The Importance of Structure

When I was first introduced to family systems therapy in the 1980s one of the preeminent models was “Structural Family Therapy” which emphasized hierarchy and boundaries.  The focus on hierarchy centered on helping parents more effectively establish their authority and improve compliance and rule following.  Over the last 40 years we have increasingly witnessed a cultural shift in which parents appear to be hesitant to and struggle more to assert their authority in an appropriate and effective manner. 

Many factors appear to have contributed to the decline of effective parental authority.  Clearly technology and social media have contributed to the decline of effective parental authority as outside influences are more present in children’s lives.  In addition, technology itself has taken over the lives of all too many childrens and adults.  It is not unusual to see families where everyone is on their phone. Distracted and less engaged parents appear to be more common as adults are not immune from the pull of social media.  These are clearly not the only factors that are relevant. There appears to have been a cultural shift in which more and more parents hesitate to assert their authority, and in extreme instances support their children in challenging adult authority  (talk to any experienced teacher or school personnel and they will likely tell you how a child complained to a parent about a poor grade or being reprimanded and the parent did not support the school’s authority but instead backed their child (note: this is not an argument that all adults are always right; adults clearly abuse their authority and make mistakes, but rather this is to highlight the shift in cultural norms).  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in their book,The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, detail this shift. While their arguments may be exaggerated and some of their examples appear to be cherry picking of more extreme instances of these trends, it is hard to dispute the notion that there has been a cultural shift which has placed more emphasis on helping children feel validated and understood and less emphasis on insisting on appropriate and responsible behavior.  

Obviously, how children feel matters.  Our argument is not to dismiss the importance of the child’s experience.  Rather, our aim is to point out  that a correction is needed and that more families need to provide more structure in order to protect younger teens and children from some outside influences and distractions, and to assist children in learning to be more responsible, better tolerate frustration (i.e., not always get their way), and be more aware of the impact of their actions on others (develop greater empathy). 

Identifying the need for more structure is not very difficult. The challenge often entails helping parents recognize that the lack of consistent and effective parental structure explains the concerns that led them to seek therapy for their child and that establishing more consistent routines and expectations is the solution.  One of the consequences of the popularization of therapy and increased awareness of mental health concerns is that many people (including teens) have explanations of their problems that are not helpful and often inaccurate. Again, a greater acceptance and awareness of mental health concerns is a positive change, but like many changes there are downsides.

The first step in helping parents establish more structure  (and assert their authority in more effective ways) is to develop an explanation of the problem that directs them to the solution of providing more structure. An all too typical example involves children/teens who are socially isolating and spending hours on their phone/social media.  I have had parents tell me that their child is more cooperative, and pleasant to live with, when their phone/social media/videograming is curtailed. However, these same parents often struggle to consistently enforce these rules and all too often accede to badgering from their children to allow more access.  By highlighting these patterns, whether it is excessive phone use or failure to have any regular bedtime, parents can be helped to recognize that the solution lies in providing more structure and limits. 

Second, parents may need support and education to recognize that trying to reason with their child is counterproductive.  Some parents need to be reminded that it is not only okay but essential for them to assert their authority and to keep in mind that they do indeed know what is best for their child.  Obviously, arguing with children and teens about rules is not helpful and can only cause more tension and upset.  However, parents often fall into this pattern.  In these instances parents need to be supported in asserting their authority in more effective ways, i.e., ending conversations, and not allowing themselves to be drawn into debates.  One of my former teen clients used to insist, whenever his parents said no to a request, that they “did not understand” him.  In reality, they clearly understood him. What he wanted was not understanding but acquiescence on their part.  Today’s parents  (and children/teens) need to be reminded that it is okay for children to feel frustrated, not get what they want, and accept and follow rules they do not like. In fact learning to tolerate frustration is an important developmental task. 

Third, a complicating factor in helping parents establish more consistent structure is when  parents do not agree on rules, structure and consequences.  At times, these disagreements may reflect parental differences arising from their own upbringing and outlook. However, at other times they may be a sign of underlying marital/couples issues, which are played out in parenting. In these instances children may appear to have more power than one parent because they are being covertly  (and at times even overtly) supported by the other parent.  Salvatore Minuchin, the father of structural family therapy, highlighted this issue as did Jay Haley and other pioneers of family therapy. In these instances therapists are faced with the complex task of helping parents separate their marital struggles from parenting.  All too often parents in these instances may overfocus on the child’s behavior, as a way of not looking at their issues. 

Once again, I am not arguing that we turn the clock back to a time when it was thought best that children be seen but not heard. Research has clearly identified authoritarian parenting styles as problematic.  Moreover, as Ron Taffle has suggested, an excessive focus on supporting parental authority may result in therapists missing other issues and problems.  Rather, I am arguing for a more balanced approach where we recognize the importance of the child/teens experience while also keeping in mind that children and teens need structure, need to be able to tolerate frustration, and are not ready to run their own lives (despite frequent protests to the contrary). 



Haley, Jay. Leaving Home: The Therapy of Disturbed Young People  

Lukianoff, G and Haidt,J. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Minuchin, Salvatore,  Families and Family Therapy. 

Taffle, Ron. Getting Through to Difficult Kids and Parents: Uncommon Sense for Child Professionals