Carl Whitaker was known to call his flavor of family therapy “therapy of the absurd.” As I have contemplated this phrase and the work I do in play therapy, I can definitely resonate with that feeling. At times, when I’m rolling on the ground getting attacked by aliens, or tiptoeing in my office to avoid detection from military personnel, I often wonder if parents, families, and fellow therapists look at me as an absurdity! In fact, on more than one occasion I have had colleagues tell me, “I just don’t understand what you enjoy about seeing whole families – isn’t it just too stressful?”
I agree with my colleagues, parents, and Carl Whitaker himself, that family therapy, and its very important partner, play therapy, do look absurd to the untrained on-looker. In fact, many pioneers of family therapy saw family therapy and play therapy as one and the same! Keith and Whitaker (1981) stated, “play therapy has become our model for family therapy.” In the same article they also state, “families need the presence of children in therapy to stay alive. We find again and again that families change less and more slowly when children are not part of the therapy process.”
Join Michael Whitehead, PhD, LMFT, RPT-S, for a webinar introducing play therapy theories and principles to family therapists on June 14, from 3:00-4:40pm EST. This webinar is hosted by the Systemic Perspectives Across the Lifespan Topical Interest Network. Click here to learn more and register.
Unfortunately for our profession and for our clients, a large number of family therapists trained as MFTs report not wanting to work with children. Korner and Brown (1990) reported that 40% of MFTs never include children in therapy. When asked why, Johnson and Thomas (1999) found that for the most part it was due to a lack of training working with children and not knowing how to include children in therapy.
Most family therapists conduct “Relational Family Therapy,” defined as working with an individual or a subsystem of a family (Breunlin and Jacobsen, 2014). Early family therapy pioneers viewed themselves as practicing “Whole Family Therapy,” defined as including all family members that are able to physically be present in the session (Breunlin and Jacobsen, 2014). This whole family therapy approach requires some comfort working with children, adolescents, marriages, siblings, and grandparents.
Marriage and family therapists have a unique story, with unique skills, that when used properly and fully, can create amazing changes for families and communities. Let’s utilize this rich history in continuing to help families find fun in the absurd!
Michael Whitehead, PhD, LMFT, RPT-S, is a clinical fellow of AAMFT and AAMFT Approved Supervisor. As a practicing therapist, he has incorporated children, divorced, and step-parents in his whole family therapy approach. He often uses play therapy with whole families, and encourages the same of his supervisees.
Breunlin, D. C., & Jacobsen, E. (2014). Putting the “Family” Back Into Family Therapy. Family Process, 53(3), 462–475. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12083
Keith, D., & Whitaker, C. (1981). Play therapy: A paradigm for work with families. Journal Of Marital And Family Therapy, 7(3), 243–254
Korner, S., & Brown, G. (1990). Exclusion of children from family psychotherapy: Family therapists’ beliefs and practices. Journal of Family Psychology, 3(4), 420–430
Johnson, L., & Thomas, V. (1999). Influences on the Inclusion of Children in Family Therapy. Brief Report. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 25(1), 117–123