientist (Charlton, 2008);
-  Communication has two different functions: report and command (Nichols, 2014);
-  Metacommunication- the underlying messages in communication (Nichols, 2014); and
- Double-bind (Nichols,2014).
 3.  Milton Erickson:
- Worked together with Bateson at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) (Nichols, 2014).


  • Mental Research Institute: Key Concepts

The Mental Research Institute (MRI) focuses on the feedback loops of interaction that are usually constructed by misguided attempts to solve problems within a family. Positive feedback loops are assumed to be responsible for the development of problems in families (Family Solutions Institute, 2005). This model does not explore a family past history or power structure; instead the model primary focus is techniques for change. Although, it is important to explore and identify what strategies the family has attempted to solve problems. MRI disdains the concept of “normality”. The model formulate goals to work specifically for the current family. The model does not form the intervention to work with “normal” families. Each therapeutic session will be geared towards the current family presenting problems.The goals of MRI are: Identify the feedback loops, find the governing rules, and change those rules and loops. For example, if a child fails a test because he feels incompetent and the mother responds, “F’s are for dummies, you should have done better now you’re grounded.” The mother grounding her child for failing the test is the attempted solution. It confirms the child’s belief that he is incompetent and his behaviors worsen like dropping out of school. The MRI model would focus on changing the pattern of reaction so that the mother could help the child study and show him that he is not incompetent.

  •  Haley and Madanes: Key Concept

The Haley and Madanes model focuses on power struggles and hierarchies in the family. Haley concentrated on the family’s power struggle while Madanes concentrated on incongruous hierarchies, whereas the child symptoms change the behaviors of the parents. Haley and Madanes model aims to improve and strengthen hierarchies and boundaries in families. This concept will prevent dysfunctional feedback loops in families. They believed families go through dysfunctional stages to get to functional ones. The goal of this model is to alter the sequences of interaction and the structure of the family.


  • Mental Research Institute: Techniques/Interventions

There are two primary techniques used for MRI: Reframing and the Paradoxical Intervention. Reframing provides new meaning to a situation which may lead to alterations of rules that governs behaviors (Family Solutions Institute, 2005). Reframing will help the mother reinterpret the child’s behavior as self-doubt rather than being incompetent. Paradoxical is another interventions used for MRI. This intervention sway the family in participating by setting up the framework of the intervention in a way, in which the family believes that are not partaking in the intervention. The family believes they are doing the opposite of what the intervention expects, yet that is the goal of this intervention; therefore the family is doing exactly what the intervention predicted. For instance, the therapist would ask the child and mother to take a break from communicating with each other to resolve the problem. Instead, the mother and child would do the opposite and communicate with each other, which is the main purpose of the paradoxical intervention. Within the paradoxical intervention is a method called positioning. Positioning is a helpful tool that influences the family to disagree with the therapist about their family issues, in order to get the family to identify the feedback loops on their own. For example, the therapist would exaggerate the child’s failure and the mother’s reaction to get the family to understand that the mother’s punishing behavior made the situation worse. Once the family is able to identify their own mishaps, they will be able to reframe the situation to resolve their problem.

  •  Haley and Madanes: Techniques/Interventions

One technique used for Haley and Madanes model is called directives. Directives help the therapist build a strong alliance with the family, get families to do things differently, and gather information on attempted solutions the family used prior to therapy. Using the previous example, the mother might be directed to do something she has never done like step in when her child is having trouble studying. This technique would strengthen the hierarchy, particularly the parental unit. By doing so, the power struggle and boundaries are set in motion, which should alleviate additional problems in the family. Directives should be concise and may involve part or all of the family (download). Another technique used is ordeals. Ordeals are directives that require the family to do something they prefer not to do, however the ordeal will be beneficial to the family. For instance, the mother may be directed to take time off from work to assist her son in homework. The mother may be reluctant to taking time off, yet she understands it will benefit her child in passing his next exam. Therefore, she accepts the ordeal and stay home from work to help her child study. Like all directives, ordeals are aimed not only at symptom relief but also family restructuring (download).






Strategic Theory views problems as issues with communication (Nichols, 2014).  One of the main examples is a double-bind, which is when someone says something, yet the covert message within their statement conflicts with what they actually said.  An example of this is when a wife says “You don’t ever communicate your frustrations to me.”  So when the husband does, the wife becomes defensive and puts the blame on the husband.  Although her message is clear, what she is actually saying is not what she wants.  Strategists believe that the way to fix problems in families is to introduce new behaviors to the system, which in turn will change the way that others react to one another (Nichols, 2014).  Bateson also believed that families are resistant to change, so he would tell families to maintain their unhealthy patterns, which would actually incite families to change their behaviors (Nichols, 2014).  


☀After reviewing much of research available, it appears that Strategic Therapy is still used currently and it particularly useful with families with adolescents, drug-use, and in many cultural groups, particularly many Latino or Hispanic groups.  Both Lindstrom, Filges, & Jorgensen (2015) and Szapocznik, Schwartz, Muir, & Brown (2012) researched and concluded that Brief Strategic Therapy was effective when used with families with adolescents who had a history or risky behaviors or drug use.  This is appears to be the most common use of Strategic Therapy and numerous other articles came to the same conclusions.  One population that is fairly new to using Strategic Therapy is adults with anorexia nervosa.  Murray (2014) concluded that Strategic Couples Counseling reduced more symptoms than other forms of individual counseling did.  Strategic Therapy has also been used in different settings, including schools (Stone & Peeks, 1986), agencies, and drug-related treatment facilities (Lindstrom, Filges, & Jorgensen, 2015).  

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