Everything You Need to Know
Family bonds are rich, complex, profound – and frequently 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 best and truest selves.
We all want happy families. Ones that support us and help us grow. Ones that provide security even when we’re feeling vulnerable. Ones that feel like home. But that harmony isn’t always easy to achieve. Sometimes it takes hard work, thoughtful communication, and an ability to see problems from different perspectives. These aren’t skills that everyone just develops naturally. Sometimes you have to make the intentional decision to do better.
That’s when family therapy can help. Licensed family therapists at Thriveworks are trained to guide loved ones who are having issues connecting with each other. Our specialized therapists have a pretty good idea of what makes a happy family, and they can share their knowledge through safe, nonjudgmental counseling sessions. If you need expert help reinforcing your family bonds, the licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) at Thriveworks are here for you – for all of you. You can read more about how the process works in the sections below.
What Is Family Therapy?
Family therapy and family counseling services are forms of talk therapy that seek to help families improve communication, resolve conflicts, and ultimately strengthen their relationships. Family therapy is led by qualified mental health professionals like psychologists, licensed professional counselors (LPCs), and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) who have extensive training in family dynamics and group communication. They’re often 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. Who attends family therapy at Thriveworks? Sessions typically involve all of the relevant family members, whether they be parents and children, grandfathers and aunts, adopted siblings, in-laws, or any group of people with close-knit relationships. There’s no need to share a bloodline – you may choose the family you bring to therapy.
Thriveworks therapists design treatment plans around each family’s unique profile, issues, and objectives. Some family therapy sessions might be straightforward talk therapy, where everyone takes turns speaking and listening within a supportive framework. Other sessions might include games or exercises to help break the ice or gain insights in fun ways.
What Does Family Therapy Do?
What are the benefits of family therapy at Thriveworks? Family members usually find enormous value in working through their issues alongside a qualified mental health professional. Why? An objective third party can often point out blind spots and help loved ones identify the ultimate source of their challenges. But family therapists don’t just observe problems; they also assist in finding solutions.
Some of the rewards of family therapy are unique to specific situations, and others are more general. For example, some common benefits of family therapy at Thriveworks include the following:
- Improved communication skills
- Reduced conflict
- Less stress and dysfunction
- Improved behaviors
- Healthier boundaries
- Improved coping skills and resilience
- Growth of empathy and compassion
Improving your relationships with your loved ones can also lead to improvements in other areas of functioning. Meaningful, secure relationships tend to enhance a person’s overall well-being. And learning how to love and be loved is a lesson you can carry with you throughout your life.
What Are the 3 Goals of Family Therapy?
People seek professional relationship support for a wide variety of reasons. In fact, a Thriveworks family therapist usually begins treatment by asking what everyone’s goals are. Client objectives might range from “I want my big sister to include me in her playdates” to “I want to forgive my dad for leaving us when he was addicted to drugs.” Family members may need help with very specific issues, or with general functioning. But there are three main purposes to family therapy:
- To educate. A family therapist can answer questions like the following: What is a mental health issue? How might it be affecting other family members? What are normal ways someone might react to trauma? What is secure attachment and how can it be achieved? What are healthy boundaries? What is active listening?
- To counsel. A family therapist uses different therapy interventions to help clients validate and support each other.
- To strengthen. A family therapist helps clients develop deeper bonds, better communication skills, inner resilience, and coping strategies that they need to manage family stressors.
And that’s family therapy in broad strokes! But in practice, people often come to family therapy with specific goals like the following:
- To heal or reconcile
- To reduce conflict and tension
- To solve immediate problems or get over a specific hurdle
- To improve long-term problem-solving skills
- To forgive, or ask for forgiveness
- To establish healthy boundaries
- To manage anger
- To build or rebuild trust
- To explore misunderstandings
- To prevent future conflict
- To find individual support
- To understand and manage a mental health issue within the family
- To feel loved and appreciated
- To spend more time together
- To take on more or less responsibility
- To work through grief or trauma
- To handle a major family transition like a divorce
- To diagnose and improve maladaptive family dynamics
Does Family Therapy Really Work?
Reviews of the literature show that family therapy can effectively treat a wide variety of child-focused issues and adult-focused issues within families, such as eating disorders, depression, conduct problems, relationship distress, and more.
Can family therapy make things worse? When you work with a family therapist, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable or emotionally exposed at times. These raw feelings can be a normal part of the process. After all, the first step toward change often involves confronting authentic emotions. A great family therapist will earn your trust from the beginning, so family members know that their therapist will work to heal any wounds that are opened during therapy.
What are the disadvantages of family therapy? Family therapy can sometimes bring up negative feelings which take time to process. It may help to establish a support system outside of your family before you begin sessions. Then, if you’re in distress and need to talk through your emotions, you can lean on your friends or your romantic partner. You might also arrange your schedule so you do something restorative for yourself after meeting with your therapist.
What Are the Indications for Family Therapy?
There’s no objective answer to the question of who should pursue family therapy and why. A passionate 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 dysfunction within intimate relationships:
- Frequent misunderstandings and tension
- Poor communication
- Grief and loss
- Difficulty resolving conflict
- Roles and boundaries
- Lies and/or secrets
- Behavioral problems or mental health issues 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
- Emotional or verbal abuse
- Blended family issues
- Chronic illness
- Eating disorders
- Neurodiversity issues
- Unhealthy or inconsistent parenting styles
- Parent-child conflict
- Sibling conflict
- Adjustment issues
- Difficulty expressing emotions
Sometimes particular issues can be symptoms of larger 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 discover the roots of problems and help guide family members toward practical solutions.
If you encounter resistance in getting your loved ones to participate in family therapy, that is okay. You can still meet with a family therapist one-on-one to discuss skills that you can bring into your family system.
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. Thriveworks therapy sessions are never one-size-fits-all. But a trained therapist may organize the course of treatment into loose stages. For example, in the initial or preparation/planning stage, a therapist might:
- 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 might 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 Therapy Is Best for Families?
The best therapy for families is responsive to a family’s needs. Family therapy has been described as an art as well as a science. It happens in a natural environment where skilled therapists often integrate a wide variety of counseling techniques. So there’s no single intervention that can be applied in the same way for each family, resulting in the same outcome every time. Family therapy is about complex relationships, not formulas.
What Are the Types of Family Therapy?
Family therapists can use numerous treatment approaches depending on their clients’ needs and goals. The following theories and modalities may inform how a therapist thinks about family relationships:
- Family systems therapy (aka systemic therapy, Milan therapy, and Milan systemic family therapy)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Attachment theory
- Play therapy
- Supportive family therapy
- Social constructionism
- Structural family therapy (developed by Salvador Minuchin)
- Behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Solution-focused brief therapy
- Bowenian therapy
- Strategic therapy
- Narrative therapy
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Functional family therapy
- Intergenerational therapy
Individual therapy and marriage counseling/couples therapy can also supplement family therapy.
What Are Some Family Therapy Techniques and Interventions?
A family counselor often pulls from a variety of therapeutic approaches to personalize a treatment plan. Psychodynamic, behavioral, structural, and strategic interventions can all complement each other in various ways, leading to the best results for unique families. Family therapists can also tailor games and techniques to groups with different age ranges, interests, and abilities. For example, a counselor 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
- “I” statements, where you focus on your own experience when you speak
- Role playing, where you practice new skills and ways of interacting
- Family therapy map, where you make a visual representation of your family
- Problem-free talk, when you open up about positive things in your life
What Is the Role of a Family Counselor?
In family therapy, a great counselor or therapist acts as a wise, compassionate facilitator of successful communication. What is the difference between a family therapist and a counselor? A therapist might technically be a psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), while a counselor might be a licensed professional counselor (LPC), but the terms are often used interchangeably.
Family counseling requires a great deal of expertise. First, a therapist must personally connect with the family. Then they leverage that rapport to help their clients confront existing challenges and discuss what strategies work and don’t work. Through the course of therapy, they can help clarify conflicts and misunderstandings, help each party understand the others’ perspectives, and bring about resolution. And so much more.
But the path to enlightenment isn’t always easy. Families often require a skillful guide to navigate their sensitive issues to everyone’s satisfaction. And during this complex evolution, a family therapist will probably need to wear different hats and act in different roles. For example, at various times during the therapy sessions they may need to be the following for their clients:
- A challenger
- A coach
- An activator
- An interpreter
- A neutral party
- An educator
- A parent figure
- A controller of danger
A therapist’s role frequently needs to change in response to relational dynamics. So it’s vital to find a mental health professional who can read between the lines, who can hear what’s not being said as well as what’s being said, and who is truly driven to help and strengthen families. Because families are often foundational to how we become the best versions of ourselves.