What is Strategic Family Therapy?

Marisa O'Connor

Strategic family therapy is a solution-oriented, brief type of therapy offered to families. The therapist takes a leading roll in identifying conflicts and designing solutions for those conflicts. This type of therapy was developed by Jay Haley as a solution for lower socio-economic class families, whose problems were not addressed by current methods of therapy.

A therapist directs the change that's needed to improve family dynamics within a family during strategic family therapy.
A therapist directs the change that's needed to improve family dynamics within a family during strategic family therapy.

Strategic family therapy was first developed in the 1950s by a psychologist named Jay Haley. Haley was disappointed and discouraged with the results of established methods of family therapy. He noted that the social problems and intra-psychic conflicts addressed by existing therapies didn't apply to lower socio-economic classes, but only addressed the problems of the middle class. Haley, with the help of other pioneer psychologists of the era, decided to design a therapy that would allow the therapist to identify and develop solutions to a family's unique social problems.

Strategic family therapy helps families work through their problems quickly.
Strategic family therapy helps families work through their problems quickly.

One of the major defining characteristics of this type of therapy is that it is a therapist-driven therapy. This is not the case in a lot of other types of therapies, which are client-driven. Therapist-driven therapy means that the therapist is responsible for directing the change within the family or individual. The therapist identifies conflicts and provides solutions for those conflicts.

Strategic family therapy may help couples with issues individually before working with couples together.
Strategic family therapy may help couples with issues individually before working with couples together.

Another characteristic of strategic family therapy that sets it apart is that it doesn't include introspection in the therapeutic process. A lot of other types of therapy delve deeply into the thoughts, feelings, and history of the person or family in therapy. Strategic family counseling, however, sticks to the present and immediate problem, not focusing on the underlying cause of the problem.

This method of therapy is very solution oriented and can be broken down into five general stages. The first stage is identifying solvable problems. The second stage is setting goals, followed by the next stage of designing interventions to achieve stated goals. The fourth stage is reviewing the response to the established interventions, and finally the fifth stage involves reviewing the overall success or failure of the therapy.

Critics of strategic family therapy take issue with the same argument that advocates use for its effectiveness. Advocates of this therapy say its effectiveness is largely due to the amount of therapist intervention, but critics see this as more of a drawback. The amount of progress is dependent on how much work the individuals of the family are willing to do. Some therapists think it's ineffective for the therapist to take such an active roll in the change of clients.

Strategic family therapy does not include introspection in the therapeutic process.
Strategic family therapy does not include introspection in the therapeutic process.

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Discussion Comments


@amysamp - I have read about strategic therapy that is used in depression counseling as well. Sometimes when used with depression it is used with a combination of approaches such as what you described in your family therapy.

I have not heard of a specific name for it but I have read the use of various approaches as loosely called combination therapy.


I can imagine where this type of therapy would be extremely useful. I went to family therapy when I was very young when my mom was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The therapy seemed to be a mixture of both types of therapy described because the therapist delved into deep issues and dealt with the immediate issues as well and gave us solutions and then changed the solutions slightly when we gave the therapist feedback with how that solution would work best with us.

The mixture of approaches seemed to work well for us - I wonder if the there is a name for using both approaches...


@AnnBoleyn - There are a lot of times when a situation is just beyond the parents' experience. Some cases might involve child counseling from a therapist or psychologist. These people are trained to recognize mental, behavioral and emotional problems and address them appropriately. Unknowledgeable parents may simply brush it off or handle it in a way that only makes things worse.


I'm not really convinced that family therapy is such a great solution. Shouldn't the parents be in charge of dealing with these types of issues that arise?


@sunshine31 - You make a really good point, regarding people with addictions. I think all too often, family members tend to tiptoe around such topics and ultimately, avoiding that discussion only makes the problem worse. Counseling or therapy is a good idea since the therapist is a third party. The addict may not be able to take it as personally if there is a non-family person to discuss the issue with them frankly.


@Sunshine31 - I was reading an article that discussed Jay Haley strategic family therapy techniques. It is supposed to help a person deal with a problem that could help them cope with life rather than trying to solve every issue the person has.

I was reading for example, that a person that has hallucinations would have trouble not only with family members but just about everyone in general. Haley’s strategic family interventions would address how to deal with the hallucinations and possibly teach the afflicted person how to function when these occurrences come up and keep it a secret so that they can appear to mask the problem and be able to function in society.

The therapy would possibly teach some behavior modification techniques that would allow the patient to recognize the flare up and immediately shift to a different type of behavior so that they would appear normal. I read that this type of therapy is really about fixing the immediate problem, not curing all of the person’s psychiatric issues which is why it is very effective with very specific psychiatric issues.


@Sneakers41 - I agree and I also wanted to say that when addictions are present in the family there needs to be some sort of strategic family therapy intervention with the addict because it may be the last opportunity that the family has to really address the addiction head on and make the addict realize that they could die if they don’t stop.

If the addict does not stop after the intervention at least the family tried to help the addict see how their addiction is not only hurting themselves but affecting the overall family dynamic. Some people need to be shocked into seeking treatment and I think that this is one way that the family can show they care and still try to open the eyes of the addict.


I wanted to say that I think that structural family therapy in which the therapist directs the therapeutic program can really make a lot more progress than when the counseling is led by the individual family members.

Sometimes people have a lot of emotional baggage that can prevent them from progressing in therapy unless the therapy is very focused. I can see counseling services like this working for blended families that usually have a lot of outside issues that cause most of the problems.

I think that it must difficult for children to see their parents’ divorce and remarry other people that have more children. This can cause a lot of jealousy which is why you need a therapist that will cut to the chase and deal with the most critical issues head on because if not the family will continue to be in a lot of pain and it is usually the children that suffer most.

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