Family Therapy Pioneer Sees Evolving Family

World-renowned therapist and theorist, Salvador Minuchin, pioneered family therapy more than 50 years ago at a time when Freudian psychoanalysis was the standard approach to treatment.

Family therapy was revolutionary because it changed the focus from treating only the individual to one that involved the entire family.

“People are part of larger contexts. That supports all of the strategies and techniques of family therapy,” said the 90-year-old Minuchin, who spoke at the Department of Family and Child Studies Annual Conference at Montclair State University in September.

The University offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Family and Child Studies. The master’s degree program, the only one of its kind in the state, was introduced in fall 2011. A new PhD program in Family Studies is scheduled to begin in Fall, 2013.  The New Jersey Department of Education formally approved the program in November 2011, noting there is “no existing PhD program in Family Studies in the State of New Jersey, nor within a densely populated 130-mile radius” and adding that “Montclair State University is well-positioned to meet this need.”

The New Jersey Department of Education formally approved the program in November, 2011, noting there is “no existing PhD program in Family Studies in the State of New Jersey, nor within a densely populated 130-mile radius” and adding that “Montclair State University is well-positioned to meet this need.”

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In 2007, a survey of 2,600 psychology practitioners named Minuchin as one of the ten most influential therapists of the past 25 years. His theories figure prominently in Family and Child Studies courses at Montclair State and many other universities.

Concepts about family organizations have changed dramatically since the 1950s. Contemporary alternatives to traditional nuclear families now include single parent families, blended families, same sex unions, and others. “Over the past 60 years, there has been a tremendous change in the human condition,” noted Minuchin. “Many accepted truths were questioned and many types of family organizations are seen as perfectly acceptable today.”

Asked to describe a healthy family, the Argentina-born therapist replied, “It’s one where people think about each other and complement one another.” Married for 60 years, he offered a personal example.  “Before I was married, I slept with the windows open. But my wife likes to sleep with the windows closed. Even though I like them open, we keep the windows closed. Keeping the other person’s happiness in mind is an important element that facilitates people’s growth.”

Dysfunctional families are just the opposite. “People’s growth gets stuck and they don’t have the capacity to function in alternative ways,” he explained.

His own form of Structural Family Therapy addresses problems within a family by looking at relationships between family members and various sub-structures. The aim is to disrupt dysfunctional relationships so that healthier patterns can take their place.

“Dr. Minuchin is a giant in the world of family therapy and family theory,” says Jonathan Caspi, associate professor of Family and Child Studies at Montclair State and graduate program coordinator for the master’s degree program. “Having him speak at our campus highlights our Department of Family & Child Studies program as one that is intellectually vibrant, dynamic and a place where exciting things happen.”

Students in the bachelor’s degree program can choose from four areas of concentration—Child Life Specialist; Families, Children and School Settings; Family Services; and Gerontology.

The 32-credit master’s degree program, which can be completed in one year and one summer, gives students the flexibility of designing their own area of specialization. “They’re not as locked into a curriculum,” said Caspi. “Twelve of the credits are electives so they can self-select from any area they wish.”

The aim of the proposed PhD program (48 credits for a student with a master’s degree and 72 credits for a student with a bachelor’s degree) will be to prepare scholars and practitioners who can offer critical understanding of the challenges and issues facing families across the life course via scholarship, policy analysis and formation, and professional practices. For more information, interested individuals can visit cehs.montclair.edu.

Job growth for practitioners in fields related to Family Studies is projected to be much faster than average for the next several years, according to the Department of Labor and the National Council on Family Relations. Employment opportunities range from hospitals and group homes to nursing homes and childcare centers as well as academia.