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Experiential Family Therapy Research Paper

Pages:7 (1974 words)



Topic:Family Therapy

Document Type:Research Paper



Experiential family counseling focuses on role playing and other multisensory techniques, allowing members of the family to step into the shoes of one another through role play exercises to better understand one another, develop empathy and work out issues together (Tuttle, 1998). This paper will identify leading figures in experiential family counseling, historical and current events, assumptions, development of the theory, concepts, and techniques that relate to my own approach to counseling. Similarities and dissimilarities between the experiential family counseling and other leading theories will be explored and the paper will conclude with a discussion of what new knowledge I acquired.

Leading Figures

Carl Whitaker helped to found experiential family therapy in the 20th century. Whitaker emphasized the role of the family in the therapeutic process and showed that the humanistic approach could be used to involve all members of the family and allow them to come together to understand the issues impacting them all (Neil & Kniskern 1982). The Family Crucible was a major work written by Whitaker along with Augustus Napier and it focused on the emotional lives of the family and how the family dynamic was such that it often needed to be shocked out of its complacency to address its inner dysfunction (Napier & Whitaker, 2011). Thus, Whitaker was sometimes accused of being rude, abrupt and inappropriate with clients—it was all deliberate on his part, however; his aim was to get the family members thinking about that which they were glossing over and discussing those things—the thoughts and feelings—that so often went unsaid in their interactions with one another.

Walter Kempler was another leading figure in experiential family therapy. He emphasized a need to discern the emotions that often go unsaid and unexpressed but that exist behind the words and expressions that family members use in their interactions. He posited that so long as these feelings go uncommunicated they will fester and create problems and tensions within the family that can spill out and affect other areas of one’s life (Kempler, 1965). Kempler founded the Kempler Institute in 1979 with Morgens Lund, Lis Keisler and Jesper Juul, with the intention of training professionals on focusing on experiential psychotherapy for families in need of counseling (About Kempler Institute, 2019).

Historical and Current Events

With the death of Carl Whitaker in 1995, experiential family therapy was left without one of its leading figures (Smith, 1998). However, as Smith (1998) points out, family therapy was poised to go in new directions following the death of Whitaker, as the field was expanding to consider gender issues and stereotypes, which Whitaker was often accused of perpetuating. Nonetheless, a generational gap had developed in the field and Whitaker represented the older generation’s views. With his passing in the 1990s, it opened up the field to younger researchers and professionals to take experiential family therapy in alternate directions. The idea of experiential family counseling has always been, however, to promote creativity within the family and to use the character of the counselor to facilitate this process. Avoiding a need to always emphasize the rational and the objective is key (Carson, 1999). This was one reason Whitaker promoted a post-modern approach and why that approach is still more or less appreciated by counselors who adopt this method (Cag & Voltan Acar, 2015).


The assumption at the heart of this theory is that the family really is the fundamental building block of society and that if there is a problem in society or that an individual is having it can ultimately be traced back to…

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…therapist to embody in his own person the necessary traits and principles that the family should seek to adopt in their own dynamic (Smith, 1998). Thus, as Thompson, Bender, Cardoso and Flynn (2011) point out, experiential family therapists have found that by using this approach it is a way to get their clients to actively engage in the therapeutic process—so it can be a way to spur them on to make necessary changes. The end goal is always the same, in other words: the counselors are just taking slightly different approaches to get there (Brown & Taghehchian, 2016). Though CBT is often recognized for its value and theoretical foundation, experiential family therapy is often criticized for its failures (Watson, 2011).

Conclusion: What I Learned

What I learned from this research is that experiential family therapy is not going to be for every counselor. Some counselor’s prefer a method that is more orthodox, that is based on theory, and that provides a sound technique that can be practiced and implemented with regularity. This was certainly not Whitaker’s approach, though not every experiential family therapist has followed in his exact footsteps. However, for authentic experiential family therapy, a counselor should mirror Whitaker’s method and not try to constrain it with formulaic techniques or theories that, as Whitaker felt, would only do a disservice to the client. That is what I found to be most interesting about this approach: its founder’s disregard for convention, theory, and technique. It was as though he wholly trusted himself to penetrate the veneer of the family and see what issues were causing the problems and then reach into his bag of tricks to provoke the family to its senses and start addressing their problems sensibly. This is why he said the therapist must have solid principles…

Sample Source(s) Used


About Kempler Institute. (2019). Retrieved from

Brown, K., & Taghehchian, R. (2016). Bottled up: An experiential intervention for emotional suppression. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 27(4), 302-307. doi:10.1080/08975353.2016.1235435

Cag, P., & Voltan Acar, N. (2015). A View of the Symbolic-Experiential Family Therapy of Carl Whitaker through Movie Analysis. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 15(3), 575-586.

Carson, D. K. (1999). The importance of creativity in family therapy: A preliminary consideration. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 7(4), 326-224. doi:10.1177/1066480799074002

Epstein, N. B., & Baucom, D. H. (2002). Enhanced cognitive-behavioral therapy for couples: A contextual approach. American Psychological Association.

Napier, A. Y., & Whitaker, C. A. (2011). The family crucible. Harper Collins.

Neil, J. & Kniskern, D. (1982). From psyche to system: The evolving therapy of Carl Whitaker. New York: Guilford Press.

Kempler, W. (1965). Experiential family therapy. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 15(1), 57.

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