The Mother Of Family Therapy: Virginia Satir

Updated December 17, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have Questions About Family Therapy?

A notable American author and psychotherapist, Virginia Satir is considered the mother of family therapy for her pioneering work in developing a new approach to transpersonal therapy that involved treating all individuals in a family. Her results were incredibly successful, making her a widely known psychotherapist the world over.

The Life Of Virginia Satir

Born on June 26, 1916, in Neillsville, Wisconsin, Satir grew up a curious, bright child with a passion for learning. She taught herself how to read early on and quickly became curious about uncovering truths, even stating that she had desired to become a detective in her younger years. A dedicated and passionate woman, she would go on to attend high school during the Great Depression and hold a part-time job to help her family, all while attending extra courses.

After high school, she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s in education. She worked as a teacher for a few years before attending Northwestern University and the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration, where she earned a master’s degree and began working in discreet practice. 

In the ‘50s, Satir started work at the Illinois Psychiatric Institute, then moved on to help create the Mental Research Institute in California. Here, Satir became the training director of the first-ever family therapy training program. She also helped establish organizations that aid in the education and training of mental health professionals.

The Satir Method

Known more commonly as Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy, Satir founded this method designed to improve the connections between families to treat individuals as a result of clinical studies. The family unit is seen as a whole instead of just as a sum of its parts and is treated based on the problems underneath each family's behaviors and how they impact all others. When families seek professional advice and address issues buried for years, they can find a sense of peace and balance. A smoother and closer relationship can then develop, proving that these relationships are worth enriching as time goes on.

The issues experienced by one person can affect the whole family, which is why Satir so deeply stressed that entire families should seek treatment, including the parents. 

Much like the more holistic approaches to talk therapy, the Satir method believes that all people are connected through similar life energy. This is especially true with families who are frequently near each other. That joined energy can easily influence emotions, behavior, and mental conditions. This explanation also prompts individuals to take responsibility for their inner feelings and actions. These ideas about families led Satir to develop different techniques, such as role plays, to treat systemic and individual concerns.

The Theory Behind The Satir Method

Since everyone passes energy to one another, there are a few truths Satir believed to be evident in people. She believed everyone was equally good at their core, and their coping skills ultimately led to surface issues. Also, she felt all humans experience the world in much the same fashion through physical sensations, emotions, thinking, experiencing, etc. It's a point of connection that is worth acknowledging during treatment. Satir believed that every person can change and that focusing on this will help people in the healing process.

The Satir model works well because it focuses on the potential for change and growth, personal skills, and hope. Focusing only on the disorder or the surface issue doesn't solve the problem. Instead, encouraging individuals to take charge of how they see situations can help them overcome previous events, however stressful, in healthy ways. When past events are dealt with properly, their current behaviors and attitudes will change, which can positively affect their relationships.

Personal Growth And Self-Worth

One piece of Satir’s approach to therapy included recognizing that individuals have their own sense of worth and are responsible for their self-esteem. This forms as a result of their environment in the given moment. It typically starts within the family unit but is then held onto by the individual as time goes on and into adulthood. When a part of the family unit is experiencing an illness, whether mental or physical, it's vital to assess the entire family unit for influences.

Additionally, Satir's work would encourage the treatment of the entire unit as part of this model. Families who reciprocate feelings, affection, and love go on to thrive as units, as they should. Her pioneering work changed how family therapy, couples therapy, and marriage counseling were administered and has improved the lives of many.

It's Not About The Illness

Another important factor of her work focused on the individual instead of the illness. Satir believed that the problems appearing on the surface were masking deeper issues, likely rooted in childhood. Addressing the surface issue might help, but it would be more beneficial to the individual to discuss what is underneath. Using various techniques, she would help her clients uncover the root of their surface issues and help eliminate those problems by coming to terms with them, forming healthy coping mechanisms, and creating meaningful relationships with others.

Acceptance Promotes Change

While therapy can give individuals the coping skills necessary to move forward in their lives, one of the markers of this therapy is understanding and accepting past events. The past should not prevent the client from moving forward. By accepting the events as unchangeable, each can achieve a happier existence. Hanging on to old beliefs, poor experiences, and shameful feelings only hinders the person from experiencing the here and now. Acceptance is key to promoting those first steps toward change.

Have Questions About Family Therapy?

How It Works

The Satir method has four main goals: raise confidence, become an active decision-maker, become responsible, and become congruent. These goals, it is believed, will ultimately lead to change in the individual. 

Ideally, the Satir method works like this. Raising confidence helps individuals take charge of their decisions; from there, they see that they have a level of responsibility for their emotional health and active functioning. Next, clients commit to becoming consistent in their decisions, goals, and statements. They become an active agent in their lifestyle.

Who It's For

Primarily, the Satir method helps individuals recover from past events in childhood and improve relationships. By using self-actualization, individuals can form stronger interpersonal connections with those around them, including family, romantic partners, and friends. This type of therapy is also used for groups and couples for its beneficial structure in providing a safe environment to discuss issues and create healthy goals.

The theory and methods behind this particular therapy are not always consistent with an improved quality of life. Those living with severe and chronic mental illness might not find perpetual peace in these methods without additional therapy. Also, those with cognitive impairments may not always be capable of doing the work. They might need other interventions to help them progress through life instead of, or sometimes in addition to, the Satir method.

Satir’s Influence And Legacy

The psychological model developed by Satir, along with other ideas and methods—such as family constellations, conjoint family therapy, the human validation process model, and family reconstruction—provided a new perspective on the treatment of individuals and families. And these concepts are still used by therapists and organizational gurus today.

Additionally, Satir helped establish organizations that facilitated mental health treatment and training. In 1977, she founded the Avanta Network, which became the Virginia Satir Global Network. The goal of the Virginia Satir Global Network is to help provide further education to family therapists and other mental health workers based on the family therapy techniques—such as role plays and guided contemplation—Satir developed. Because of her contribution, she was given the Distinguished Service Award by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. The Academy of Certified Social Workers also gave her the title of Diplomat.

Where To Find Therapy Based On The Satir Model

Many therapists incorporate much of Satir's work into their techniques. Though many have their own way of working with each client, their work may be influenced by Satir's belief in life energy, creating responsibility, and using acceptance as part of therapy. Much of modern therapy believes that acceptance and self-worth help promote the individual to change.

If you’re interested in family therapy, reach out to a licensed therapist at BetterHelp. Online therapy is an excellent option for people with busy family lives. You don’t have to worry about commuting to an office for in-person therapy, and everyone can participate from the comfort of home. Scheduling is easy with online therapy, too. Making an appointment for one person is difficult enough, but when you’re trying to coordinate the schedules of everyone in your family, you need things to be as simple as possible. 

“Susan was fabulous! I highly recommend her counseling services. She put me and my family back on track and I feel there is promise hope and love going forward.”

“Amy has been a blessing to my family and I. Beginning our work together about six months ago, I was dealing with extreme anxiety and emotional disorder. Through weekly assignments, meaningful conversations, and occasional mid-week chat check-ins, I am much more capable of managing stress, rebuilding my marriage, and caring for my business.”

Online therapy is effective, too. In fact, one review found that online CBT may be more effective than in-person therapy and that participants were equally as satisfied with online counseling as they were with in-person treatment. Satisfaction with treatment is always important, but it's imperative when you need everyone in the family to be on board.


Virginia Satir changed how we think about family therapy and influenced how many therapists interact with their patients. If you’re interested in getting help and support for your family unit, online therapy can help. 

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started