The Restructuring of Family Schemas: A Cognitive-Behavior Perspective

By Dattilio, Frank M. | Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Restructuring of Family Schemas: A Cognitive-Behavior Perspective


Dattilio, Frank M., Journal of Marital and Family Therapy


Cognitive-behavior therapists define schemas as cognitive structures that organize thought and perception. Schemas are also viewed as having an integral influence on emotion and behavior. In this article, I examine the role of schema in family conflict and the specific interventions used in restructuring them during the course of family therapy. Further discussion highlights the concepts of attributions, assumptions, and family standards, and the role they play in schemas, as well as the overall family dynamics. Finally, a series of steps are suggested for facilitating the process of schema analysis and thought restructuring during the process of family therapy.

Because of the complex nature of our modern society and the unrestricted influence that the media have on family relationships, contemporary family therapists are faced with some of the most difficult challenges ever. The encroachment of television and the Internet on family life has intensified family conflicts over issues such as power and control (the relative influence on children of parents' values and rules versus those conveyed by the media), and boundaries (children's greatly expanded contact with both friends and strangers through the Internet).

The ability of families to resolve conflict and tension depends in part on their communication skills, but also on the ingrained beliefs of family members about individual and family functioning, or what cognitive-behavior therapists refer to as schemas. Schemas, along with emotion and behavior, are a significant part of what constitutes the fabric of the family's functioning (Dattilio, 1990, 2001a).

The concept of schema was initially introduced in the cognitive-behavior therapy literature several decades ago in Aaron T. Beck's (1967) early work with depressed individuals, as it related to basic negative beliefs that depressed individuals held about the self, the world, and the future. Beck's work drew from earlier cognitive theories in developmental psychology, such as Piaget's (1950) discussion of accommodation and assimilation in schema formation. The work of George Kelly (1955) regarding cognitive constructs also served to shape Beck's theory on schema, as well as Bowlby's (1969) attachment theory. The concept of schema has since become the cornerstone of contemporary cognitive-behavior therapy. Much as the cardiovascular system is central to the functioning of the human body, schemas are central to thought and perception and have an integral influence on emotion and behavior. In essence, schemas are used as a template for an individual's life experiences and how he or she processes information. In addition to Beck, many other researchers have done a significant amount of experimental work in the area of schemas and their affect on interpersonal relationships (see Baldwin, 1992 and Epstein & Baucom, 2002, for representative reviews).

Consistent and compatible with systems theory, the cognitive-behavior approach to families is based on the premise that members of a family simultaneously influence and are influenced by each other's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (Dattilio, 2001a; Leslie, 1988). In essence, to know the entire family system is to know the individual parts and the ways in which they interact. As each family member observes his or her own cognitions, behaviors, and emotions regarding family interaction, as well as cues regarding the responses of other family members, these perceptions lead to the formation of assumptions about family dynamics, which then develop into relatively stable schemas or "cognitive structures." These cognitions, emotions, and behaviors may elicit responses from some members that constitute much of the moment-to-moment interaction with other family members. This interplay stems from the more stable schemas that serve as the foundation for the family's functioning (Dattilio, Epstein, & Baucom, 1998). When this cycle involves negative content that affects cognitive, emotional, and behavior responses, the volatility of the family's dynamics tends to escalate, rendering family members vulnerable to a negative spiral of conflict. …

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