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What Are the 4 Approaches to Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychology is a branch of the discipline of psychology whose practitioners attempt to understand, prevent and relieve psychological stresses or disorders. Clinical psychologists use scientific principles, specific theories and clinical knowledge to achieve their purposes of promoting psychological well-being. There are four fundamental approaches to clinical psychology: psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive behavioural and family.

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The psychodynamic approach to clinical psychology grew out of the work by Sigmund Freud and his work on psychoanalysis. The variations of psychoanalysis practised today -- self psychology, ego psychology and object relations theory -- are all called "psychodynamic psychology." Each aspect of psychodynamic approaches focuses on the effect of early childhood development on present psychological conditions, transference and defence mechanisms, and the role of the unconscious in current psychological states.


The humanistic approach to clinical psychology was begun by Carl Rogers in the 1950s as a reaction to psychodynamic theories. Humanistic theories suggest each person has built-in mechanisms that can help him or her to move past psychological problems and develop a strong personality. According to humanists, the role of the therapist is to bring out these built-in mechanisms by using such tools as congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathetic understanding.

Cognitive Behavioral

Cognitive behavioural approaches (CBT) to clinical psychology combine ideas developed by cognitive therapists and rational emotive behaviour therapists. The basic idea behind CBT is the way we feel, think and act are related, and that to understand a person's psychological issues, we have to understand how these three aspects interact within an individual. CBT therapists aim to identify the dysfunctional ways a person's interpretations of the world contribute to the person's psychological distress. Once identified, CBT therapists attempt to rid the interpretations by using such techniques as systematic desensitisation and Socratic questioning.


The family approach to clinical psychology identifies family relationships as the most important factor in psychological well-being. Because the focus of family therapies is on how one person's psychological issues affect the entire family, therapy sessions are held with all of the affected members of the family. The family therapist works to improve communication, point out negative behaviours and establish healthy family roles.

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About the Author

Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jordan Whitehouse has been writing on food and drink, small business, and community development since 2004. His work has appeared in a wide range of online and print publications across Canada, including Atlantic Business Magazine, The Grid and Halifax Magazine. Whitehouse studied English literature and psychology at Queen's University, and book and magazine publishing at Centennial College.

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