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  • Writer's pictureSasha Raskin, MA

What is Psychoanalytic Family Therapy?

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In order to explain what is psychoanalytic family therapy, I decided to go with an example and to analyze the protagonist's intimate relationships and interactions with her family of origin in the movie Akeelah and the Bee. The story revolves around the ten-years-old Akeelah, an African-American girl from a low-income family who strives to win a national spelling competition. She is the youngest sister, and she lives with her single mother, her older sister who is also a single mother and is raising a young baby, and the middle brother who is just starting getting involved in a gang. Akeelah's older brother serves in the army, and her father passed away.

Akeelah's mother feels much responsibility to provide for her children, protect them, and raise them in the best possible way. Even though she has the best intentions and provides for her children, she is very strict and is not providing much emotional support. The mother is sometimes overly protective and does not let Akeelah make any independent decisions. When Akeelah wins a spelling bee competition at her school and is offered to participate in the state championship, her mother disapproves and does not let her participate. Akeelah then forges her deceased father's signature on the approval document.

Akeelah does not feel that her mother is supportive of her pursuing her passion, so after a few futile attempts to receive her blessing to start training for the spelling bee, she is making her secretive attempt at separation. Akeelah is not able to achieve a sufficient degree of what Margaret Mahler called separation-individuation: "What enables the child to practice separating is the awareness that mother is reliably there for assurance, like a safe harbor." (Nichols, 2013, p. 169). While she is striving to individuate, and make her own academic decisions, her mother does not let her, which pushes Akeelah to lie to the school and her mother.

Akeelah did not develop a secure attachment with her mother. She does not receive and does not seek emotional support. Bowlby (1969) stated that attachment is a universal need, far more potent than just a result of being fed. A lack of that experience during childhood can lead to enmeshed and disengaged relationships, like in the case of Akeelah's family.

Akeelah's mother went to college to become a doctor but dropped out, out of fear of failure, something that she admits to Akeelah at the end of the movie. In the eyes of the psychoanalytic family therapist, her over-identification with Akeelah's academic ambitions can be seen as an introjection of a pathological object (Hargreaves, Varchevker, & Joseph, 2004). The mother tries to prevent her daughter from competing, because unconsciously she sees herself in her daughter, and is sure that she is going to quit because it would be too hard. It is pathological since she sets her daughter to failure even though her daughter is incredibly talented, ambitious, and has support form her school.

Like any child, Akeelah has self-object needs for idealizing and mirroring. According to Nichols (2013), these are two critical elements in the human development:

In self psychology, two things are deemed essential for the development of a secure and cohesive self. The first is mirroring -- understanding plus acceptance. Attentive parents convey a sincere appreciation of how their children feel. Their implicit "I see how you feel" validates the child's inner experience. Parents also offer models for idealization. The little child who can believe "My mother (or father) is terrific, and I am part of her (or him)" has a firm base of self esteem. (p. 169).

However, these needs are not being met by the mother. While being busy with basic survival, the mother neglects Akeelah's emotional needs.

A possible psychoanalytic family therapy treatment plan to help the Akeelah and her family would focus mainly on two goals. The first goal would be to promote healthy separation-individuation in the family. It is vital to facilitate a certain degree of autonomy while staying in a relationship: "Family therapists believe that emotional autonomy is best achieved by working through emotional conflicts within the family. Rather than isolate individuals from their families, psychoanalytic therapists convene families to help them learn to be independent as well as related." (Nichols. 2013, p. 173). The second goal of the treatment would be to bring to light the inner barriers that prevent the mother from trusting and supporting her children emotionally, as well as Akeelah's and her siblings' desire to revolt against their mother: "The goal of psychoanalytic family therapy is to free family members from unconscious constraints so that they'll be able to interact with one other as healthy individuals." (Nichols, 2013, p. 172-173).

This psychoanalytic family therapy treatment plan holds a few potential implications for the family. First, clarity can arise for the family members around their unconscious blockages as well as the blockages of their family members. The inclusion of the unconscious is the strength of psychoanalytic family therapy: "What sets analytic therapy apart is that the process of discovery is protracted and directed not only at conscious thoughts and feelings but also at fantasies and dreams." (Nichols, 2013, p. 169). Understanding fantasies and desires of the family members, such as Akeelah's striving to win the national spelling competition, her brother's involvement with a gang, and the mother's fears of her daughter failing, can shed light on their unconscious needs, such as power, security, and acknowledgment. Another implication is the possibility of strengthening the relationships between the family members, by exploring opportunities for a healthy degree of separation-individuation. One question to explore can be: How can Akeelah pursue her passion for competitive spelling, while still meeting her mother's requirements?

To ensure that the treatment will be successful, the psychoanalytic family therapist needs to pay attention and work with a few different issues: Noticing the difference between the description of the family's conscious story and the unconscious powers at play, nurturing belonging and attachment between the parents and the children, and not letting the therapist's own negative or positive reactions to the family members affect the therapy plan (Flaskas, 2005). Moreover, perhaps above all, the therapeutic work needs to be happening within a very safe and supportive environment: "This work is painful and cannot proceed without the security offered by a supportive therapist" (Nichols, 2013, p. 174).


Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Flaskas, C. (2005). Psychoanalytic Ideas and Systemic Family Therapy: Revisiting the Question 'Why Bother?'. ANZJFT Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Family Therapy, 26(3), 125-134. doi:10.1002/j.1467-8438.2005.tb00659.x

Hargreaves, E., Varchevker, A., & Joseph, B. (2004). In pursuit of psychic change: The Betty Joseph workshop. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Nichols, M. P. (2013). Family therapy: Concepts and methods. Boston: Pearson.

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