A family is much more than a group of individuals living together. It is an organized system that must operate cohesively for optimal functioning. Family members are similar to parts of machinery – if a single component develops a problem, the entire apparatus comes to a halt.
Problems within families are treated via family therapy. The latter is talk therapy, which helps identify problems and improve relationships among family members. Family therapy can also treat specific behavioral or mental health issues. The sessions can focus on a single family member or a combination of family members.
This article will introduce you to family therapy, how it works, what techniques are used, and how to find a family therapist for your loved ones.
What is Family Therapy?
A family unit comprises people of various ages and backgrounds who share one common trait – they intimately care about each other. Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy (talk therapy) designed to specifically treat issues that adversely affect the family’s or a loved one’s mental health and functioning.
Family therapy can target various combinations of loved ones within a family, such as parents/guardians, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, family friends, kinship caregivers, etc.
The primary goals of family therapy are to:
- Develop stronger relationships between loved ones
- Improve communication between family members
- Identify and manage conflicts within the system
- Foster changes in intimate relationships
- Create a more positive and inclusive home environment
- Highlight the unique issues an individual or family member might be facing
Family therapy is administered by trained and licensed mental health professionals. These include psychologists, therapists, or counselors with sufficient experience working with families, such as Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs).
Family Therapy vs. Family Counselling
The terms family therapy and family counseling are often used interchangeably. However, the latter is a broader term comprising various therapeutic techniques used by psychologists, social workers, and other health professionals to improve communication and remove conflicts between families facing challenges.
Issues Family Therapy Helps With
Family therapy can help deal with various issues within a family, such as:
- Communication problems
- Parenting difficulties
- Parent-child conflicts
- Grief, such as the death of a family member or a friend
- Marital problems, separation, and divorce
- Adjusting to a new medical condition or chronic illness
- Problems between siblings
- Age-related challenges (e.g., between caregivers and old family members)
- Sudden changes, such as unemployment or moving
Family Therapy for Mental Health or Behavioural Problems
Mental health professionals often use family therapy techniques to treat specific mental health and behavioural problems affecting children and young adults within the family unit, such as eating disorders, anxiety, drug abuse, etc. Besides one-on-one sessions with the concerned person, this approach can involve sessions with various family members to help them understand how to cope with their difficulties.
Types of Family Therapy
Types of family therapies vary according to the family’s particular needs, treatment goals, therapy length, and the techniques used. Moreover, many family therapy counsellors specialise in specific types of therapies. Therapists often combine elements of different approaches to administer the best therapeutic treatment possible.
Here are some types of family therapies:
- Functional Family Therapy (FFT)
Functional family therapy (FFT) is a comprehensive approach that helps achieve behavioural and cognitive changes in individuals and their families. This form of treatment helps clients recognise their unhealthy or disruptive behavioural patterns and teaches them how to improve their familial relationships by regulating that behaviour.
FFT is generally used to treat young adults involved in or exhibiting risky behaviour, substance abuse, delinquency, or violence. It helps these individuals and their families rebuild trust and respect for each other while looking for solutions.
Therapists administering FFT assess the family dynamics triggering the problematic behaviour, improve family communication, offer alternative parenting techniques, and encourage positive reinforcement for motivating recovery.
- Structural Family Therapy (SFT)
Structural family therapy focuses on the importance of individuals within their social environment. The primary goal of structural family therapy is to guide people within families to discover personalized alternatives to their problematic behaviours and patterns. It uses direct interactions among family members as the main way of bringing positive change.
Structural family therapy is based on the belief that instead of existing in isolation, individuals act and react in relation to their families, which is why the family is considered the motivation for fostering individual change. Structural family therapy therapists focus on treating inner relationships, dysfunctional hierarchies, poorly functioning subsystems, and inadequately established boundaries within a family.
On the whole, structural family therapy helps families understand that instead of blaming one individual as the ‘guilty party,’ problems are often the result of poor functioning within families and need to be resolved with everyone taking ownership of their behaviour.
- Strategic Family Therapy
Strategic family therapy focuses on establishing positive behavioural and structural changes within a family environment. Similar to structural behavioural therapy, strategic family therapy also believes that families play the most critical role in the development and life of children. It is used to guide families with behaviourally problematic children.
Unlike most therapeutic approaches based on the assumption that knowledge leads to change, strategic family therapy suggests that change occurs before understanding. This short-term family therapy implies that shifts in perception, an understanding of the family unit’s rules, and the family’s interactional patterns are essential to foster long-lasting changes.
- Systemic/Systematic Family Therapy
Structural and strategic family therapy are systemic or systematic family therapy fundamentals. This is because these therapies focus on the systemic processes involved in modifying family interactions that create or exacerbate problems.
Systemic family therapy aims to reflect on a family’s issues, taking into perspective the various contexts they live in. For instance, the therapist may consider how an individual in the family functions as a parent, a child, or a partner in an intimate relationship. Moreover, the therapist might consider religious, cultural, political, and socio-economic contexts.
After establishing how different contexts influence the individual’s behaviour, the therapist can use strategies to improve their emotional well-being and psychological development.
- Narrative Family Therapy
Narrative family therapy is currently said to be the leading type of modern family therapy. The narratives or stories we tell ourselves and others give our lives context. Similarly, developing and maintaining a self-defeating or harmful narrative about a family member can harm a well-functioning unit.
Narrative family therapy encourages non-blaming and respectful conversations between family members. It reinforces the idea that the clients have authority over their own lives and have the skills and capabilities required to develop more ‘positive’ narratives about themselves.
Narrative therapists help families reframe problems stemming from an internal deficit or problem with an individual, couple, or whole family. A technique known as circular questioning is generally used, where the therapist asks questions about relationships and interactions within the family unit and uncovers how family members perceive each other’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviours.
- Bowen Family Therapy
Bowen’s theory states that emotional cohesiveness or distance between family members can significantly impact everyone within the family unit. Bowen family therapy uses this belief to reframe familial multi-generational issues passed down between family members and charts their problematic behavioural and relational patterns for visual comprehension.
Moreover, Bowen family therapy aims to help all individuals within a family attain an optimal level of mental health that positively influences the whole family unit.
- Marriage Counselling/Couples Therapy
Marriage counselling/Couples therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on problems between spouses or romantic partners. This therapy is administered by specially trained Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs). The latter focuses on issues such as communication problems, finances, raising children, a partner’s mental health condition, and more.
Marriage counselling/Couples therapy helps individuals, partners, couples, and families resolve conflicts and improve their relationships. Sessions involve encouraging changes in behaviour to create a healing and therapeutic environment for everyone affected by the relationship, promoting self-examination, mobilizing family resilience, and improving overall functioning.
Therapists often use talk therapy and role-play during marriage counselling/couples therapy and may also give homework assignments to help couples work together.
Psychoeducation is a form of family therapy based on the psychodynamic approach. It stresses the importance of uncovering past experiences and relationships to understand present problems better.
Psychoeducation is generally used to help family members gain insight into mental health illnesses and challenging behavioural problems. Educating the family about medications, self-help methods, and treatment options can facilitate their functioning as a supportive and cohesive unit.
Techniques Used in Family Therapy
Various techniques are used to administer the types of family therapy types discussed in the previous section. What technique will be used generally depends on the therapist’s theoretical orientation and the family’s specific requirements.
Overall, these techniques focus on enhancing emotional awareness, coping with significant or sudden changes, and improving communication and collaboration between family members.
Some of the major techniques used in family therapy are:
- Behavioural techniques focusing on skills training and psychoeducation, such as modelling and role-playing, help family members tackle communication problems.
- Cognitive techniques focus on modifying how a family member or a unit perceives themselves by rationalizing thoughts and emotions.
- Psychodynamic techniques involve evaluating how every family member infers and responds to a problem, developing new emotional thought processes, and exploring new response methods.
- Structural techniques focus on reevaluating boundaries and hierarchies within a family and establishing routines to improve overall family functioning.
Does Family Therapy Work?
Family therapy involves acknowledging and expressing emotional issues and conflicts within a family unit. This can be extremely difficult and upsetting, and families might first feel worse before beginning to improve. In addition, talking about underlying mental health issues can be extremely difficult and embarrassing.
However, what’s crucial to remember is that these therapies are administered by trained, professional therapists who specialize in helping family members work through their problems and handle their emotions more sensibly.
Moreover, family therapy is usually short-term; however, depending on the issues and needs of the family, it can also last for a year or longer. Although most family therapies involve all family members, certain techniques might only focus on those who require the most help or are willing to participate.
So, trust the process, and if it doesn’t seem to work out for you or your family, seek some other form of therapy.
Finding a Family Therapist
As mentioned, a family therapist can be a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), a psychologist, a social worker, or a family counsellor. However, finding the right therapist can be daunting, especially if it is your first time seeking counselling.
You can ask friends, loved ones, or a healthcare professional to refer you to a therapist. You can also look for family therapists posted on local and state psychological associations online.
When selecting a therapist, always confirm that they are state-certified and licensed mental health professionals. Also, make sure they have the expertise to treat your specific issue. If you have any other questions or concerns, email or call the therapist’s office before booking an appointment.
Online Counselling Clinic: Where Family Comes First
Online Counselling Clinic understands how important the mental well-being of your family is to you. That’s why we’ve established an online platform that connects clients with highly qualified, skilled, and licensed family therapists who can provide productive solutions for familial problems from the comfort and privacy of your home.
Online Counselling Clinic uses e-therapy or internet therapy to connect with clients via video conferencing and messaging apps. This form of communication is especially beneficial for communities with limited access to mental health facilities and resources.
We are dedicated to eradicating the stigma of seeking mental health support and offer discreet and comfortable therapeutic options for individuals and families to discuss their problems.
Family therapy acknowledges that families are cohesive units rather than many individuals living together. It intends to resolve conflicts and improve relationships by disrupting unhealthy behavioural patterns and modifying communication styles. The end goal of family therapy is to promote positive changes within the family.
The different types of family therapies focus on how an individual’s beliefs, unhealthy behaviours, and sudden life challenges can contribute to family problems. The therapies aim to reduce disharmony within a family system by highlighting these factors.
Therapists use various techniques to disrupt existing dynamics and bring about positive changes that comply with all the family members’ beliefs, needs, and values.