The following is excerpted from "Basic Principals of Adlerian Family Counseling" by Carroll Thomas and William C. Marchant in Adlerian Family Counseling, Edited by Oscar Christensen and Thomas Schramski.




Holism and Uniqueness

Adler chose to call his psychology "Individual Psychology", consistent with the Latin word individuum, meaning the indivisible individual.  Thus, Adler's psychology is a holistic psychology, emphasizing that each individual is best understood as a totality.  In contrast, many psychological theories attempt to reduce the individual to the smallest unit of behavior in order to achieve understanding.  Adlerians believe that the individual is more than the sum of the behaviors.  The human is viewed as the integration of interacting systems of behavior.

A good example of this assumption is human speech.  In the human body there is no single organ which is solely designed for speech.  Each of the organs used for speech seems to be designed as a component of some other system or function, such as breathing or masticating.  If we attempt to isolate human speech in single system parts, we end up unable to understand the process of speech.  Human speech is best viewed as a function of the interactions of several different, but overlapping, systems in the body.

So it is with the personality.  When we attempt to understand the personality atomistic ally, rather than holistically, we lose the ability to understand the individual human being as a unique and interactive totality.



Adler's psychology is a phenomenological psychology.  That is, we believe that the facts of one's life are not as important as one's perception of those facts.  It is assumed that each individual perceives the world in a unique fashion.  Consequently, Adlerian psychology has been correctly called a psychology of use rather than a psychology of possession.  This view is consistent with most theories which emphasize individual responsibility for one's actions, because those actions have, to a large degree, been created by the way in which one interprets events.  Kelly (1955) suggested the same principle when he formulated his fundamental postulate that human processes are "psychologically channelized" by the way in which one interprets events.


Social Embeddedness

Adlerians view people as existing within a social framework.  Consequently, the individual is seen as socially embedded in interacting social systems.  Adlerian counselors assume that one can be most successful in helping an individual to change if one can change the way one system (family) interprets and responds to the individual's behavior.  Hence, the primary unit of intervention is the family.


Purposive Behavior

A logical extension of the foregoing is the notion that behavior is purposive.  Adler conceptualized that all behavior was characterized by movement toward a goal.  Typically, individuals move away from feelings of inferiority toward feelings of growth, completeness, and wholeness.  The individual strives to overcome perceived difficulties.  Such behavior is described as goal‑directed, future‑oriented, teleological, or purposive.  Purposive behavior is an important assumption, as it guides the Adlerian family counselor in developing strategies for behavioral and attitudinal change.


Social Equality

Equality is a term which is often misunderstood.  The term "social equality", as used here, refers to equality in terms of worth and value.  We assume that people are of equal value, but not the same.  We assume the likelihood of everyone having the competencies necessary to make some kind of a contribution.  Consistent with the notion of purposive behavior, we have an expectation that everyone can make a contribution for the benefit of a social system, whether it be a dyadic relationship, a family, or a community.

Adlerians believe in the golden rule of reciprocity: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  This implies that we do have responsibilities for each other.  It suggests that there is a higher order of social living than merely "looking out for number one".  The inescapable conclusion from the foregoing is that children as well as adults have human rights as well as responsibilities.


Mutual Respect

The primary goal of the family is to establish relationships which increase the group's feeling of well‑being.  The children's initial responsibility is to contribute to a reasonable family routine.  A parental responsibility is to establish a sensible waking‑sleeping schedule and encourage the children to develop a pattern consistent with it.  The child's next responsibility is to contribute to the family welfare.  The parent's next responsibility is to provide the necessary guidance and structure in which this can take place.  Children are expected not to demand unnecessary services or assistance, especially in activities they can perform for themselves.  If parents submit to undue demands, they allow themselves to become victimized and exploited by the children.  Such children quickly become tyrants.  All members of the family have responsibilities and should be expected to perform them routinely.

In a well‑functioning family, all members work to the best of their ability so that all family members may enjoy maximum pleasure, comfort, satisfaction and happiness and a minimum of pain, discomfort, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness.  Everyone fully respects everyone else and does not allow anyone to be treated disrespectfully.  The family becomes a mutually cooperative team.  The formula for the success of such a family is mutual respect: respect for one's self; respect for others.

It is best to relate with children‑as well as with one another‑according to kind firmness: the logic contained in the Golden Rule.  If we treat others with disrespect, we can also expect to be treated with disrespect.  Each person has the right to be respected, which, in this context, means that no unreasonable requests or demands be made of anyone.  Children should not be considered pets, playthings, toys, or idiots.  Unfortunately, this is precisely how many, adults view children -- as lovable, cute incompetent things to play with or criticize.

Making children into royalty is also disrespectful.  A child may be a little prince or princess at home, but will not have this glorified status on the playground, at school, or later in life.  Respect is characterized by honest, truthful evaluation and treatment.  Stimulating children to become dependent by providing too many unnecessary services, but not allowing them to make decisions, or by over‑protection is disrespectful and does them a great deal of harm.

Adults can help children in their development toward a socially constructive orientation by utilizing a logical, rational, and equalitarian approach.  Some behaviors are considered "appropriate" or "valid".  Other behaviors are considered "inappropriate" or "invalid".  "Good" behavior is encouraged, supported, and reinforced while "bad" behavior is not encouraged, unsupported, and unreinforced.  Appropriateness is viewed as a function of self and other‑respect.  Thus, in any situation, the crucial questions are always: "Does the adult show respect for the child?  Does the child show respect for the adult?  Does each individual show respect for one's self?"


Love and Affection

Love, tenderness, mutuality, affection, and good will are advocated by Adlerians, but they are considered consequences or effects of respectful relationships, rather than causes of such relationships.  Parents can genuinely love their new‑born baby before exposure to the child, but to maintain positive feelings for the child, the child has to earn and deserve them.  It seems that we can unconditionally love, respect, and accept a person's being, while we conditionally love, respect, and accept a person's doing.  We can separate the deed from the doer.

Children who make genuine efforts are respectful, cooperate, contribute, and otherwise show that they mean well.  Parents who behave in a similar manner are also loved by their children.  Love is an emotion, and emotions are the result of beliefs, thoughts, opinions, and evaluations, not their cause.  More important than emotions are intellect, reason, and action.  We can train our minds to understand, and we can train our bodies to function appropriately; but, we cannot as readily train our emotions. The crucial mistake made by many parents is that they equate love with their own desires and think eagerness to serve, obey, and comply with their children's demands represents love. Both the submissive, slave‑like approach and the autocratic, aggressive, tyrant‑like approach are equally harmful.


Cultural Changes

The cultural changes we are experiencing are the birth pains of an almost totally new epoch of human relationships. Three major phases in the social evolution of humanity can be distinguished: a primitive society, an autocratic society, and the present emerging democratic society. A democratic society does not simply imply political and economic changes‑it suggests basic changes in all human relationships. In the autocratic society, one was either in a superior and dominant position or in an inferior and subordinate position. In a democratic society, each individual is equal in terms of personal worth, value, and dignity as well as rights and responsibilities.

In all cultures and civilizations throughout history, child‑rearing has followed a traditional pattern. One reason for our present predicament in raising children is the lack of an established tradition. The present generation is faced with a changing social atmosphere in which the traditional methods of raising children are becoming obsolete. As a result of this change, parents are often confused and bewildered about what to do with their children.  Moreover, the professional and expert advice they frequently receive only adds to their confusion.

We are living in a different social atmosphere from that of our parents and grandparents.  Reward and punishment as methods of control have lost their effectiveness in a democratic society which does not support such approaches. Both reward and punishment were consistent with an autocratic culture as a means by which people in power could enforce their will upon their subordinates. Society, in turn, supported the rights of parents to employ every imaginable means of compelling submission and compliance, even severe beatings. Today's society, however, sides with children and declares a brutal and cruel parent unfit. Today, children draw only one conclusion when punished: "If you have the right to punish me, then I have the right to punish you".  Children view rewards as their rights and think parents are ridiculous to try to discipline or control them by such measures (see Rationale chapter).



Adults, by nature of their larger size and wider repertoire of knowledge, skills, and experience, have historically disciplined their children by forcing them into compliance.  Traditionally, the conflict between the generations was contained by the power and authority of adults.  Juvenile delinquency and childhood schizophrenia express the extreme forms of rebellion of today's youth.  Children feel mistreated and misunderstood, and adults feel disrespected and defeated.  When people do want to change this situation, they often erroneously assume that they can become democratic simply by refraining from being autocratic.  However, merely refraining from being autocratic often leads to permissiveness and over‑indulgence.

Only recently have better methods been developed.  The new approach assumes that every person strives toward a distinct goal with a dedication and singleness of purpose.  Thus, in order to understand and guide children, we begin by identifying and understanding the goals toward which they strive.  We discover which goals are constructive and adaptive and which are destructive and maladaptive.  Then, we apply specific methods to correct the situation.  Adults need to understand what they can and cannot do with children in times of conflict.  Since external force is no longer effective, they have to learn approaches which encourage an inner motivation toward cooperation, effective functioning, respect for social order, and fulfillment of the requirements of social living.

One such specific technique is the use of natural and logical consequences as methods of discipline (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1964).  The constant use of rewards and punishments can be avoided if adults act so that children who misbehave experience the natural or logical consequences of their misbehavior.  These consequences should be discussed before their application so the children know what to expect when they decide to misbehave‑when they decide to violate the rules of social order.  The rule of thumb in a democratic social order is cooperate and contribute or experience the consequences of your decision. Each family can function more smoothly and efficiently if it establishes its own norms and then lets its members experience the consequences of their behavior.

Natural and logical consequences express the essence of the logic of respectful interpersonal relationships.  A mutual decision is made among different members of the family, and if anyone violates the terms of the agreement, that person experiences the consequences of the violation.  Practically every aspect of life represents some type of social contract.  The state provides certain things to its citizens and expects certain things in return.  If we misbehave by breaking the law, we may experience the consequences of our behavior either by paying a fine or by being imprisoned.  If we violate the contract of our employment, we may soon be looking for another job.  If we act with our friends in a way contrary to the unwritten social expectation of appropriate social ‑behavior, we may soon be looking for new friends.  Only absolute tyrants with unlimited power and authority can do what they wish, when they wish, to whom they wish.


Conflict Resolution

Our tradition has not prepared us to live with one another as social equals.  We often do not know how to resolve differences on the basis of mutual respect and social equality.  In any conflict situation, we generally see a choice between fighting, with the chance of winning, or yielding, with the certainty of losing.  As long as there are differences in interests, intentions, and goals, there will be conflicts.  It follows that the most crucial consideration is how we resolve these conflicts.  Differences and disagreements can no longer be settled by force as they once were.  The winner can no longer relax on the strength of victory because the loser is not willing to accept the winner's superiority and submit to it.  As a result, most solutions achieved by traditional forms of conflict resolution are unsatisfactory and the struggle continues indefinitely.

The democratic approach does not avoid conflicts, but attempts to solve them.  In an autocratic society, the person(s) with the most power made the decisions, and the others had to accept them.  But in a democratic society, this is impossible because no one accepts the other's superiority.  Fortunately, we can learn to solve conflicts, not avoid or fight over them, by seeking new mutual agreements. A mutual agreement is reached when everyone has gained something from the decision.  Effective democratic conflict resolution includes the following basic ingredients:

(1)   mutual respect;

(2)   identifying and focusing on the real issue;

(3)   reaching a mutually acceptable agreement;

(4)   mutual decision‑making and responsibility‑sharing (Dreikurs, Corsini, & Gould, 1975).


Family Constellation

In the process of family counseling, Adlerians rely on two important factors, incorporating the previous assumptions.  Family constellation information gives the counselor important insights into what each family member may be bringing to the family interactions.  Assessing family atmosphere will also help the counselor structure recommendations specifically to each situation.

Experiences in our family of origin‑our opportunities, obstacles, problems, goals, frustrations, achievements, are all significantly influenced by our birth order position.  Understanding these influences can assist us in formulating a more effective and efficient course in life and in helping others to do likewise.


Influence on Personality Development

Early experiences are some of the most important factors in the development of our personality or life style, which is our frame of reference for perceiving, and evaluating our world.  The family is our first social reality, a reality from which we interpret, perceive, conclude, and generalize to the rest of the world.  Thus, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes, acquired in our family of origin greatly influence our capacity for functioning in situations outside the family.

Behavior is viewed as an expression of the individual's creative movement, originating within the family unit.  This is in contrast to other viewpoints which attribute personality development strictly to hereditary or environmental factors.  The concept of family constellation directs the family counselor's attention to the individual's interpretations and resulting interactions with the world.  We each influence other members of our family as we are influenced by them.  Our own interpretations and resulting actions often stimulate others to treat us as we expect to be treated.

Each of us as children in a family also create, through trial and error, our own unique approaches in an effort to establish a place in the group.  All our strivings are directed toward feelings of belonging and security.  Consequently, we each train ourselves to develop attributes by which we hope to achieve significance and uniqueness within the family.



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