Exploring family sculpting

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated January 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
There are many methods of family therapy

Many people may imagine family therapy in a talk setting, where a family sits with a therapist and discusses their issues, but an alternative approach like structural family therapy may involve more interactive family therapy techniques to bring about change in the family system. Although therapists often conduct family meetings this way, family therapy can take many other forms.

One of these forms, family sculpting, is a technique that reveals family dynamics through non-verbal expression. The family sculpting psychodrama technique is used in family therapy to create a dramatic representation of past events through roleplay. The people involved in the group act out memories through their non-verbal cues and body language.  

The sculptor's job (chosen by the family or the therapist) is to place the family in a scene that reflects the position of each family, their attitude, and their role within the group. Often, family sculpting is facilitated by a therapist trained in the technique. Family sculpting is also one of several child-centered therapies that can be used in a group setting. In this type of therapy, the child or children in question may include the inner child or metaphorical child self of the adults in the session if there are no children in the family.

The sculpting process

Often, the family sculpting therapist asks to choose a sculptor from those in the family system. The therapist may ask if anyone is interested in being initially involved and describe the role. If more than one person wants to be a sculptor at the time, the counselor may ask more questions to decide or may allow both to work together with one acting as a lead sculptor and the other acting as a support person. The sculptor can be any adult or child that can follow the sculpting responsibilities. A sculptor can also be a different person each session. 

To start, the counselor will often give the families a specific prompt and then ask the sculptor to place the family around the room according to how they felt about each person at a certain age. Alternatively, the therapist may ask the sculptor to position the family as they seemed to them in the original setting before, during, or after an event. This part of the session involves roleplaying and imagination. 

Next, the sculptor follows the prompt given. They might put some people closer together than others. The person chooses where to put people and may choose to place certain participants closer or farther. Two people may be hugging or pretending to push each other. The sculptor may add more minor details that reflect their perception of the scene, for example, tilting one of their heads up so their nose is in the air to indicate that the person feels superior. The sculptor determines all the positions and details of the sculpture. After the exercise, each participant will de role, and a discussion will begin about how each participant felt about their character in the scene, and alternate memories of the event.

For example, a therapist might prompt a child sculptor to position their family in the way they saw them after a close family loss. The child might position their parents far away from them and their siblings, indicating that they may have felt emotionally distant after the loss. Ultimately, family sculpting can help reveal the emotional connections between individuals in the family and any areas of disconnect that may exist.


Therapist interventions

The therapist might choose to intervene at specific points during the sculpting. If an argument arises, they can help the family resolve the issue together through talk therapy. 

Psychodrama may sometimes uncover long-buried feelings that are so intense that the sculptor struggles to continue sculpting. If these feelings arise, the trained therapist might support the family as they understand their situation better, express their emotions, and begin their healing process. After the family is sculpted, a brief talk session may follow.

Purposes and advantages of family sculpting

Below are a few reasons people might use this method for their conflicts. 

Assessment of the family 

Your therapist may use the information they gain during an initial sculpting session to assess the conflict in your family to offer the most effective treatments. They may use later sessions to assess how you are progressing individually and as a group at several points in your family therapy. This process may assist the therapist in determining the course of treatment and deciding whether to make changes. If your family has accomplished all your goals within therapy, they may decide to take a different approach or ask if there are any further concerns. 

Interactive family roleplay 

Partaking in family sculpture therapy can be more interactive than talk therapy. It can be an active experience that you may feel in your body.

A visual modality for therapy

Family sculpting is often known as a concrete and visual modality that may be mixed with other types of therapy. As the sculptor sees them, the family dynamics become apparent so that the therapist can understand a situation they weren't a part of, and the family can learn from what they see. 

Immediate insight

This method may be a fast way to address family dysfunction. When you see how the sculptor has placed you and others, you may be more receptive to hearing how they feel. Or, if you are the sculptor, you can express your feelings about the family structure through a few movements. It may help each participant develop insights into truths about the family.

Revealing hidden issues

This method may help clients discover conflicts that few, or none, of the family, were cognitively aware of. As the sculptor is arranging the family, everyone may notice that they placed someone in a way that doesn't make sense to them. The sculptor may not have a reason for it. 

As the therapist helps the family assess this sculpture and work through the conflict as revealed, the family may feel more self-aware. Ultimately, family sculpting can help family gain information that helps them focus on a desire to connect and feel healthier together.

Getty / courtneyk
There are many methods of family therapy

Counseling options 

Family issues may be challenging to resolve because they may be based on many feelings and perspectives from each of the participants. Often, it’s important to open conversations about the relationships and connections within your family, and family sculpting can be a powerful technique in identifying conflicts and tension points. Family sculpting is one method that therapists use to help families resolve relationship issues and begin on the road to healing together. However, there are other options. If you are unsure if face-to-face sculpting suits your family or if it is not offered in your area, you may also consider online therapy. 

Online talk therapy is as effective as traditional in-person therapy in addressing anxiety, depression, anger, and relationship issues. A study published in the Cambridge Journal of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy points out online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) benefits parents and children and can often be effective long-term. 

For busy parents with busy children, having the flexibility of online therapy sessions can be beneficial. You may begin online therapy via video chat, online messaging, or phone. With therapy, family challenges, dysfunctional patterns, and goals may feel clearer and set a new direction for your family as a unit of unique individuals. If you're interested in getting started, consider an online platform like BetterHelp, which offers affordable weekly sessions with a licensed therapist.

Counselor reviews

"I started working with Jeana a few weeks ago, mainly because I am trying to really step out and learn who I am without the influence of my family and others. She has been so very helpful in guiding me through this process and helping me manage those emotions that will pop up while trying to dig through life."

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"Ava was a great help to me. She supported me through a transition period in my life and also helped me work through some issues that I have been facing with a parent. She is very frank but also listens and reads with a keen and empathetic ear. I appreciated having a counselor of similar racial and ethnic background to me as she had insight into the particulars of my family dynamics and past experiences. I am happy with my experience with her."

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Family sculpting therapy can help families act out their conflicts and identify patterns and behaviors they want to change. If you're interested in learning more about this type of counseling or want to try individual therapy, consider reaching out to a counselor for further guidance. 

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