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Summary Chart: Family Theory

Human Nature

Like models used to explain individual development across the life span, the creation and maintenance of a family system can be viewed as a developmental process that evolves over time. Developmental models of family life include the family life cycle, the family life spiral, and the family genogram.

Major Constructs

There are a variety of constructs associated with family theory, and each theory contributes discrete concepts. Conjoint theory, strategic theory, structural theory, transgenerational theory, and narrative theory are reviewed in this chapter as points of departure for some of the major constructs connected with counseling and psychotherapy with families.


The goals of individual counseling or therapy are usually aimed at changing cognitive, affective, or behavioral components of the individual. In contrast, family counselors and psychotherapists aim to change whole systems.

Change Process

Family therapists use cybernetics to understand change. Specifically the cybernetic control processes involve information and feedback. Information in the form of feedback precipitates shifts that either amplify or counteract the direction of change. Family counselors and therapists differentiate between first-order and second-order change.


Strategies and interventions associated with systemic change in families are varied; many were first introduced in the context of a specific family theory. Because systemic change can be difficult to precipitate, family therapists must be well schooled and supervised in the application of interventions. In addition, practitioners must be able to set boundaries and limits with families and be "powerful" and strategic in their choices and development of treatment plans.


The choice of language connected with family therapy often emphasizes the destructive power of families and contributes to an "assault" on the family. At times, practitioners forget that the proper use of interventions always involves consideration of cross-cultural variations that may limit applicability. Often, practitioners have ignored the different socialization processes operating for men and women and how these processes have disadvantaged women.

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