Salvador Minuchin

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you think a person could benefit from therapy, there might be more to happening below the surface, as their behaviors are typically just a piece of the bigger puzzle. Family therapy is a way of looking at and treating a person's challenges. Salvador Minuchin was one of the leading experts in the field, as Minuchin was one of the creators of Structural Family Therapy.

Interested In Learning More About Salvador Minuchin Family Therapy?

Who Is Salvador Minuchin?

Born in Argentina in 1921, Salvador Minuchin is credited with changing the process of how family therapy techniques work. Minuchin's past provided him with many examples of how the dynamics of a family routinely change and have an impact on the way the family can function. Salvador Minuchin's family was involved, strict, and fair, and worked together to support one another. Salvador Minuchin witnessed a change in the hierarchy of his family when his father lost his business, and Minuchin's uncle took over as the figurative head of the household when he wasn't present.

Salvador Minuchin attended medical school planning on becoming a practicing pediatrician. However, Salvador Minuchin ended up enlisting as a physician for the Israeli army in 1948 before finishing his medicine studies. After serving, Minuchin studied child psychology in New York before returning to Israel with his wife. Minuchin worked to help disturbed children, many of whom were survivors of the holocaust. After several years, Minuchin returned to the United States with a plan to become a psychoanalyst. However, while practicing child psychiatry at a the Wiltwyck School for delinquent boys in New York, Minuchin noticed something with New York children living in poor neighborhoods. The treatments that they were taught to use were ineffective in reaching these children. Salvador Minuchin and a group of other therapists, including his close friend Jay Haley who was one of the founding fathers of brief therapy, began to look for a different solution

What Did Salvador Minuchin Discover?

When Salvador Minuchin started, therapists were using more of a sit back and listen approach. Minuchin felt that the root of most childhood problems is not within the child but the family unit. Therefore, to change the child's behavior, the therapist must help change the family dynamics."

Salvador Minuchin realized what they were doing was not working and wasn't exactly sure what needed to be done differently. Minuchin and other therapists developed a study process where they asked other professionals, such as teachers, supervisors, and colleagues, to sit behind a one-way mirror and watch as they interviewed families. Salvador Minuchin and the therapists wanted feedback and what they were doing, and from those studies, they began to build the idea of active family therapy. Years later, he would also develop a psychosomatic model for treating anorexia nervosa.

Structural Family Therapy

Where individual therapy is focused on the individual in therapy and their behaviors, family therapists focus on the dynamics of the family as a whole and the impact that it has on the individual. Salvador Minuchin saw the impact that family life played on the individual. Minuchin also noticed that using the approach of sitting back and listening to the family was not working to help the family improve their behavior.

In the 1960s, Salvador Minuchin developed Structural Family Therapy. The form of therapy is useful when providing treatment for at-risk children and families. This includes single-parent families, blended families, extended families, and those that face difficult socio-economic situations. The purpose of this type of treatment is to find and change the disruptive behaviors that exist within a family unit. 

How Family Structure Therapy Works

When a therapist is using Family Structure Therapy with a patient, they pinpoint the hierarchy of the family. They are looking to find out what the family rules are, who has the power, and what the structure is. To successfully do this, the therapist must play an active role in working with the family. It will not work if they simply sit back and observe.

Family Sub-Systems

These are smaller groups that exist within the family. Each group serves its specific purpose. The main groups include:

  • Spousal - husband, and wife
  • Parental - parent and child
  • Siblings - brothers and sisters
  • Extended - includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other distant relatives

Each person can belong to multiple groups. A married woman with children is a wife to her husband, mother to her children, and daughter to her parents. If she has siblings, then she also belongs to a siblings sub-system. When one of these groups intrudes into another group, it causes dysfunction within the family. For example, when children are constantly intruding in the spousal sub-system, it can cause problems within the marriage. Or, when in-laws are overstepping their role and becoming too involved with the raising of children, it can throw off the family dynamics.

Another issue that can happen is when a new sub-system is formed and excludes others in the family.

Family Structure

Every family has rules that establish the routines of the family structure. When the rules are healthy, and the entire family is on the same page, this can build trust within the family. Therapists can see the family structure as they watch the way the family group interacts with each other and how they talk to one another. By doing this, they are also able to observe the hierarchical structure of the family. From this, they can see who holds the authority within the family.

Boundaries

Boundaries are what regulate what is allowed to enter the sub-systems. There are three types of boundaries:

  1. Rigid boundaries - When boundaries are rigid, they are restrictive and very limiting. It allows for minimal contact from those that are outside of the sub-system. These types of boundaries create isolation. Those in the sub-system do not have an environment of support and affection in the family system.
  2. Diffuse boundaries - When boundaries are diffused, they are unclear. This is a lack of boundaries that leads to a breakdown in sub-systems. Lack of boundaries allows for other people to intrude on the system and become over-involved.
  3. Healthy boundaries - Boundaries are healthy when they are clear. 

The Goal Of Structural Family Therapy

The therapists should help to establish healthy boundaries within the family and sub-systems. They also work to establish an appropriate hierarchical structure where the children do not control the parents.

To accomplish these goals, the therapist has to take an active and involved role within the family structure to help establish proper leadership. After observing how the family interacts the therapist will create a map that shows the current family structure. It will help show the current boundaries, hierarchy, and sub-systems. With this in place, the family can see where changes need to be made, and the therapist can implement interventions to make the necessary changes so that they can reach a level of healthy functioning.

There is a process that the therapist goes through to help the family reach the goals. These include:

  • The therapist works at joining and accommodating. For the process to work there needs to be trust between the family and the therapist.
  • The therapist observes how the family behaves together. During this process, they are watching for which person is leading the family, which ones are defensive, and which one is most likely to attack.
  • Then, the therapist maps the underlying structures of the family.
  • The family then completes role-playing exercises, so the therapist can watch and intervene to help teach appropriate behavior.
  • Work on restructuring to create new boundaries that are necessary for the family to strengthen.
  • When needed the therapist goes through an unbalancing process where they join with a sub-system or individual to help break an impasse in the system to help the relationship.

Minuchin's Impact On Family Therapy

Minuchin's work led to the development of a type of family therapy that has helped many family structures function properly. Minuchin's process is present-oriented, focusing on the current problems and addressing them. It is a way to treat the individual by treating the underlying cause of their troubling behavior. It helps improve multiple people instead of just one individual. Salvador Minuchin has made a lasting impact on family therapy that has helped many individuals — and Minuchin's work will live on for decades to come.

FAQs About Structural Family Therapy

What is Salvador Minuchin Family Therapy?

It's a psychotherapy developed by Minuchin that addresses challenges within a family. Minuchin’s theoretical contributions to families and family therapy are still well regarded today.

Who is Salvador Minuchin?

Minuchin was born and raised in Argentina, and hedeveloped structural family therapy with a focus on family healing. Minuchin had a distinct impact on family therapy, and Minuchin's work has been effective since its founding. He established the Minuchin Center for the Family to teach family therapists and further family studies and research in 1981.

Is Salvador Minuchin still alive?

 No, Salvador Minuchin passed away in Boca Raton, FL in 2017 at the age of 96.

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