African American Therapists Working with African American Families: An Exploration of the Strengths Perspective in Treatment

By Bell-Tolliver, LaVerne; Burgess, Ruby et al. | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, July 2009 | Go to article overview

African American Therapists Working with African American Families: An Exploration of the Strengths Perspective in Treatment


Bell-Tolliver, LaVerne, Burgess, Ruby, Brock, Linda J., Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


With the exception of Hill's (1971, 1999) work, historically much of the literature on African American families has focused more on pathology than strengths. This study used interviews with 30 African American psychotherapists, self-identified as employing a strengths perspective with African American families, to investigate which strengths they identified in the families and how they use those strengths in therapy. Themes emerging from data analysis confirmed the continued importance of the five strengths Hill noted. In addition, two new strengths were identified by the participants: a willingness of a greater number of families to seek therapy, and the importance of family structure. Strategies used in engaging the families in therapy and practice implications for family therapists are discussed.

A search of the literature reveals scarce documentation of the strengths of African American families. With few notable exceptions, studies seldom document areas where the African American family is doing well (Conger et al., 2002). Indeed, the effectively functioning African American family appears to be the exception to researchers as well as clinical practitioners. The 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan is frequently cited as the benchmark for pathologizing the African American family and for predicting that the Black family was deteriorating (Ackerman, Brown, D'Eramo, & Izard, 2002; Dodson, 1997; Hare & Hare, 1986; Moynihan, 1965/1999; Peters, 1997).

Scant literature is available that provides strategies to help therapists work with the strengths of African American families to bring about successful outcomes. Hill (1971, 1999), in his 1971 seminal work, cited five strengths as being primary to African American families in their effective functioning. Those strengths were identified as strong kinship bonds, strong work orientation, adaptability of family roles, strong achievement orientation, and strong religious orientation. One or more of these strengths has been subsequently corroborated by other researchers and family therapists (Boyd-Franklin, 2003; Perkins-Dock, 2005). When African American families come to the therapy setting, it is important to examine methods that are currently being employed by therapists to construct or to reinforce their strengths.

The term "African American family" is defined as ... an intimate association of persons of African descent who are related to one another by a variety of means, including blood, marriage, formal adoption, informal adoption, or by appropriation; sustained by a history of common residence in America; and deeply embedded in a network of social structures both internal to and external to itself. (Billingsley, 1992, p. 28)

Strong and DeVault (1995, p. 28), who provided a similar definition, also pointed out that Western cultures tend to "uncritically accept the nuclear family model as our definition of family," without acknowledging that this is not the model for many groups in the world who wish to hold on to their ethnic identities.

It is important, however, to understand that there is no "one size fits all" African American family; rather, these families are diverse groups of people with various ideas, beliefs, values, and socioeconomic categories (Boyd-Franklin, 2003; Nobles & Goddard, 1984; Perkins-Dock, 2005). This study focuses on the major issues that are, or have been, common to the large body of African American families through the centuries.

We believe that African American families have strengths, and that the use of those strengths within the therapeutic setting can lead to successful outcomes. We also believe that understanding the strengths of African American families can help mental health professionals develop successful treatment outcomes for families. It is critical that professionals gain an understanding of how these strengths impact the functioning of the African American family to empower families who are struggling.

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