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  • Writer's pictureJesse Thornton

Family Structure

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Parenting has been called many things: crazy, exhausting, terrifying, wonderful, confusing, but I rarely if ever hear it called easy.  So many of us take on this monumental task, and yet most of us are not prepared for just how difficult and complicated raising children can be.  I would like to write about ideas that psychologists have discovered to help parents navigate these murky waters.  In this article, I’m going to talk a little about Salvador Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy.  He teaches us that the family structure affects the way we parent and teach our children.

Structural Family Therapy

Salvador Minuchin “developed” structural family therapy.  He found that family units work as one collective unit rather than two or more individuals living in the same space.  The collection of individuals organize to create a healthy single entity that grows and adapts as a whole with time.  Individuals in families often see themselves as separate from the family, but watching a family interact over time, we are able to see that the family operates as one single unit.

Structural Family Therapy identifies elements of the family structure that help us make sense of how the family operates and what may be going wrong if the family is not functioning well.  Below is a list of the more common elements we see in families: Boundaries, Hierarchy, Coalitions, and Family Roles.


Boundaries are what distinguish the ways in which family members communicate with each other.  They also separate different groups of family members from each other, such as children from parents (hopefully).  There are three types of boundaries that fall on a spectrum: Rigid, Normal, and Enmeshed.  Rigid boundaries denote disengagement or inability to openly communicate.  Normal boundaries allow for open dialogue but limits the way in which members are allowed to communicate (such as children not allow to interrupt or cuss at parents).  Enmeshed boundaries are overly loose boundaries where members are permitted to cross inappropriate lines of communication.  Here is a diagram of these boundaries:

Disengaged  Clear Boundaries Enmeshed

(Inappropriately rigid boundaries)              (Normal range)                       (Diffuse boundaries)

___________________                    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _                 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Family structure is based on a hierarchy.  The decision-making members are at the top of the hierarchy followed by members separated by boundaries.  The hierarchy allows members to communicate with each other and make decisions about how to move and grow as a family.  The most typical and healthy structure is with one or two parents in a position of authority with children on a lower hierarchy with clear normal boundaries.  Many families structure themselves differently.  In fact there are many types of structures, some that are healthy and others that are unhealthy.  Here are visuals of only a few family structures:

.                                            P   P                       M                         Gp                             F

.                                       _______                 F                     _ _ _ _ _             _ _ _ _ _ _

.                                            C   C                 _ _ _ _ _                M   F                    M  . . .  C C

.                                                                        C   C                   _ _ _ _ _

.                                                                                                        C   C

* P = Parent          * C = Child            * M = Mother       * F = Father          * Gp = Grandparent


A coalition is a secret or semi-secret alliance between two family members against another family member.   An example of this family structure occurs when father and mother get into an argument that they are unable to resolve.  Dad may leave the house while mom stays back and begins to complain to their oldest daughter about her father.  This creates a special relationship between the daughter and mother, giving the daughter more power and further splits the father and mother.  Coalitions keep families stable because it reduces the tension between the parents who are unable to resolve their disagreements.  Unfortunately, it also undermines the family in the long-run because it keeps the parents from learning to resolve differences, disengages one of the parents, and keeps a child locked into a role that prevents them from developing in a normal and healthy way.

Family Roles

Members in every family develop different roles.  This allows each member to contribute in unique ways and gives each member a sense of identity and purpose.  Roles can also keep balance in a family system that is unstable.  Examples of positive roles include the handyman (or woman), the computer tech., the athlete, the scholar, the socialite, the emotionally intelligent parent.  These roles include levels of skills development and provide a sense of purpose and value to each member.

Negative roles also develop such as the trouble-maker, the flunky, the scapegoat, the wild kid, the irresponsible parent.  While these roles may appear detrimental to a family, the flunky may actually help keep a family balanced and stable.  Again, parents are able to avoid conflict if their child benevolently distracts them with their own problems.  Kids who develop negative role identities improve their skills by trying out (unconsciously) new ways to messing up.  This often seems to happen just around when the parents’ conflict begins to arise.  Even better, sometimes it happens just before as the child learns their parents’ patterns more effectively.

As a note, negative roles are not always indicative of parental conflict.  Sometimes these roles develop for other reasons that need to be explored.

In this article are a few thoughts about how members of a family create one larger structure.  If you would like to learn more about your family structure, if you feel your family would benefit from restructuring, or if you feel you have developed an undesirable role/identity from your family structure, contact a family therapist.  Make sure to ask them if they use “Structural Family Therapy.”  It is not as commonly practiced by therapists and is a specific form of training within the counseling schools.

For more on families and family counseling:

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