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What is Family Therapy?

‘The fundamental premise of family therapy is that people are products of their context’, the family and the wider context (Nichols, 2013, p.64).

Family therapy is premised on a ‘strengths-based’ view of service users and the systems with which the service users and their families are involved. According to McQuaide and Ehrenrich (1997), strength involves ’the capacity to cope with difficulties, to maintain functioning in the face of stress, to bounce back in the face of significant trauma, to use external challenges as a stimulus for growth, and to use social supports as a source of resilience‘ (p. 203).

Before discussing the case study in Section 3.3, some concepts central to family therapy and relevant to understanding the case study are discussed below. The case involves a divorced family with the mother single-handedly raising two children. When the boy was becoming a teenager, the father began to reconnect irregularly with the children and at the same time, the boy started to develop deviant behaviour. To understand the intricate and nuanced relationships among the mother, the father and the children, we need to understand some key concepts such as circular causality, relationship triangles, complementarity of character and how these affect family structures and family life cycles.


Family Therapy - Key Concepts

Below list are some of the useful concepts of family therapy (Nichols, 2013).


Circular causality
Causality is non-linear. Actions and reactions are occurring within a relationship context and through a network of interacting loops or repeating cycles.

circular causality


Triangle is a three-person system, the smallest stable unit of human relations. Triangulation refers to detouring conflict between two people by involving a third person, stabilizing the relationship and diluting the emotional tension between the original pair. Detriangulation means the process by which an individual withdraws from being drawn into alliances with one against the other.


It refers to ‘the reciprocity that is the defining feature of every relationship’ (Nichols, 2013, p.65). The communication pattern is based on differences that fit together, where qualities of one make up for lacks in the other (e.g. overfunctioning/ underfunctioning, pursuer/ distancer, dominating/ submissive).


Family structure
Family structure is the functional organization of families that determines how family members interact.

  1. Hierarchical structure: family functioning based on clear generational boundaries, where the parents maintain control and authority.
  2. Cross-generational coalition: an inappropriate alliance between two persons such as a parent and child, who side together against a third party of the family. 
  3. Interpersonal boundaries: emotional and physical barriers that protect the integrity of individuals, subsystems, and families. 
    Rigid boundaries allow little contact with outside systems, resulting in disengagement. It promotes autonomy but limits affection and nurturance.
    Diffuse boundaries offer access to support, but at the expense of loss of autonomy due to a blurring of psychological boundaries.
    Clear boundaries refer to a balance of separateness and togetherness.


Family life cycle
Family life cycle refers to a series of longitudinal stages of family life from separation from one’s parents to marriage, having children, growing older, retirement, and finally death (Table 3.1). In other words, as family members grow, families have to reorganize and ‘developments in any of the family’s generations may have an impact on one or all of the family’s members’ (Nichols, 2013, p.68).


Table 3.1 Duvall’s Stage of the Family Life Cycle 


Major transition

Married couple Commitment to each other
Childbearing family
Developing parental roles
Families with preschool children
Adapting to needs and interests of preschool children in stimulating, growth-promoting ways
Families with children Introducing children to institutions (e.g. school)
Families with teenagers Balancing freedom with responsibility
Families with launching children Accepting child’s independent adult role
Middle-aged parents
Letting go – facing each other again
Families in later life Accepting old age

 Source: based on Duvall, 1977, and Barnhill & Longo, 1978.


chat  Case Study: ‘A Child in Dilemma’1

Hiu Fung’s parents divorced when he was five year-old. His mother has all along single-handedly raised 13-year-old Hiu Fung and his 10-year-old sister, Hiu Yee.

When Hiu Fung was 10, his father began to meet the children irregularly. Coincidently, Hiu Fung started to have deviant behaviour such as lingering in internet cafes until late at night, stealing his mother’s money and lost motivation in studies. Was the return of the father the root cause of Hiu Fung’s behavioural problems or was it indeed a potential resource to solve them?


Triangle: Torn between Mum and Dad
By my observation, the conflict between the mother and Hiu Fung was mainly related to the father, even though the father was absent at our interview room. Unlike common teenage problems, the gist of the problem was: ‘as mother criticizes father, the son tries to defend him’. The more the mother blamed the father, the more vigorous Hiu Fung disputed and the more repulsive the mother became.

Although the divorce occurred eight years ago, the father still had an influence on the relationship between the mother and Hiu Fung. To the mother: she felt betrayed because she had put in a lot of efforts in raising the children on her own. To Hiu Fung: he felt helpless because if he argued with his mother, it would hurt her but if he did not, his beloved father would be vilified.

I attempted in vain to invite the father to the therapy session in order to verify the mother’s belief that he did not care much about Hiu Fung’s development.


Daughter and Son
In the second session, the mother would like to know if her ex-husband was a responsible father when he met Hiu Fung. She asked her son: ‘How did your father respond after knowing your misbehaviour?’ Hiu Fung did not give her a straight answer. Hiu Yee, however, said, ‘Dad told him not to steal money, listen to teachers and get home earlier from school.’
The mother doubted and did not believe that the father would teach their children to behave well. Both children took the side of their father and testified that he was a good father. I told them, ‘Your family has been divided into two camps. Mum doesn’t trust dad, contrary to the children.’

At this moment, Hiu Yee clarified her position, ‘I will not take side like my brother because if I defended father, I would be scolded by mother. I would not be so stupid to confront mom.’ I asked Hiu Yee whether this was also a difficult position: she dodged, trying not to offend her mother.

Touched by what her daughter said, the mother revealed that she had tried to avoid facing her ex-husband all these years. She now realized that such an attitude had made her children suffer, she decided to contact her ex-husband and invite him to discuss the children’s problems and find the solutions.

[1] Extracted and translated from the book 王愛玲, 2013, 夾縫中的孩子, 天窗出版社, pp.107-123. 


The Role of Father

When the father came to our session, Hiu Fung and Hiu Yee were happy to see him. 

At the beginning, the mother raised a number of questions ’Who teaches Hiu Fung to request for more pocket money as the father has paid alimony? Who allows Hiu Fung to play before examination? Who teaches my son to get home late every day?’ The father dodged, ‘Your relationship with Hiu Fung is too tense and there is no room for compromise.” The mother retorted, ‘I am not confronting him, I am just urging him to revise for examination. Do you know how scary I feel every time the teacher calls?’ In fact, throughout the conversation, the mother’s counting of Hiu Fung’s problems was an indirect way of accusing the father. I found that if the father could not answer the mother’s questions, Hu Fung would interrupt and defended his father.

I therefore needed to disrupt this vicious cycle. I first invited Hiu Fung who was sitting in between his parents to come to my side so that his parents could have a direct dialogue. When he continued to interrupt, I asked the parents, ‘Who can stop your son’s interruption, so that you can discuss how to cooperate effectively?’ Hiu Fung continued to interrupt until the father said, ‘Don’t speak right now.’ He faced the mother and said, ‘Would you allow Hiu Fung to stay at my home for a period of time?’ The mother felt shocked and seemed worried that her son would be ‘taken away’. The father supplemented, ‘Your parenting style is too harsh! He feels more comfortable to stay with me.’ Facing the coalition between father and son, the mother felt frustrated, ‘Your working hours are long. How can you take care of him?’ The father kept silent as he had not considered about the feasibility of his proposal. The mother turned to me for help.

Why did the father come to our therapy session? To find this out, I told the children to leave the room to provide an opportunity for frank communication among the parents. I requested the father to clarify his suggestion and he said, ‘I don’t intend to fight for the custodian right. I just tried to offer a buffer zone for the tense relationships.’ The mother felt relieved.

The father continued, ‘I’m in a difficult position. I know that I should support you and cooperate with you; but to be fair, harsh parenting is not good for Hiu Fung, as this only irritates him.’ After hearing the father’s sincere sharing, the mother replied gently, ‘I accept your advice.’ Encouraged, the father continued, ‘We need to listen more to him. As a parent, I only hope to provide a shelter for my son.’ The mother agreed.

I invited Hiu Fung and Hiu Yee back to the interview room. Their father said to them, ‘Listen carefully: I have reached a compromise with your mum. She will continue to take care of you two but you need to listen to her. Hiu Fung, I told your mum that you have already grown up and you have your own needs. She needs to listen to your opinions and adjust her expectations. You also need to respect her and not to argue with her all the time. Do you understand?’ Hiu Fung nodded. It seemed that his parents’ dialogue had sowed peace in his heart.

This was the first time both parents had a dialogue to reach a consensus. This session let both parents perform their proper roles, releasing Hiu Fung from being a defender. The mother also understood the importance of continued parenting in divorced couples, and the need to discuss with her ex-husband in order to provide a better growth environment for their children.




[1] Extracted and translated from:王愛玲, 2013, 夾縫中的孩子, 天窗出版社, pp.107-123.



Barnhill, L.H. & and Longo, D. (1978). Fixation and regression in the family life cycle. Family Process, 17, pp. 469–478.

Duvall, E.M. (1977). Marriage and Family Development (5th ed.). New York: Lippincott. McQuaide, J., & Ehrenrich, J.H. (1997). Assessing client strengths. Families in Society, 78, pp. 201–212.

Nichols, M. P. (2013). Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, 10th Ed., Boston: Pearson, pp.54 -75.

Walsh, F. (2006). Strengthening Family Resilience, 2nd Ed., New York: Guilford Press.

王愛玲 (2013), 夾縫中的孩子,天窗出版社. pp.107-123.

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