When Virginia Satir was 5, she decided to be a "children detective on parents" when she grew up. "I didn't quite know what it was I would look for, but even then I realized that there was a lot going on in families that didn't meet the eye."

Now, nearly 60 years later, Satir is one of the most respected and renowned therapists in the country. The first training director at Esalen and a pioneer of the "human potential" movement, she is credited by some with the creation of family therapy -- once considered a radical approach and now a highly-respected method of treating troubled families and making good families better.

Satir -- who was in Washington to conduct a workshop for the National Association of Social Workers -- received praise and nearadulation from the 300 or so area thearapists who came, as one woman put it, "just to be near her."

"What we used to do when a family had problems," Satir reminded her audience, "was to pluck out the bad person, fix him up, put him back and, lo and behold, he'd fall on his face again."

That approach fails, she says, "for the same reason a wart doesn't grow by itself. The whole system is involved. Technologists never sat around and blamed pieces. They try to see how everything fits together.

"The family is a life factory where nothing happens by itself. There could be no family without the participation of all involved. Everyone responds to everyone else -- although much of what goes on is beneath our level of awareness."

A common example of this "below-the-surface" interaction is something Satir calls "a traingular message:

"You have your hand in the cookie jar, your mother yells at your father yells at your mother, the baby cries and the dog barks. You may think all that happens because you have your hand in the cookie jar.

"Everyone in the system learned something, but no one knew what they learned. Family life is something like an iceberg. Most people are aware of only about one-tenth of what is actually going on."

It's the family therapist's goal, says Satir, to help people become aware of the hidden messages, "help everyone get in touch with their life force, and feel good and excited about their life.

"What I try to produce in a family is the feeling that "This is a juicy place to be, here people can let their life out.'" This is impossible, says Satir -- who's been divorced about 20 years and has two adopted daughters -- "if the family has unhealthy attitudes, such as thinking just because a couple got married they have to stay together no matter what."

Satir, who now lives in Menlo Park, Calif., began her career as a teacher. She was a school principal at age 20, and moved from her home in Wisconsin six years later to earn a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago.

She traces the idea for family theapy back to 1951, when she opened her first social work practice. "A social worker going into private practice back then," she says, "was practically scandalous.

"So the only people I could get as patients were the people no one else wanted -- people who'd been to four or five therapists already, people I practically picked up in the gutter.

"I had one beautiful young woman diagnosed with ambulatory schizophrenia -- which means she could walk around but was severely disturbed. I'm a very good observer, so I used my eyes and ears, and in six months she changed very much for the better.

"Then I got a call from her mother -- in those days all family members were seen as the enemy -- and she threatened to sue me for alienation of affection. Underneath her anger I heard a plea. So I asked her to come in, and, to my surprise, she agreed."

Satir began the session with just the girl, who was remarkably improved. "But within five minutes after the mother came in," she recalls, "the gril went right back to how she was when she first came. I thought, 'Hey, I'm on to something here.'"

After about six months of working with both women, Satir says, "I decided to ask the father to come in. When he came in the mother and daughter collapsed. So we had to wade through all that again."

Next she invited the remaining family member, "a son who was perfect," she recalls, "which is how things often develop in families -- all the craziness gets dumped on one member."

Her success with that family led Satir to invite family members of other patients to the therapy sessions. Soon she was only working with entire families. In 30 years of practice, she's seen thousands of families -- both individually and in large groups -- and claims to have treated "every imaginable human thing there is."

The four deonomiators of family life that Satir says show up repeatedly in the troubled familes that seek her help: feelings of self-worth, communication, the system of rules, and the family's link to society.

"No matter what kind of problem first led a family into my office," she says, "whether a nagging wife or a delinquent son, I soon found that the prescription was the same. To relieve their family pain, some way had to be found to change those four key factors."

One of her best techniques, says Satir, is to "bring people's attention whenever possible, to the fact they have made a choice. Even if the choice is therapy or jail, it's still a choice. When you choose, you give yourself a message that you count."

Knowing that you count is Satir's basic message.

"If I had to pick the one major problem families today face," she says, "I'd start by looking at self-worth. So many people today feel isolated and alone and can't see that their life could be anything but terrible.

"We have been a society that's oriented toward how things are bad or wrong. Look at what the media picks to report -- who's been tortured, what's terrible today. But all they're doing is picking up what people want to pay attention to.

"I'd like people to start having an appreciation of themselves. That doesn't mean showing off -- feeling good about yourself isn't the same as saying I'm better than you -- it means being enthusiastic about life."

This focus on the positive is reflected in how she describes family therapy: "a growth form," she says, "as opposed to a pathology form."

Just as new approaches in medicine focus on "wellness" rather than "sickness," Satir avoids labeling a problematic situation as "pathological." The family "merely has a barrier around which people can't go in their growth."

About today's family in transition, Satir says, "We no longer believe that children should be seen and not heard, women should be in bondage and men should do all the work and die young.

"We're seeing the family take new forms -- single parent, extended, blended (usually people who have children, divorce and remarry). Any form can be healthy -- as long as the family has a healthy attitude about dealing with each other and themselves."