A Guide to Family Therapy
Family bonds are rich, complex, profound–and often painful. Family members can both build us up and break us down. But in its ideal state, a family is the crucible in which we can become our truest, strongest selves. We all want happy families. Ones that support us and help us grow. Ones that allow us to feel safe even when we’re vulnerable. Ones that feel like home.
But that emotional harmony isn’t always easy to achieve. Sometimes it takes hard work, real communication, and an ability to see problems from different perspectives. These aren’t skills that everyone develops naturally. But family therapists are trained to impart this knowledge to loved ones who are having issues connecting. If you need help reinforcing your family bonds, the licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) at Thriveworks are here for you–for all of you.
What Is Family Therapy?
Family therapy and family counseling services are forms of psychotherapy that seek to help families improve communication, resolve conflicts, and ultimately strengthen their relationships. Family therapy is led by qualified mental health professionals, such as psychologists, licensed professional counselors (LPCs), or licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) who have extensive training in family therapy. They may be credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
Family therapy is usually short-term and solution-focused, with most families accomplishing their goals in 12 sessions or fewer. But therapy can be more long-term, too.
Family therapy sessions typically involve all of the relevant family members, but individuals may also work with the therapist in one-on-one sessions. A treatment plan will be designed around each family’s unique profile, issues, and objectives.
What Are the Benefits of Family Therapy? What Does Family Counseling Do?
Families can reap numerous benefits from family therapy, some of them very specific to their unique situation, and others more general. For example, some common benefits of family therapy include the following:
- Improvements in communication
- Conflict resolution
- Mutual trust
- Healthy coping skills and resilience
- Enhanced empathy/compassion
Improving your relationships with your loved ones can lead to improvements in other areas of your life. Happy, fulfilled relationships help form a secure foundation for your overall wellbeing.
What Are the Goals of Family Therapy?
Family members may arrive for therapy with diverse goals relating to specific issues or to general functioning. A family counselor will want to discuss everyone’s therapy goals in depth before developing a treatment plan. Some common goals include the following:
- To heal or reconcile
- To improve rapport
- To solve immediate problems
- To improve the group’s long-term problem-solving skills
- To reduce conflict and tension in the household
- To forgive, or ask for forgiveness
- To establish healthy boundaries
- To get over a specific hurdle
- To manage anger
- To build or rebuild trust
- To explore misunderstandings
- To prevent future conflict
- To find individual support
- To diagnose and improve maladaptive family styles
What Are the Indications for Family Therapy?
There’s no objective answer to the question of who should pursue family therapy and why. A mental health professional would argue that any family, even the most harmonious one, can benefit from family therapy. A family doesn’t need to be in crisis to develop communication skills that will endure for life, potentially applying to all intimate relationships, not just family bonds. That being said, it’s often an acute problem that first brings family members to therapy. The following issues are common causes for disequilibrium and discord within family dynamics:
- Frequent misunderstandings
- Poor communication
- Grief and loss
- Difficulty resolving conflict
- Roles and boundaries
- Behavioral problems in children
- Significant stress
- Disagreements in parenting
- Substance abuse and addiction
- Mental health disorders like depression or anxiety
- Financial stress
- Life transitions
- Marital conflict
- LGBTQ+ issues
- Frequent conflicts and tension
- Emotional or verbal abuse
- Blended family issues
- Illness and its effects on the family
- Eating disorders
- Neurodiverse children issues
- Unhealthy or inconsistent parenting styles
- Parent-child conflict
- Sibling conflict
- Adjustment issues
- Difficulty expressing emotions
Sometimes specific issues can be symptoms of broader relationship dynamics at play. For example, children can sometimes act out in response to parental tension. A skilled family counselor has the emotional insight to uncover the ultimate origins of conflicts and help guide family members toward practical solutions.
What Are the Stages of Family Therapy?
Some family therapists design treatment plans along sequential stages, but this is by no means a universal rule. Therapy sessions are never one-size-fits-all. But a therapist may decide to organize the course of treatment into loose stages. In the initial or preparation/planning stage, a therapist might do the following:
- Define the problem
- Assess the family and make a hypothesis
- Formulate goals
- Develop a treatment plan
- Seek mutual acceptance
- Make a formal contract
After this first stage, the therapist and family members can move into a transition stage or middle phase, where they begin to do the hard work of therapy. Finally, the family and therapist will reach the termination phase, where the family has the confidence to handle problems on their own.
What Are the Types of Family Therapy?
There are numerous treatment approaches that family therapists can use depending on the family’s needs and goals. The following therapy modalities are well known for their successful outcomes:
- Family systems therapy, which helps family members work together to understand the family dynamic as well as how each individual contributes to or affects the family unit as a whole.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. which can have a direct effect on the health of one’s relationships.
- Supportive family therapy, which helps families express their feelings and have open conversations about problems in the family unit. This relies on safe, supportive relationships between family members, each other, and their counselor.
- Structural family therapy, which focuses on family organization and interaction patterns.
- Solution-focused brief therapy, which focuses on the future, rather than the past, and on goals that family members want to accomplish.
There are other forms of therapy that may be incorporated into family therapy, like psychodynamic therapy (based around unconscious processes) and couples therapy. If you and your family decide to pursue family counseling, your family therapist will first get to know your family. Then, they can design a treatment plan with your specific needs in mind.
What Are Some Family Therapy Techniques and Interventions?
A counselor can pull from a variety of family therapy approaches to personalize a treatment plan. Psychodynamic, behavioral, structural, and strategic interventions can all work effectively on their own or in tandem. In addition, family therapists can tailor games and techniques to families with different age ranges and abilities. For example, they may employ any of the following exercises in family therapy sessions:
- Miracle question, where everyone reveals their fundamental needs through a wish
- Genogram, where you map extra information in a family tree
- Scavenger hunt, where you collect meaningful objects that reveal what matters to you
- Family gift, where you use gifts to provoke discussion
- Mirroring activity, where you learn to work together and have compassion for each other
- Emotions ball, where you describe emotions using a ball game
What Is the Role of the Counselor in Family Therapy?
In family therapy, a counselor or therapist acts as a wise, compassionate facilitator of successful communication. First, they establish rapport with the family members and between the family and themselves. Then they use that rapport to discuss any conflicts and existing strategies for dealing with those conflicts. They can help clarify conflicts and misunderstandings, help each party understand the others’ perspectives, and bring about resolution.
This process might seem simple, but it can be fraught with tension and difficulty. It requires a skillful guide to navigate sensitive issues effectively. And the therapist will probably need to put on different hats and act in different roles throughout the process. For example, at various times during the therapy sessions they may need to be the following:
- A challenger
- An activator
- An interpreter
- An educator
- A parent figure
- A controller of danger