Parents as Gardeners - Overview of the Satir Model of Family Therapy

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The Model:

The Satir Model of family therapy, also known as the Human Validation Process Model, is based on the work of Virginia Satir and comes from a systems framework. This model falls into the tradition of experiential psychotherapies and is oriented towards processes that creating lasting change. Satir Model is famous for the composite shift in how people experience themselves and the resulting change in their thoughts, feelings, perceptions and communications, which carries over into their bodies, minds, spirits and interpersonal relations. The distinction from other models is that this shift is not just a brief improvement of the presenting symptoms, but a long-term change. Virginia Satir worked with the transformation of “self,” as opposed to changing of a particular dysfunctional behavior.

Virginia Satir’s approach is sensory-based and intuitive, full of movement and touch. It relies heavily on the therapist’s warm, empathic, therapeutic presence and accentuates the value and respect for the unique existence of each individual. Satir looked at the aspects of self that the client valued and those they were ashamed of. As self-compassion and self-worth increased, the client became more tolerant to their own and other’s weaknesses. To achieve this, Virginia Satir used many techniques from Gestalt therapy, psychodrama, and Client-Centered therapy.

The Satir Model is grounded in four basic assumptions:

1) People have an innate potential to grow and self-actualize

2) This potential is either nurtured or blocked by the family system

3) Therapeutic change depends on the therapist and the therapeutic alliance

4) Here-and-now experience facilitates change

Virginia Satir identified five communication stances: congruent, placator, blamer, super-reasonable and irrelevant. These are survival stances, developed in childhood, that people choose to take when they are emotionally threatened. The therapist uses this knowledge to help the client to acknowledge their own thoughts and feelings, as well as those of others.

Satir also introduced a Six Stage Model of Change which includes (1) status quo, (2) introduction of foreign element, (3) chaos, (4) integration of new possibilities, (5) practice, and (6) new status quo. The therapy often involves going through the stages multiple times.

In her conceptualization of the presenting problems, Virginia Satir believed that each symptom has an emotional role or function, which maintains the balance in the family. Common dynamics were power struggles, parental conflicts, lack of validation and lack of intimacy. She also looked at family roles (the martyr, the victim, the rescuer, etc.) “Survival Triad” was a concept used to describe the relationship between child, mother, and father, which Satir believed was a critical nurturing system for the child.

Satir frequently used timelines to get insight into the broader context and identify strengths and resources of each individual. She was known for her “Iceberg” metaphor. Only the top layer of the iceberg (the behavior), was visible, but there are many layers underneath (coping, feelings, perceptions, expectations, and yearnings).

In general, Satir’s interventions were very much in-the-moment and hard to describe. Most authors agree that she relied heavily on therapist’s use of self, touch, facilitating emotional expression by moving down the elements of the iceberg, and helping families communicate in congruent ways. She is also known for her mind-body work, especially her signature techniques such as a sculpting metaphor ­– a visual and emotionally-intense experience which bypasses intellectual defenses.

Satir talked a lot about the use of distance, importance of interpersonal space, boundaries, and closeness.


Most of the recent journal articles that reference the Satir Model of family therapy point out numerous weaknesses of this method. The most common critique is that “the approach is weak in terms of theoretical and practical specificity” (Brubacher, 2006). The concern is that there is a lack of explicit theoretical orientation and the purposively non-technical therapeutic processes are difficult to replicate. “Her primary influence was through her training and public therapy sessions. Her approach was not promoted clearly in terms of how to actually do the kind of therapy she did” (Brubacher, 2006).

Virginia Satir avoided teaching theory or skills directly and did not offer specific instructions. The model is at risk to being reduced to a collection of techniques which can be used in a cognitive-behavioral or insight-oriented manner. “The most common criticism of the Satir model is that it lacks theoretical abstraction and is more a manifestation of Satir’s charisma and idiosyncrasies than a systematic working model for other therapists to follow or operationalize” (Cheung, 1997).

Another critique is that most of Satir’s work was done with middle-class Caucasian families and it’s multicultural appropriateness is questionable. Some authors argue that the model is incompatible with collectivistic cultures. However, there are proposed adaptations to the model that make it more suitable when working with minorities (Bermudez, 2008). Bermudez suggests a list of adapted interventions that are particularly important when working with minorities. Some of them are:

1) Family map – a culturally-sensitive version of the genogram, where the therapist not only asks what is the relation to the person, but also the role and what that role means to the client, highlighting roles and expectations. There maybe extended family or non-biological relatives who are part of the family’s life.

2) Family life chronology – a version of family timeline, which goes back three generations, making sure that immigration patterns and their implications (such as acculturation issues or intergenerational conflicts) are highlighted.

3) Family roles – a facilitated discussion about the family’s unique rules, how they are communicated, and whether they are clear, appropriate, and flexible to life changes.

Therapeutic Use of Self:

Satir approach is particularly focused on warmth and empathy and therapeutic use of self compared to other approaches. Satir talked of special focus on making contact, conveying hope and building credibility.

Application to a Family:

In her work, Satir does not intentionally try to get people to change in a particular way. She just tries to open their eyes to seeing themselves and others more positively and hopes that this will trickle down into many different changes in perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

In the audio file titled ” Virginia Satir on Raising Children Who Value Themselves,” Satir talks about treating children as seeds in the garden. Satir says: “Parents need to be good gardeners… and what does the gardener do? They take seeds and they never say to the seed: “Listen, if you don’t grow in a way I want you to grow, I am going to throw you out.” They don’t do that. What they do is they take that initial seed and they say: “Now, I am going to find out what are the growing conditions of this… what is the light, fertilizer, temperature…,” and that is what I would like to see people do with children… Also waiting for the seed to sprout… Knowing it takes a while for a seed to sprout, for a seed to unfold itself, and in the meantime you go on trust.”

In Satir’s words: “Anger is our emergency emotion… that tells us something is out of order… We need that, just like we need red light in the car telling us we are low on fuel… We can let ourselves honor that and articulate the fact that I am angry at the moment. I can then take a look at what is going on and possibly share that with you.”

In conclusion, Satir’s work is less about specific interventions and techniques and more about warm, empathetic presence of the therapist. While supporting the family, the therapist is challenging ingrained perceptions, getting the family members to experience self-compassion and see themselves and others as unique human beings, worthy of love and respect.


Tam, E. (2006). Satir Model of Family Therapy and Spiritual Direction. Pastoral Psychology, 54-3.

Bermudez, D. (2008). Adapting Virginia Satir Techniques to Hispanic Families. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 16-1, 51-57.

Brubacher, L. (2006). Integrating Emotion-Focused Therapy with the Satir Model. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 32-2. 141-153.

Cheung, M. (1997). Social Construction Theory and the Satir Model: Toward a Synthesis. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 25-4.

Gehart, D. (2015). Satir Family Therapy

Lecture based on author’s texts “Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy” and “Theory and Treatment Planning in Family Therapy.”

Retrieved from:

[TheProgressiveParent]. Virginia Satir on Raising Children Who Value Themselves

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