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The History of Family Therapy

A brief overview of psychologists who contributed to the history of family therapy.

Family therapy did not become a popular mode of treatment until the late 1950s and early 1960s. However,when researching the history of family therapy, there are several psychologists in the early part of the 20th century that had an influence on how family therapy developed. These early pioneers came to the understanding that a patient’s progress in therapy often was influenced by the relationship within the family unit. Patients with good family dynamics faired much better than those that were in less stable families. In the early 1920’s, social psychologists studying group dynamics, realized the behaviors of individual members within the group influenced how the group functioned as a whole. Psychologists began to understand that this same group process could be applied to a family unit.

One of the early psychologists that greatly influenced the history of family therapy is Virginia Satir. She began working with families in 1951, and she held the belief that families need to share their feelings and affections to have a healthy family life. Ms. Satir also strongly believed love and nurturing were of the highest importance to healing the family unit. She provided training, lectures and workshops about these aspects of family therapy across the United States.

Other psychologists whose influence contributed to the history of family therapy include, John Elderkin Bell. Although not as well known as other therapists, Edward Bell’s approach to family therapy was to develop a step-by-step plan to treat problems within the family. He believed these steps would help families improve communications and aid in resolving family issues. Nathan Ackerman strongly advocated for all members of a family to be included in treatment, not just the member having difficulties, and said this was the best form of treatment for children. He also founded the Family Mental Health Clinic in New York City in 1957 and the Family Institute in 1960, which was later renamed the Ackerman Institute. Paul Watzlawick believed communication was the key to the well being of the family unit; Edward Sapir, an anthropologist, also thought communication in the family unit was important, and Gregory Bateson added to the history of family therapy by coining the term “system thinking”, referring to a system of interacting within a family.

Over time, due to the major impact of the above therapists and many others as well, the history of family therapy has evolved from treating just the involved individual, to blaming the family for a members mental problems, to the use of only medications in treatment and eventually to the combination of family therapy and medications as a mode of treatment.

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