BSFT’s focus is to identify those patterns of interactions that are creating problems for the family, fully understanding the cultural tradition in which these patterns of interactions occur.
“BSFT builds on universal principles across cultures, such as the importance of the family and the focus on relational health (Kaslow, 1996; Walsh, 2012; Wynne, 1984) as reflected in patterns of interactions. In all cultures, the family’s job is to be supportive and encouraging of each family member’s well-being as well as to raise children to be productive members of their particular culture or society. However, cultures differ in the manner in which they accomplish these tasks.
For example, regardless of culture, patterns of interactions occur in all families, although specific family patterns are more likely in some cultures than others (Herz & Gullone, 1999; Poasa, Mallinckrodt, & Suzuki, 2000; Shearman & Dumlao, 2008). BSFT’s focus is to identify those patterns of interactions that are creating problems for the family, fully understanding the cultural tradition in which these patterns of interactions occur. The therapy itself is also conducted in a way that takes into consideration each family’s cultural style and tradition. In this book, we use clinical vignettes to demonstrate the cross-cultural applicability of BSFT®.
“BSFT is practical, which means that for each specific family, treatment is planned to be most effective given that family’s culture and idiosyncrasies. Practicality requires us to customize the therapy for each family. For example, if two families are both diagnosed as having an imbalance in the parental subsystem, and in one family, Dad has more power than Mom, we thus need to empower Mom, whereas in another family, Mom may have more power than Dad, and thus we need to empower Dad. In doing this, we have to carefully consider clinical, cultural, and other contextual realities of the family.”
-- -- Brief Strategic Family Therapy, by J. Szapocznik and O. E. Hervis Copyright © 2020 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.
BSFT® takes into account the strengths and weaknesses that youth and families might bring to therapy, and those special risk and protective factors are also highlighted. The needs of families are addressed most effectively within the social and cultural milieus of those families. Brief Strategic Family Therapy is a time-tested approach to that end.
To improve youth behavior, BSFT attempts to change family interactions and cultural/contextual factors that influence youth behavior problems. BSFT is based on the fundamental assumption that the family is the “bedrock” of child development; the family is viewed as the primary context in which children learn to think, feel, and behave. Family relations are thus believed to play a pivotal role in the evolution of behavior problems and, consequently, they are a primary target for intervention.
BSFT recognizes that the family itself is part of a larger social system and—as a child is influenced by her or his family—the family is influenced by the larger social system in which it exists. Sensitivity to contextual factors begins with an understanding of the influence of peers, schools, and neighborhoods on the development of children’s behavior problems. However, BSFT also focuses on parents’ relationships with children’s peers, schools, and neighborhoods and on the unique relationships that parents have with individuals and systems outside the family (e.g., work or groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous).
The American Psychological Association has published the comprehensive book, Brief Strategic Family Therapy on January 28, 2020. Written by José Szapocznik and Olga Hervis, the 2 co-developers of this award-winning evidence based model, this book provides "dozens of detailed clinical examples that show practitioners how to navigate family complexities, and how to work through the challenging decision points they present".- APA
The book begins with:
"Are you searching for an approach that will make you more effective in treating families of children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 18 who present with behavioral and emotional problems? An approach that helps families regain their parental competence and leadership and that brings love, nurturance, and caring back to families who sorely need it? An approach that defines families functionally to respect the broad diversity of family cultures and compositions?"
This book is a must read for every clinician who works with families. It describes a mature clinical model, a “love therapy,” that is one of the most well researched family therapy models at our disposal. The writers do an impressive job of describing this kind of family work in clear and easy to understand ways. The concepts are aptly illustrated with engaging and compelling case examples that illustrate the complexities of families and the challenging decision points of therapists who work to help them. The authors address in detail the “how to” parts of working with these families. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I learned a lot. I encourage readers to digest every word.
—Adrian J. Blow, PhD
Professor of Couple and Family Therapy, Michigan State University
"BSFT builds on the love that is trapped behind the anger, anguish and frustration that permeates clinical families with troubled youth. BSFT transforms family interactions from anger to love, and from conflictive to collaborative. BSFT is thus, the ultimate strength-based therapy. At the same time, BSFT is a highly systematic and precise approach that only uses what is observable -- interactions, and it is rigorously, a diagnostically-driven therapy. We have written this book for all persons who either make decisions about the kinds of services that best help families with troubled children, or provide treatment to these children and their families." - Summarized by Hervis and Szapocznik.
"BSFT has been successfully disseminated and implemented within a wide range of treatment settings. It is a powerful family therapy treatment approach that will definitely appeal to clinics, agencies, juvenile justice programs, schools, substance abuse treatment programs, and community organizations that are searching to implement an evidence-based model with a strong research background." - Nancy Boyd-Franklin
To order contact:
American Psychological Association
PO Box 92984
Washington, DC 20090-2984
Toll-free (800) 374-2721
While BSFT® is well recognized for significantly reducing substance abuse in adolescents,a new randomized study of 480 families completed in 2014 found BSFT significantly more effective than TAU (treatment as usual) at “reducing alcohol use in parents”. Finally there is data to support what Olga Hervis, co-developer of BSFT, has anecdotally found in her 30+ years of BSFT training, and in the hundreds of implementation sites.
Since BSFT's primary focus is on enhancing and realigning the family's structure to be more functional in order to eliminate or reduce externalizing and internalizing behaviors in youth, parental functioning is a primary area of the BSFT treatment plan. Thus, the BSFT treatment plan involves quick and early detection of parental substance use/abuse or a mental health diagnosis.
Some parental substance use---and/or mental health conditions ---can be addressed and improved within the BSFT family therapy sessions. But oftentimes, the parent is "joined" and they are then referred to their own treatment. That treatment can take place tandem to the family therapy. There is also an alternative course of action whereby the rest of the family system receives treatment until the parent has made enough progress in their own treatment to rejoin the group family therapy sessions.
In cases where the dysfunctional parent is a single parent, BSFT assists in the recruitment of other biological or non-biological family members to function in a parenting role in cooperation with the absent parent so as not to usurp their eventual parental role.
BSFT's restructuring approach in families with a substance-involved parent is in line with prevailing addiction treatment centers’ treatment philosophy of helping a family re-organize while the affected individual is recovering; if not, there is a high incidence of relapse. In the case of both a substance-involved parent as well as a symptomatic youth, the risk is greatly multiplied.
The Brief Strategic Family Therapy Training curriculum, authored by our Director Olga Hervis, and the supervised practicum provided by the Family Therapy Training Institute of Miami include teaching clinicians how to intervene with parental dysfunction in order to maintain the integrity of the family therapy (e.g. engagement, retention, results) while achieving therapeutic results with all affected family members.
In summary, the study proved that "BSFT is effective in reducing alcohol use in parents, and in reducing adolescents' substance use in families where parents were using drugs at baseline. BSFT may also decrease alcohol use among parents by improving family functioning".
Viviana E. Horigian, Daniel J. Feaster, et al (2014). "The effects of Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT) on parent substance use and the association between parent and adolescent substance use". Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 42 (pages 44-50).
Which Kids Are Most Appropriate for BSFT®?
Very commonly organizations question me as to “which kids” are best served by BSFT®. Most recently, a therapist posed it to me this way:
“Are there specific eligibility criteria regarding BSFT to aid in deciding which of our kids is most appropriate? Also, is the BFST therapist only assigned kids that are in BSFT® [or can they see other kids that are not in the BSFT® treatment]?”
The best kids for BSFT are 6-18 years of age, and could include, among other things, any one of these factors:
- those with internalizing and externalizing symptoms,
- those either using or at high risk for using substances,
- and those who have some type of family system (biological, adoptive, foster) in place who can be available to be engaged in working on an out-patient basis.
- youth in foster care or residential who are working towards reunification
Also, BSFT is recognized as very effective (and recommended) for youth with co-occurring disorders.
The not-suitable kids would include
- those with severe developmental disorders,
- suicidal or homicidal risk, (this would require a crisis intervention prior to starting BSFT® to insure safety measures are in place)
- or who lack some sort of family system because the "family" is not able to work on an out-patient basis for whatever reason (e.g. imprisoned, non-functional addict).
- Alone and emancipated youth
Youth who are in or have families where the following crisis situations are presently occurring must first receive Crisis Intervention Services, and once the crisis is stabilized, then can continue treatment with BSFT: (I propose that this should be the case regardless of which out-patient modality is being used):
- actively psychotic
- in need of detox
- suicidal or homicidal
- presently occurring Domestic Violence or Sexual Abuse
BSFT works with both the whole family system as well as with “subsystems”. Subsystems can be dyads, triads, the sibling group, the parenting group, the couple, or one individual. So cases that are referred to both Family Therapy as well as Individual Therapy need to be treated by the same BSFT therapist.
BSFT® successfully integrates with MI, 7 Challenges, and TFCBT. Part of our model draws from Cognitive Behavioral Theory. Therefore, your therapists that are already trained in MI, TFCBT, and CBT will be good candidates to learn and assimilate BSFT®. It works harmoniously in fact with any model that does not conflict theoretically from a paradigm perspective.
“Can the BSFT therapist also conduct group therapy?”
BSFT therapists can conduct group therapy….as long as their BSFT kids are not in the groups that they run.
Can BSFT Help That Family?
I am often asked the question regarding what constitutes an appropriate family for BSFT® and always find myself replying in the negative, as most any family with a child or adolescent identified patient (IP) with either internalizing or externalizing symptoms is indeed very appropriate and will respond favorably to the BSFT® intervention.
On a cautious note I must emphasize that children whose parents do not speak English should not be seen by a therapist who does not speak their language. The use of translators who are not professionally trained does not work at all. Additionally, the children must never be used to do the translating.
Therefore, basically BSFT has been proven effective in the treatment of all families who have a child between the ages of 6 and 18 with presenting symptomatology, as long as the family members can be safely treated as outpatients. If family members are reluctant to come to therapy, BSFT has developed ---and tested 4 times---a specialized engagement model which works very effectively, but clinicians and agencies must know that this model is time and effort consuming beyond the typical treatment/billing hours.
An 8-site study conducted in late 2014 proved that "BSFT is effective in reducing alcohol use in parents, and in reducing adolescents' substance use in families where parents were using drugs at baseline. BSFT decreases alcohol use among parents by improving family functioning.". https://brief-strategic-family-therapy.com/articles/.
One last comment. Implementation sites working within or in concert with Juvenile Courts have shown significant BSFT® success working with Youth who are on probation.
--Interview with Olga Hervis, Executive Director and Model Developer, 2021
Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT®) is a highly effective, systemic approach to working with youth with an identified presenting problem in the context of their family system. Often, the presenting problem or problems for a youth include, or are supported by, traumatic experiences in either the youth or their family members.
BSFT is trauma sensitive because it empowers family members, sets boundaries, and reconnects (or protects) where boundaries are needed in family systems. Plus, it gives choices in content so that is always sensitive.
We always talk to trainees about using a trauma lens for BSFT reframing. For folks trained in approaches like TF-CBT, all the good psychoeducation just gets translated into excellent reframes to use with a family and helps family members change their cognitions about each other from a trauma lens. BSFT also offers an excellent way to introduce exposure (in BSFT called “Highlighting”) about things people in family systems need to see happening.
Trauma literature for children recognizes the importance of trauma healing to occur in the context of stable and loving relationships. BSFT is a model well suited to assure stability, reconnection, and healthy boundaries needed for children---and all family members---to feel safe. Parents’ misunderstanding of trauma cues in their children are significant. Trauma behavior in children often does not look like sadness or grief - it looks like opposition, acting out etc. Reframing skills taught in BSFT seek to help everyone in the family system understand and connect to underlying emotions.
Trauma specific treatment relies first on assessment that demonstrates the direct impact of trauma on an individual’s life, and second on those involved with the individual who may have a positive impact on the survivor’s empowerment and safety. So how might these frameworks come together?
Similarly, trauma models such as Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy show excellent outcomes, particularly when a supportive caregiver is involved in the treatment process. This idea that engaging family members in treatment for a youth is not a new concept, but often not fully conceptualized when delivering trauma focused treatment.
Using a model like BSFT to systemically diagnose the family system allows for integration of trauma specific interventions in a strategic manner
This is achieved by best understanding how the interventions will be received or supported by the family system, and what threats there may be for the intervention not to be successful due to unhealthy family patterns. For example, a well-timed trauma assessment and emphasis on psychoeducation components of trauma can be helpful in reducing family system diagnoses of denial (of the traumatic event, perhaps) or negative views of the youth with a presenting problem that is based in trauma. Similarly, the teaching of cognitive coping skills, done in a family context, can provide a trauma focused skill base for not only the youth, but also caregivers, siblings, etc. who likely have experienced some form of the same trauma.
It is too often the sad case that more than one family member may have been themselves traumatized and often rendered incapable of offering the young victim with the nurturance, support and guidance that is required. In these cases, it is essential to treat whole families and to heal the overall systemic trauma experience.
We thank our BSFT Trainer, Deb Miller, for her excellent contribution to this article.
EVIDENCE BASED PROGRAMS ARE GREAT, BUT HOW DO WE BEST SERVE OUR KIDS AND FAMILIES USING EBPS?
Service providers across the nation ---with EBPs in hand---still tackle the issue of how to best serve our kids and families in need. And while attesting to the value of EBPs, they further question “how do we maintain EBP fidelity and achieve results?”
At FTTIM we share this concern with other model developers and disseminators. It is not enough that service providers choose an evidence-based program; they must set about this in a manner that will ensure model replications that are viable, sustainable and most critically, able to produce the predictable outcomes that were established in their experimental trials.
To this end, as I moved into the dissemination field, I committed myself to go beyond the simple training of clinicians on how to do the evidence-based model Brief Strategic Family Therapy (and others), but also to helping their organizations make the necessary transitions that create the context where the EBP will “behave as it should.”
There are several issues involved in guaranteeing that agencies will put in place a true replication of the EBP model---BSFT®, for instance--- with its expected success. To do so, we need to address viability, sustainability and effectiveness. Issues such as
1-Agency commitment to the EBP,
2-Finding the right “fit” between the agency and the EBP,
3-Developing organizational structural congruence with the chosen model,
4-Adequate staff deployment and sufficient staffing provision,
5-Maintaining adherence, data-driven monitoring and decision-making, and
6-Development of an effective working relationship not just internally, but also with other systems in the service context.
Successful implementation of an EBP requires that implementers are taught beyond the mere acquisition of new clinical concepts and techniques. Developers and trainers must also ensure that clinicians and their agencies, in tandem, create an environment that maintains programmatic fidelity in all aspects.
In helping organizations successfully implement BSFT® we have to see that the system is congruent theoretically and clinically with the model. If not, symptoms appear ---poor outcomes, engagement and preservation failures, loss of fidelity, staff turnover. The EBP then becomes, as we say in Family Therapy lingo, the "Identified Patient" of the agency system. As effectiveness decreases, funding is lost…. the EBP dies.
Interview with BSFT® model co developer and Institute Executive Director, Olga E. Hervis
Beyond Gender: Ethics, Supervision, and Privilege Information
Recently Silvia Kaminsky, our Deputy Director and Master Trainer and Supervisor, was part of a panel that presented at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) Annual Conference in Austin, Texas August 29 through Sept 1, 2019.
The title of the presentation was “Beyond Gender: Ethics, Supervision, and Privilege Information.” Ms. Kaminsky’s presentation focused on the adaptability of the evidence-based model Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT®) to address issues of therapist gender and racial intersectionality in the application of this model in the real world.
This presentation refers to how the issues of Gender and Intersectionality are addressed in the Supervision sessions that BSFT® therapists undergo with our Institute Master Trainers during training in BSFT® or during the subsequent fidelity monitoring phases.
Intersectionality is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” —from Oxford
Therapist ethnicity and gender are not common variables that have been studied in most evidence-based research studies of systemic therapies, yet it plays an important role in the service delivery arena and in the successful implementation of the model.
BSFT® is a therapeutic modality that focuses on context, not content, so culture is not a “content” that is introduced in the course of the therapeutic intervention. Rather, the therapist uses his/her mimicking skills to blend with the family so that the family’s natural process---which includes their cultural norms--- are displayed through their enactments. The enactments then become the focus of the therapeutic interventions.
For therapists’ supervision sessions, this modality includes videotaping family therapy sessions. In that process, the therapeutic system is readily available for observation of therapist + family system interactions. When there is a lack of progress or a therapeutic failure, we may notice issues of gender/intersectionality. This allows for an efficient and accurate analysis of therapist subjectivity that may be interfering in implementing BSFT skills
The therapist’s personal experience and feelings about working with a family of a different ethnicity or gender mix are not addressed in the BSFT® curriculum UNLESS it is a source of the therapist’s lack or failure to intervene according to the model to achieve the desired healthy outcomes. This is consistent with the model’s principle of Pragmatism.
The topic of acknowledging and integrating the issue of therapist gender intersectionality in BSFT or any evidenced-based practice is critical because in the real world, therapists who practice EBPs, such as BSFT®, experience micro-aggression and burnout. Also, the majority of therapists practicing BSFT are female and increasingly more are people of color. We at FTTIM also believe that supervisors in the real world have an ethical responsibility to attend to the therapists’ well-being as well as the well-being of the client families they serve.
Here are 2 examples of how to maintain fidelity while attending to the unspoken issues of gender and ethnicity. These are real BSFT® supervision cases:
Case Example #1
- The case of “June”, the Therapist
- June the Therapist—African American, from South Carolina, female therapist in early 30's
- Client Family—White, biological father (a Pastor), mother an identified patient
- Father sermonized, and wife and child did not speak up—impeding open and effective communication.
- BSFT Model intervention requires the therapist to block interaction in order to restructure it to a healthier dialogue between family members.
- Therapist was unable to follow through session after session, supervision after supervision.
- Therapist’s obstacle was identified: in her culture a younger person did not interrupt an elder, especially a clergy-person, and from a different and dominant race.
- Our Institute’s supervisor (in charge of June’s BSFT® training) is neither African American nor from the South. She encouraged June to seek advice from her family and friends as to how one would “politely” interrupt such a person.
- June, after following the supervisor’s advice, was both validated, then empowered to block--- “interrupt” ---in a manner consistent with her cultural context that would work effectively in the treatment of this family
Case Example #2
- The case of “Shayna” the Therapist
- Shayna the Therapist—African-American female—from Detroit
- Client Family—White, two males, Lower-Middle socioeconomic status, the uncle and his dependent 16 y/o nephew (IP).
- Negativity, poor communication/conflict, ineffective behavior control (symptom acting out behavior with delinquency).
- Shayna intervened according to the BSFT® model in the session successfully, to help nephew and uncle resolve a conflict, reduce the negativity between them and establish more effective methods of communicating and stronger affective bonds.
- During her BSFT supervision practicum, Shayna presented the session to our Institute’s supervisor as of “poor quality.”
Our Institute supervisor took note of the following while watching Shayna’s video:
- Content of conflict between the nephew and the uncle revolved around the nephew’s African American girlfriend and nephew’s problem with his uncle’s racist remarks and disapproval.
- Shayna, the Therapist, stayed away from content (and so did our supervisor in analyzing the session) and just focused on the process issues between them in order to re-direct uncle and nephew in ways to better communicate and understand each other.
- To her credit, Shayna the Therapist was in a “dissociated state” during the session, automatically perfectly executing the model as she has been practicing it very well for many years. Didn’t think about whether she was left feeling bad and confused (which she was!)
- Therapist was able to acknowledge that the reframes she used to reduce the nephew’s negativity towards uncle---uncle’s “fear,” his own limited upbringing, concerns for nephew being aggressed by White Supremacist groups---were reframes that she herself found helpful in staying joined with the uncle, so that she could direct more open and accepting communication between them. Bravo!
- She also felt that having her feelings being solicited and validated by our Institute supervisor was important in acknowledging the real struggle and effort she went through in working with the “dominant” white culture.
In her soon to be published book, Brief Strategic Family Therapy, co-authored by co-developer Jose Szapocznik and published by the American Psychological Association (release date 1/28/20), FTTIMs Executive Director and Model co-developer, Olga Hervis, uncovers the recent work in epigenetics confirming what they had presumed for many years, basically that contextual experiences can alter genetics: “When we started our clinical work in 1974, we recognized the powerful influences of environment and particularly the family on child and adolescent behavior", said Olga.
Much research has documented the role that families play as risk and protective factors for child and adolescent outcomes 1. Since then, a body of research in the field of epigenetics has revealed how environment “gets under the skin” of adolescents through the continuous interplay between biology and environment 2.
Although many laypersons believe that the impact of heredity is unchangeable, research into gene environment interactions and epigenetics shows that the way heredity is expressed in behavior depends dramatically on environmental influences. Of these, the family is the most impactful. It follows that positive experiences in the family will produce flourishing child and adolescent development, whereas adverse experiences in the family lead to at-risk or poor development. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine's recent (2019) consensus report on adolescence, intervention in the present can remedy past adverse experiences. We thus propose that changing families’ patterns of interaction from conflictive to collaborative and from angry to loving in the present will have a positive impact on the development of its children in the future.
Brief Strategic Family Therapy is well-recognized in its ability to transform family patterns of interaction into a positive win-win for family members.
1 (Bögels & Brechman-Toussaint, 2006; Donovan, 2004; Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992; McComb & Sabiston, 2010; Morris, Silk, Steinberg, Myers, & Robinson, 2007; Pinquart, 2017; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002; O. S. Schwartz, Sheeber, Dudgeon, & Allen, 2012; Wight, Williamson, & Henderson, 2006)
2 (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019).
At the Family Therapy Training Institute of Miami (FTTIM) we take your well-being, as well as that of our staff, very seriously. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic gripping the world, we have implemented action plans to safeguard the safety of clients and employees alike, following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control. All administrative and support services that our Institute provides its clients and interested parties remain undisturbed while our staff are currently working from home practicing the recommended “social distancing”.
We have resumed travel for our Trainers in order to provide "Onsite" training to clients who request that method (recommended method). Our staff will comply with safety measures stipulated by the client (e.g. face mask, six feet apart, etc.) "Online" training will continue for those requesting that method. Those wishing a combination can obtain some training onsite and some online.
Be assured that staff from our Institute will always be glad to discuss your BSFT® implementation and processes remotely, by phone and/or video conferencing. We recommend that your agency consider purchasing the new Brief Strategic Family Therapy book recently authored by Szapocznik and Hervis. It is available through the American Psychological Association website, as well as thru various retailers such as Amazon, Target, etc.
All of us at the Institute wish everyone good health and safety.