The family dynamic is like a system, and each system has its own dynamics. Sometimes the relationship between family members experience tension and problems in the system and according to the systemic model the individual’s problems are viewed at a larger view with the overall family dynamic. Within a family, each member regulates the responses of the other members through internal and external outputs (Minuchin, 1974). Interventions for problems between the dynamics of a family system can be resolved through many different types of family art therapy models. The structural family therapy model is an approach that has been successful with families who seek therapy, as it observes patterns of interactions and the power structure between family members. Family therapy has many different models: structural, systemic, strategic, and Bowenian. Art therapy interventions could be applied to all these family therapy models, however this paper will focus on the structural model. Art therapy is an effective tool for assessing the structure of a family, and this could be achieved through drawing activities in which the art making process is observed and examining and discussing the final artwork (Kerr, 2008). The structural therapy intervention focuses on adjusting and strengthening the family system. Parents are in control and children are set appropriate boundaries. This paper will cover the structural family therapy model because it is one of the most essential family therapy models, and thus for an art therapist it can be very useful to apply this model to family art therapy interventions. This paper will also focus on the historical development of this model, its guiding principles, and ways it can be applied to art therapy. The history and development of the structural family art therapy began with Salvador Minuchin, an Argentinian born to Russian Jewish immigrants. He remained loyal to his Jewish heritage and also identified to his Latino culture. His father left his family when he was nine years old to drive cattle to support his family. This influenced his early idea that all fathers need to be strong, and be active leaders of the family. Although he originally went to medical school to become a doctor he ended up studying psychotherapy because he wanted to gain a deeper understanding of children’s behavior. He practiced psychiatry at Wiltwyck, a correctional school for lower-income boys. He noticed that treatment effects tended to disappear once the boys were returned to their families, and thus he decided to focus less on the individual and ore on examining family environment (Kerr, 2008, p. 120-121). Munuchin is known as the pioneer of structural family therapy, now one of the most influential and widely practiced of all the systems of family therapy since the 1970s (Nichols, 2006). Since the structural model is influenced by systems theory, Minuchin states that a family system can also be divided into subsystems (Lester, 1997). The structural family therapy models focuses on the “interrelationship of the whole” (Napoliello & Sweet, 1992, p. 156). The therapeutic stance of the structural therapist is to join the family in order to observe them, learn and enhance their chance to help strengthen the relationships between family members. This model addresses several important concepts which are the following: structure, subsystems, boundaries, enmeshment, disengagement, power, alignment and coalition. Structure is among the most important concept in this model, for according to this model every family has a structure. Structure in this case means how a family organizes itself (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998). Munuchin (1993) describes structure as a term used to indicate that families have behavioral patterns, which can be conservative but changeable. Therapy in this model aims to change a dysfunctional structure and is directed to altering the current structure of the family system. Since the structural model is influenced by systems theory, Minuchin states that a family system can also be divided into subsystems (Lester, 1997). A subsystem is a smaller part of the system and can contain one of more persons. Karpel (1983) describes examples of subsystems which are the following: parental subsystem, sibling subsystem, spousal subsystem, and the parent-child subsystem. The spousal subsystem comes first, once two people decide to form a family. It is important that boundaries be established and each spouse accepts their interdependency. According to Munuchin (1981) it is from the spousal system that children learn about intimate relationships. When a couple has children they create a parental subsystem, which like the spousal subsystem. In this subsystem the role of the parents is to provide for the needs of the children. For example the parents chose which schools their children will attend and which rules to set (Minuchin, 1981). When the couple has more than one child it creates the sibling subsystem, which contains members of the same generation. This is important for the child for it forms the child’s first peer group. This subsystem teaches children how to get along with each other and how to cope with conflict (Munuchin, 1981). The concept of boundaries is also important, Minuchin describes boundaries as the rules that define who participates and how much. They are the invisible barriers that influence how subsystems interact with other subsystems. Boundaries are necessary for a healthy family environment. Boundaries can exist around the whole of the family system. Families are expected to have a boundary that separates from other systems (Karpel 1982). According to Karpel (1982) an important boundaries is one that separates a nuclear family from the extended family. Each family is unique can have their own definition of what constitutes an appropriate boundary. As for the remaining concepts, Kerr (2008) describes coalitions as when an alliance is formed between two family members against a third member For example it can occur when two children form an alliance against another. Another common example is cross-generational coalitions, or triangulation which occurs when a mother unites with her child against the father (Kerr, 2008, p.126). In art therapy alliances and coalitions often manifests itself in art making. For example Kerr, (2008) gives the example of how a dyad may exclude a third member from participating in a collaborative family drawing. A child may also display enmeshment when they constantly look at their parent to complete his part of the drawing. In the final art product, the size of each figures and the distance between them can be a clue to the art therapist about the coalitions that exist within a particular family (Kerr, 2008, p. 126). As mentioned previous by boundaries play a key role in regulating transactions that take place between individuals or subsystems in a family. According to Minuchin, enmeshment is a concept used to describe families where personal boundaries are diffused, subsystems undifferentiated, and the over-concern for others may lead to loss of autonomous development. Minuchin states that enmeshment and disengagement are not always dysfunctional. In fact, according to him most families have enmeshed and disengaged subsystems. Kerr (2008) gives the example of a mother who is enmeshed with her children when they are small, while the father takes a disengaged attitude towards his children.
While engaging in my own art making after reading about the structuralist model of family art therapy, I was inspired to draw figures and how they relate to each other. These drawings where done in class after reading the articles related to the structuralist model. Both drawings were created using a white sheet of paper, water pastels and markers. The first drawing seen in figure 1 is titled “Coalition”. At the center of the drawing there are two figures holding each other, one appears to be male and the other female. When I created this drawing I was also thinking of my own romantic relationship, and how I hope to one day form a family. So the figures could represent the spousal subsystem described by Karpel (1983), where two adults unite to form a family. This image also relates to Kerr (2008)’s description of coalition, which is described as an alliance between two members of the family system against another member. This is seen in the image with the figures holding a hand which is a symbol of an alliance.
Figure 2: “Hierarchy of the subsystem” is the second image I created which addresses another key concept about the structuralist model of family art therapy, which is hierarchy. Colapinto (1991) states that the rules the family prescribes include differential degrees of decision-making power for various individuals and subsystems. There is therefore a hierarchy of the family system, for instance the parental subsystem is above the sibling subsystem, and exercises both leadership and protection. In the sibling subsystem, hierarchy exists based on birth order. In art therapy this can be seen in family drawings, by the size and placement of the family members on the drawing. For example the member placed highest on the page or draw the largest is likely to have more power. This is also seen with the use of colors, for instance family members depicted with dark or vibrant colors are more powerful whilst weaker members are drawn with lighter and more transparent colors (Kerr, 2008). In my second drawing there are three figures, one is at the bottom and appears to be holding the other two. The figure on the button is green and the other two are blue. And the figures are surrounded by a circle representing the family system. Hierarchy is shown with the button figure that is larger than the other two and supporting the others with its hands.
There exist many art therapy interventions within the structuralist model of family therapy. The art therapist role in this situation would be to effect changes in the family system and to understand the dynamics of the hierarchy in the system. One art therapy intervention that could be applied to this model is that of the boat-storm-lighthouse drawing seen in figure 3. This intervention requires the family to create a collaborative drawing. The therapist explains to the family that they need to image that they are all in a storm featuring a boat and a lighthouse, and that collaboratively they are to depict this scene in a drawing. The activity is to be done silently, and then the therapist would instruct the members that each person will write a story about what they think happened before, during and after the storm. The family members will then share their stories with this other while the therapist would guide the discussion involving there fears. The therapist would guide the discussion by asking questions like “who would have been most helpful or least helpful in this situations?” This intervention allows the therapist to learn information about the family and to identify the family roles and hierarchy of important decisions and leadership when facing a difficult situation (Lowenstein, 2010).
Figure 3:”Boat-Storm-Lighthouse Drawing”
Figure 4: “Symbols for Family Members”
Any therapeutic intervention, including art therapy interventions in this model should involve joining, which is gaining the family’s trust and support, which allows the art therapist to achieve a positive and strong therapeutic alliance with each member of the family (Kerr, 2008, p. 128). The therapist should also accommodate and adapt to the family system. This means the therapist has to temporally refrain from making changes to the system, and focus more on encouraging the communication to take place in his or her presence. Lastly, family mapping is also a useful tool to help organize schemas about the complex interaction patterns between family members. This can reveal information about coalition, affiliations, the nature of the family conflict, the roles of each member, and the allocation of boundaries in the subsystems (Kerr, 2008, p. 129). Reflecting on the structuralist model of family therapy, I do agree with the notion that each family is a system and that system contains subsystems of its own. I find all the concepts interesting, especially the concept of coalition otherwise known as triangulation. I find this concept interesting because I saw it happen to my own family when my brother would create an alliance with my mother against me. I find it interesting how the founder of this model, Salvador Minuchin addresses the problems within a family by inspiring himself with problems in his own family. I find this model does possess one crucial weakness. The structuralist model focuses too much on issues of power and hierarchy between two generations, and should focus more on issues of power that happen on relationships in the same generation. It also focuses more on a nuclear family than interactions with members of an extended family. More emphasis on relationships with extended families would benefit this model. This model also seems to emphasize the western view of the nuclear family model, and needs to consider more cross-cultural situations. To conclude the structuralist model of family therapy is still among the most popular and commonly used models in family therapy. “The family structure is the invisible set of functional demands that organize the ways in which family members interact” (Minuchin, 1974). A dysfunction in the family system can be caused by power, hierarchy, subsystems and boundaries. There are many types of subsystems that exist such as parenting, spousal and sibling subsystems. The structure of a family can only be seen by observing how family members interact. This is why the art therapist who does an intervention based on this model aims to alter the family structure and to create an effective hierarchy. Emphasis is on modifying the family structure in the immediate context of the therapy setting. Therefore the therapist attempts to help the family create better boundaries. The therapist maintains a leadership position and maps the family’s underlying structure and intervenes to transform the structure with the direct aim to change how the family members interact with each other (Kerr, 2008).
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