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Structural Family Therapy Interventions: #1 The Dirty Glasses Metaphor

family systems family therapy family therapy tools Aug 01, 2023
Structural Family Therapy Interventions

Structural Family Therapy Interventions: #1 The Dirty Glasses Metaphor

Imagine walking through life with a pair of glasses that gradually become dirtier and more obscured. You might not even notice the change until one day, you realize you can't see clearly anymore. This metaphor is at the heart of a powerful Structural Family Therapy Intervention known as "catching a child being good." Intrigued? Read on to discover how this approach like mapping and joining can transform relationships and help families grow.

What Are Structural Family Therapy Interventions?

Structural family therapy interventions are therapeutic strategies used to understand and address family dynamics, relationships, and patterns. They aim to address the underlying structure of a family system and make necessary changes to enhance functionality and communication.

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The Triumph of Positive Reinforcement

One of the key concepts in structural family therapy is repeated patterns of interaction that support the presenting problem. So often when families come into treatment, they are overly focused on the problem and more specifically the child with the problem. In some families, they can ONLY see the problem behavior and can't see the child anymore. The idea of "Catching your child being good" encapsulates much of the practice that has been shown to be effective in reducing instances of non-compliance in children with complex behaviors. This approach emphasizes praise, encouragement, and positive reinforcement, transforming the family's interactions. It's about recognizing and appreciating the good behaviors in children, even when they seem hidden by defiance or challenging attitudes.

How Does This Structural Family Therapy Intervention Work?

When prompted to praise their child's behavior, parents often respond with skepticism or frustration, exclaiming, 'What good behaviors?' or 'I've tried that, and it doesn't work.' It's as if they have encountered countless 'experts' and rolled their eyes at the suggestions. This chronic negative focus on their child's behavior stems from a history of unpleasant interactions, leading to a distorted and restrained perception of their child's actions.

One powerful way to help you convey this metaphor is by asking you client to put on a pair of sunglasses, especially if it's sunny and you have them nearby. If they don't have sunglasses, ask them to just imagine putting them on for a moment. Now, ask them to consider this thought: "Could it be possible that the lens through which you see your child is colored in such a way that it prevents you from fully seeing and appreciating the good in them?"

Continue to discuss and 'play' with the metaphor sunglasses, perhaps get the client to think of the sunglasses as metaphorical lenses that influence how they perceive their child's behavior. Every time they have a disagreement or encounter a challenge with their child, it's like a tiny smudge or dirt on those metaphorical screens in front of their eyes. If they don't actively clean them, these smudges accumulate over time, making it increasingly difficult to see the positive aspects of their child's actions. As a result, your perception becomes negatively biased.

If they can imagine this, then there's good news because you can go on to explain that this activity can consciously "clean" the lens through which they view their child. If in that moment they can start by acknowledging the possibility that there are times when their child displays good behavior, but those moments might have been overlooked due to the "dirt" on their glasses

The Six-Phase Intervention: Cleaning Your Glasses

A metaphorical approach called "Cleaning Your Glasses" is used to enhance a parent's ability to catch their child being good. This six-phase intervention includes:

  • Teaching Phase: 
  • Problem Picture Phase: 
  • Transition Phase:
  • Positive Picture Phase: 
  • Goal Setting Phase:
  • Implementation Phase:

Take the case of Victoria, a 14-year-old who has been quite rebellious lately, and her mother Keaton, who is very frustrated by Victoria's behavior. They are constantly getting into conflict, and their relationship is strained.

  • Teaching Phase: Introducing the Metaphor and Explain the Importance of Positive Reinforcement

In the Teaching Phase, the therapist introduces the metaphor of "Cleaning Your Glasses" to the parent. This metaphor represents the need to clear away preconceived notions and biases to see the child's positive behaviors. For Keaton, this meant understanding that her frustrations with Victoria's rebelliousness were clouding her ability to see her daughter's strengths. The therapist emphasizes the importance of positive reinforcement, praising and encouraging good behavior rather than focusing solely on the negative.

  • Problem Picture Phase: Identifying the Child's Problem Behaviors

During the Problem Picture Phase, the therapist works with the parent to identify the child's problem behaviors. In Victoria's case, this included her rebellious attitude, defiance, and conflicts with her mother. This phase helps the parent and therapist understand the specific challenges they are facing and sets the stage for exploring the positive aspects of the child's behavior.

  • Transition Phase: Reflecting on the Problem and Preparing to Explore the Positive Picture

The Transition Phase is a crucial turning point in the intervention. The parent, Keaton, reflects on Victoria's problem behaviors and begins to shift her focus towards the positive. The therapist guides this transition, helping Keaton recognize that while the problems are real, they are not the whole picture. This phase prepares the parent to explore the child's strengths and positive behaviors.

  • Positive Picture Phase: Identifying the Child's Strengths and Positive Behaviors

In the Positive Picture Phase, the parent identifies the child's strengths and positive behaviors. For Keaton, this meant recognizing Victoria's creativity, intelligence, and love for animals. This phase helps the parent see the child in a new light, focusing on their potential and the positive aspects of their personality.

  • Goal Setting Phase: Establishing Clear Goals for Intervening in the Child's Behavior

The Goal Setting Phase involves establishing clear and achievable goals for intervening in the child's behavior. Keaton and the therapist set specific goals for improving communication with Victoria and reducing conflicts. They also outline strategies for achieving these goals, such as spending quality time together and using positive reinforcement. This phase provides a roadmap for the parent to follow, guiding their efforts to improve the family's dynamics.

  • Implementation Phase: Applying the Strategies and Keeping the Glasses Clean

The Implementation Phase is where the strategies are put into action. Keaton applies the techniques she has learned, focusing on Victoria's positive behaviors and using praise and encouragement. She also commits to "cleaning her glasses" regularly, reminding herself to see Victoria's strengths rather than just her rebelliousness. Over time, this approach transforms their relationship, reducing conflicts and fostering a new understanding and connection. The metaphor of "cleaning the glasses" becomes a powerful tool that Keaton can use throughout the course of treatment, helping her maintain this positive perspective.

How Is This A Structural Family Therapy Intervention?

Structural Family Therapy (SFT) is a form of psychotherapy that is rooted in the understanding that a family's behavior patterns and dynamics are structured in a way that maintains its stability and functionality. However, these structures can sometimes become rigid or dysfunctional, leading to conflicts and problems within the family system.

The "Cleaning Your Glasses" intervention aligns with the principles of Structural Family Therapy in several key ways

1. Highlighting Family Dynamics:

The intervention begins by identifying the problem behaviors and underlying dynamics within the family, much like how SFT seeks to understand the family's structure and subsystems. In the case of Victoria and Keaton, understanding the conflicts and rebellious behaviors was essential to addressing the underlying issues and boundary problems.

We can imagine a cyclical pattern to their conflict: Perhaps Victoria is very sensitive to Keaton's complaints, and often acts out as a result of the negativity, thinking 'what's the point', this gets noticed by Keaton who makes a comment or points something out, which increases their emotional distance, and makes Victoria even more sensitive.

This intervention is designed to interrupt or shift that pattern - and of course, there are many other ways to that we could achieve that.

2. Shifting Perspectives:

The metaphor of "cleaning the glasses" represents a shift in perspective, allowing the parent to see the child's positive attributes and strengths. This aligns with SFT's emphasis on reorganizing the family structure to create more adaptive and functional relationships. By changing how family members perceive and relate to each other, new, healthier patterns can emerge.

3. Emphasizing Positive Reinforcement:

The intervention focuses on positive reinforcement, praising and encouraging good behavior. This approach is consistent with SFT's goal of reinforcing positive interactions within the family and adjusting and building on existing strengths. By emphasizing the positive, the family can develop new ways of relating that support growth and connection.

4. Setting Clear Goals and Implementing Strategies:

The intervention includes clear goal-setting and the implementation of specific strategies to achieve those goals by adults. This mirrors SFT's approach of developing clear treatment goals and working collaboratively with the family to achieve them. The strategies provide a roadmap for change, guiding the family towards healthier dynamics.

Four Ways You Can Clean Your Glasses

In the intricate dance of family dynamics, it's all too easy for the whole family to become entangled in patterns of misunderstanding and conflict. But what if we could "clean our glasses" and see our loved ones in a new light? By adopting simple yet profound strategies, parents can shift their focus from the negative to the positive, fostering a more harmonious and supportive family environment. These methods are not just about recognizing good behavior; they're about building connections, empowering growth, and creating a family culture where everyone thrives. Let's explore some practical ways to "clean our glasses" and transform our family interactions:

Sticky Note Reminders: Jot down a specific act of kindness or responsibility your child has displayed on a sticky note. Place it in a location where they'll find it, like inside a lunchbox, on their bedroom mirror, or attached to a favorite toy. This small gesture serves as a heartfelt recognition of their positive actions.

Family Appreciation Time: Make a tradition of sharing 2 or 3 commendable things each child has done during dinner or before bedtime. This cherished routine emphasizes the positive aspects of each child's day, strengthening family bonds and encouraging good behavior. This could be done as part of the house meeting, another structural family systems intervention that you can get the PDF for too.

Immediate Praise: Seize the opportunity to commend positive behavior right when it happens or on the same day. Whether it's a thank you for assisting with chores or a compliment for playing nicely with siblings, immediate praise reinforces good behavior and creates a strong association with positive reinforcement.

Create a Reward Jar: Implement a reward jar where you place tokens or small notes for every good deed or positive behavior exhibited by your child. Allow them to exchange these tokens for small rewards or privileges. This visual and tangible method encourages continuous positive behavior and allows the child to see their progress.

 The Reframe - A Structural Technique

Reframing is one of the important family therapy techniques that involves changing the way a situation, behavior, or relationship is perceived or interpreted. It's about looking at things from a different angle, finding new meanings, or placing them in a different context. In Structural Family Therapy, reframing is not merely a tool; it's a fundamental aspect of the therapeutic process. Here's why it's so vital:

From Problem-Saturated to Strength-Focused: Families often come to therapy entrenched in problems. "Cleaning the glasses" shifts the focus from what's wrong to recognizing and reinforcing the strengths and positive behaviors within the family system. It's a way to see beyond the immediate conflicts and appreciate the underlying potential.

A New Lens for Understanding: Prejudices and past conflicts can obscure our vision. By encouraging individuals to "clean their glasses," we invite them to look at situations anew, free from the biases that may have clouded their judgment. This fresh perspective can lead to new insights and solutions.

Empowerment and Agency: The act of cleaning one's glasses is a deliberate choice, symbolizing personal responsibility and control. It reframes the individual's role from a passive recipient to an active participant in change, fostering a sense of empowerment.

Enhancing Communication: Misunderstandings and lack of empathy often lead to conflicts within the family. The metaphor encourages family members to see each other's perspectives more clearly, fostering empathy, communication, and connection. It's a shift from discord to understanding.

A Process of Continuous Growth: The metaphor recognizes that our glasses may become dirty again, requiring regular cleaning. It reframes growth and development as an ongoing process, encouraging continuous reflection, adaptation, and self-awareness.

A Universal Tool: This metaphor transcends the parent-child relationship and can be applied to various interpersonal dynamics. Whether with a spouse, friend, or coworker, "cleaning the glasses" can reframe how we perceive and interact with others, enhancing our relationships.

What Are The Goals of Structural Family Therapy Interventions?

The goal of structural family therapy interventions is to foster positive change and improve the functioning of the family system. This therapeutic approach aims to address issues within the family by examining the overall structure and organization of relationships, roles, boundaries, and hierarchies.

Modify The Role Of The Identified Patient (IP):

The goal of structural family therapy interventions begins with understanding and modifying the role of the Identified Patient (IP) within the family system. By examining the overall structure and organization of relationships, roles, boundaries, and hierarchies, therapists aim to foster positive change and improve the functioning of the family system. This includes reshaping interactions and roles to reduce symptoms and enhance the overall well-being of all family members, including the IP.

Push For Clearer Boundaries:

A primary objective of structural family therapy interventions is to create healthier and more functional patterns of interaction by pushing for clearer boundaries within the family. This involves addressing issues such as conflict, power imbalances, or dysfunctional patterns of behavior. By working with the underlying systemic dynamics, therapists aim to reorganize and strengthen the family structure, resulting in improved communication, problem-solving, and overall family functioning.

Increase The Scope Of Communication:

Increasing the scope of communication is another vital goal of structural family therapy interventions. By identifying and addressing barriers to open and honest communication, therapists guide the family in understanding and modifying their interactions. This promotes healthier patterns and enables individuals to achieve their goals, fostering a sense of agency and autonomy within the family system.

Improve Conflict Resolution Skills:

Structural family therapy interventions also focus on improving conflict resolution skills within the family. By addressing the underlying structure and dynamics of relationships, therapists help family members develop more adaptive coping strategies and build stronger relationships with each other. This includes enhancing problem-solving abilities and conflict-resolution skills, leading to lasting and meaningful change within the family system.


What are the core principles of structural family therapy?

Structural Assessment: Structural family therapy, developed by Salvador Minuchin, begins with a comprehensive assessment of the family's structure. By observing family interactions, boundaries, and hierarchies, the therapist can identify patterns of dysfunction and determine the appropriate interventions. This assessment lays the groundwork for understanding the family's unique dynamics and guides the therapeutic process.

Boundaries: A key principle of structural family therapy is the establishment and maintenance of clear and healthy boundaries within the family system. Boundaries define the roles, responsibilities, and relationships between family members. They must be neither too rigid nor too permeable, allowing for both connection and autonomy. By working with the family to clarify and strengthen boundaries, the therapist helps create a more functional and supportive family environment.

Hierarchy: Hierarchy refers to the organization of power and authority within the family. In a healthy family system, there is a clear and balanced hierarchy that supports the family's functioning. Structural family therapy emphasizes the importance of understanding and addressing any imbalances or conflicts in the family's hierarchy. This may involve redefining roles, redistributing responsibilities, or reshaping relationships to create a more harmonious family structure.

Flexibility: Flexibility is the ability of the family system to adapt and change in response to internal and external challenges. A healthy family is neither too rigid nor too chaotic, maintaining a balance that allows for growth, development, and resilience. Structural family therapy recognizes the importance of flexibility and works with the family to enhance their ability to adapt, innovate, and thrive in the face of life's complexities. We can imagine that Victoria and Keaton are in a rigid pattern of interaction and the Dirty Glasses metaphor and intervention are a way to increase flexibility.








Redshaw, S. (2007). ‘Cleaning Your Glasses’: A Prerequisite for ‘Catching Your Child Being Good.’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 28(1), 28–34. https://doi.org/10.1375/anft.28.1.28

Leyba, E. (2018, February). 3 Sweet Ways to Catch Your Kids Being Good. Psychology Today. [Blog post]. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/joyful-parenting/201802/3-sweet-ways-catch-your-kids-being-good


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