Family Sculpting: A Surprising Therapeutic Tool

Sometimes, in therapy, verbal communication fails and it becomes necessary to introduce visual elements that are capable of generating change. This is precisely the effect achieved by the technique of family sculpting.
Family Sculpting: A Surprising Therapeutic Tool
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

When dysfunctional relationship patterns are maintained within a family, change can be difficult. Indeed, it’s tricky for each family member to alter their particular perspective and achieve a broader view of what’s happening. Family sculpting is a technique that facilitates awareness and promotes change.

How many times, in the face of a family conflict, have you witnessed yourself attacking others yet have been unable to recognize your own responsibility ? This can happen to each and every one of us, but in a psychotherapy process, it’s important to break down that defensive barrier in some way. Sculpting opens our eyes to reality in a way that’s both effective and surprising.

Young man and his family in open dialogue therapy

Family sculpting

To put this technique into practice, the therapist asks one of the family members to be the sculptor. The others must allow themselves to be molded by them and adopt the positions that they indicate. As the sculpture unfolds, the therapist takes the position of both observer and commentator. They guide the sculptor with questions like:

  • Is this the position you want this person to have?
  • Where should their gaze be directed?
  • How much distance should there be between each member?
  • Should they be touching or holding hands?

Regarding the choice of the sculptor, it’s common to select the identified patient, since they’re the one who usually has a clearer vision of the family dynamics. The identified patient is the person who presents the main symptom for which help is requested. For example, someone who has an anxious or depressive disorder.

It’s assumed that this symptom is a mere indicator of dysfunction that encompasses the entire family as a system. In other words, it’s not solely due to a personal problem of the individual. On the other hand, it’s also possible to ask each member of the family to make their own sculpture, thus showing their own version of events.

Working with family sculpting

When the sculptor finishes their work, they’re asked to choose a position for themselves and the sculpture is complete. At this point, it can be used as a diagnostic element.

The therapist will invite each member to express how they feel in their position. They must always focus on describing the sensations that derive from their body posture, without analyzing what they signify. This means that the family doesn’t get tangled up in defensive arguments.

One family member might observe that the rigid posture in which they’re depicted causes them tension and discomfort. Another might notice that, from their position, they can’t see a certain family member. Another may feel isolated by being positioned at a greater distance from the rest.

Looking at their different perspectives often gives the therapist a clearer picture of what’s going on in the family. In fact, they’ll be able to occupy the place of each member in the sculpture so that they can observe the image from the outside.

Ultimately, family sculpting provides a spatial metaphor for family relationships and the emotional position of each person in the system. Through this position, affinities, rejections, and attitudes can be observed that provide the therapist with an outline of what’s not working and needs to be addressed.

figures of a family

Diagnosis and treatment

Family sculpting is a technique that can be used both as a diagnostic element and as a therapeutic technique. In other words, it helps the therapist become aware of the dysfunctional relationships and patterns that need to be addressed. In addition, a sculpture can be made that reflects the family ideal that each member wishes to achieve. This will help shape their objectives.

Sculpting is also used in couples therapy since it’s an exercise with the ability to surprise and motivate. With this technique, points can be discussed and places can be reached that, with mere verbal discussion, wouldn’t be recognized. It helps clients put themselves in their own skin and those of others with greater awareness. For this reason, it’s usually really useful in the therapeutic process.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Población, P., & Lopez Barberá, E. (1991). La escultura en terapia familiar. Revista Vínculos, (3).
  • Cibanal, L., Lineales, P. E., Lineales, P. D., Circulares, P. D., & Circulares, P. R. (2006). Introducción a la terapia familiar y sistémica.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.