Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

Living Edition
| Editors: Jay Lebow, Anthony Chambers, Douglas C. Breunlin

Adlerian Family Therapy

  • Erin J. SchuylerEmail author
  • Paul Rasmussen
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_577-1


Alfred Adler (1870–1937) was one of the first psychiatrists to use a systemic approach in psychotherapy (Carich and Willingham 1987). Adler pioneered a holistic approach to therapy highlighting the complexities of family dynamics and the nature of goal-oriented behavior. Adler’s work also underscores the importance of community feeling and the necessity of a cooperative attitude among community members. He recognized that individuals are socially embedded organisms each striving to enhance quality of life while overcoming states of burden and unpleasantness (Adler 1935). Adler recognized the importance of early childhood experiences in setting the foundation of the individual’s style of life, including the establishment of personal convictions, beliefs, feelings, and values.

Adler, along with his students and colleagues, established over thirty Child Guidance Clinics throughout the area of Vienna, Austria, during the early decades of the twentieth century (Dreikurs 1958). He welcomed the general public to come for assistance with family matters and to observe the practice of AFT. By 1934, Hitler’s Nazi party had eradicated these clinics (Dreikurs 1958; Christensen 2004) and what was a building movement in Individual Psychology was stalled for many years. To escape the Nazi occupation, Adler and many of his followers left Austria, many immigrating to the United States. Adler himself intended a move to New York City but died of a heart attack while lecturing in Scotland in 1937 prior to his permanent move to the United States.

Prominent Associated Figures

Alfred Adler, Rudolf Dreikurs, Ray Lowe, Oscar Christensen, Bronia Grunwald, William and Mim Pew, Don Dinkmeyer, Jane Nelson, Michael Popkin, Frank Walton, Raymond Corsini, Manford Sonstegard, and James Bitter.

Theoretical Framework

Basic principles of AFT were derived from The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (Ansbacher and Ansbacher 1956). These assumptions about human nature are reflective of socially embedded individuals whose actions, decisions, and psychological movement have purpose and meaning (Dinkmeyer et al. 1979).

Law of movement. Adler argued that movement is the most important aspect of life; when movement ends, life ends. Movement is reflected in how one strives for feelings of worth and security. Feelings of validation emerge from one’s sense of value, satisfaction, and status. Each individual within a family strives to discover sources of worth and validation by developing strategies for procuring positive outcomes and ways to overcome challenges.

Purposive behavior/teleology. Movement is goal-oriented. The term teleology refers to the striving for optimal existence that characterized all living organisms. As each self-determined goal is subjective, behavior is purposeful without necessarily being conscious and intentional. Mistaken beliefs are impacted by this movement and influence an individual’s behavior.

Holism. AFT is a holistic approach focusing on the totality of the individual and the totality of the family unit. This includes biological factors, personal perceptions and unique interpretations, and the interactions between the family members, not excluding the impact of influences outside of the family such as their social community.

Phenomenology. Reality is shaped by an individual’s interpretation of the world. An individual’s view of life is subjective and beliefs and opinions are not required to match the view of others. Clashes occur when the interpretations and expectations of one conflict with those of another.

Family constellation. Each member of a family influences the lives of each other. The constellation of the family includes parents, children, extended family members, and other care providers. Understanding a family’s constellation provides information of each person’s position and role within the family. While we accept the differences as only tendency rather than absolute, Adler pointed out that oldest children tend to be more traditional and conservative and are more inclined to follow established rules and satisfy the expectations of authority figures. Second born children tend to be less concerned with power and tend to be more competitive and ambitious. Middle children often feel lost in their position and become concerned with issues of fairness; may feel cheated by the circumstances of life. The youngest tends to be more dependent, sociable, and are often the most pampered while finding their niche apart from older siblings. The only child shares characteristics of the oldest, yet tends to be more pampered and may have difficultly cooperating with others. Because age differences and gender differences can impact the influence of birth order, psychological birth order is thought more important that ordinal birth order.

Discipline. Children learn best by way of logical and natural consequences; consequences that are related in no unambiguous or indirect way to the misdeed. The alternative is arbitrary consequence, such as physical discipline, which leads to relationship problems and fails to meet the objective of teaching discipline. Dreikurs (1967) recognized that children, as well as adults, often garner validation and relief from burden via the quest for attention, power, revenge, and via displays of inadequacy. While these motives often lead to some degree of validation and some relief from burden, lack of cooperation and contribution create problems for the individual and too often for the individual’s community (e.g., family and later perhaps school).

Populations in Focus

Adlerian-based parent education (child-guidance) and AFT is focused on helping care providers meet the task of raising children who are prepared to meet the demands of living with others in a civilized society. While parents cannot control a child’s behavioral choices, they are leaders responsible for creating a cooperative family atmosphere characterized by encouragement, cooperation, and accountability.

Strategies and Techniques Used in Model

AFT is primarily educational, assuming that problems emerge because members of the family are discouraged about their place in that family and have embraced strategies that are optimally counter-productive.

Forming a relationship. The therapist generally interviews parents without children present. Supporting parents as leaders of the family, family constellation and routines are explored. During the parent interview, rapport is built by demonstrating a relaxed interactional dialogue, a friendly and open demeanor and the display of empathy and understanding concerning the family’s situation. This collaborative approach models respect, optimism, and encouragement among family members. Similarly, children are then interviewed to gain insight on their collective and individual perspectives of the family system.

Psychological investigation. The therapist continues to collect pertinent facts among family members and focuses on the current situation. The therapist observes and assesses each individual’s place and role within the family constellation. Psychological birth order (vs. ordinal order), roles adopted within the family, family values, hierarchical patterns, and individual niches are considered. Exploring each family member’s style of movement within and outside the family provides valuable information that guides the next phase of therapy.

Disclosure/interpretation. A working hypothesis is derived by examining each member’s style of behavior and contribution to the family system. It is essential to address the hidden goals of both parents and children and identify the misdirected goals, while promoting cooperation among family members. Parents are encouraged to consider the motives behind a child’s behavior, underscoring the child’s desire to belong and feel of value. Through appropriate interpretation and subtle confrontation, family members are able to develop insight concerning their motives and harmony-defeating behaviors.

Reorientation. The final phase encourages individuals to take action and apply what they have discovered about themselves. Self-awareness will ultimately improve during therapy; however, actual change occurs outside of sessions as family members engage with each other. They are encouraged to reorient their goals and decision-making process and move towards fostering positive interactions between one another. Reorientation requires consideration of alternative beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and goals that are both realistic and effective. Children will learn to take on responsibilities and complete unpleasant tasks while cooperating with others. Parents model respect by allowing children to make choices and face logical and natural consequences of those choices. The parents are encouraged to withhold criticism, ridicule, coercion, and harshness.

An effective therapist educates as necessary and continually encourages. The therapist assigns activities that build on the strengths of each family member and reveals the counter-productive motives.

Research About the Model

Numerous studies have researched elements of Adlerian theory, including encouragement, birth order, social interest, and early recollections (Carlson et al. 2006; Evans et al. 1997; Phelps et al. 2001; Watkins and Guarnaccia 1999; Watts and Shulman 2003; Wong 2015). Adlerian psychology is grounded in holistic, optimistic, purposeful, and socially embedded theories. These basic assumptions of Adlerian psychology and practice are woven throughout various therapeutic orientations, including cognitive-behavioral, positive psychology, multicultural theory, solution-focused theory, and attachment theory. Moreover, practitioners who emphasize individual psychology display inherent qualities required throughout the therapeutic process, possess sophisticated set of interpersonal skills, offer adaptive explanation for discouragement, and adjust treatment as needed to fit the client’s goal (Anderson et al. 2009; Duncan et al. 2010; Neukrug 2010; Norcross 2011).

Case Example

Tom, Susan, and their three children attend their first session. The therapist meets with parents to get their observations. They express primary concerns with their middle son, Jonah, who is preforming poorly at school and is antagonistic with his sisters.

Tom does most of the talking and describes difficulty managing his time at home and work; typically works 65 h a week and has minimal time to engage with his children. Tom notes that he relies on Susan to mange the children. Susan is responsible for much of the child rearing, and while she loves her role as a mother, she is overwhelmed with juggling family life and her own job. Susan works 35 h a week in addition to “making sure their household runs smoothly.” Parents agree that while their daughters are generally easy to manage, Jonah refuses to do homework, antagonizes his sisters, and talks back to his mother. It is noted by the therapist that Tom did most of the talking, despite being less involved with the children. This suggests a pattern of how men behave (dominant) and how women behave (dutiful and obedient).

Interview with the children reveals they are here because their mom told them they were coming – a common response. Stacy, age sixteen, states the problem is not with her, but her brother. Jonah, age twelve, does not respond and is clearly unhappy being there. Beth, age eight, smiles and seems to think the whole endeavor to be entertaining. From this interaction, the therapist saw Stacy as the obedient, compliant child who also tends to be a bit bossy. Jonah, as a second born, has taken a different path to establish his independence; this includes acting dominant and rebuffing schoolwork. Beth has taken on the role of entertainer.

The therapist evaluates family values, parenting style, and roles within the family constellation and provides observation/interpretation of the goals of each member. The therapist then offers observations and looks for signs of recognition to confirm or dismiss the observation. For Jonah, the therapist might offer the following observation: “You seem to have taken on the role of the man in the family when your dad is away and like to call your own shots, but I also wonder if you don’t do your homework because school work is your sister’s thing.” These observations question Jonah’s effort to assert power and his assumed inadequacy when it comes to school work. His belief as the only son is verbalized as “I should be in charge and should be smarter, but I can’t function at my sister’s level.” The therapist pays attention to each child’s reaction to the interpretation. For Jonah, he discloses feeling more pressure than his sisters to do well in school and makes up for it by acting out. The therapist also comments on the frustration that Stacy is feeling given she does well at school, tries to be helpful at home, and often feels like her efforts are unappreciated. Stacy appreciates that her efforts are finally acknowledged. The therapist also comments on Beth’s curiosity about what all the fuss is about. She smiles.

Understanding the motivation behind misbehavior allows opportunities to encourage reorientation. Together, the therapist and family members offer suggestions and realistic goals. The therapist works with Tom and Susan to equalize the power balance within the family and to create logical consequences for Jonah should he not complete homework. Tom agrees to set special time aside for each child throughout the week. Susan is more aware of Stacy’s frustration and gives her some personal time to spend with friends. Goals are now aligned for this family. Until the next session, each member will be encouraged to take on responsibility of meeting their tasks, respecting the differences everyone experiences, cooperating with each other as they navigate new behavioral choices, and to be courageous as their family adapts and reorients to new methods of thinking and behaving.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG (outside the USA) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Adler InstituteColumbiaUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Rachel Diamond
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Saint JosephWest HarfordUSA