Often, healthy family dynamics can be essential to the health of the individuals within the unit, and structural family therapy can be an effective way to address and improve any dysfunctional patterns that may be present. They may work toward common goals and enjoy leisure time together. However, being a part of a family may come with challenges for some. Individual concerns could meld together and cause family dysfunction. In these cases, families might consider mental health service interventions like family therapy, a type of therapy centered around the relational dynamics of members of a family. Knowing when you might benefit from family therapy, the overall benefits of family counseling and how to find a therapist for your family could be valuable.
What Is A Family?
Years ago, society considered a family to consist of a married couple and their children or all the descendants of an older adult or ancestor. Today, the standard definition of a family system, including the principles of Bowen Family Systems Therapy, is more inclusive. A family may be seen as a basic social unit. This unit might include a single adult and their children, an unmarried couple and their children, a same-sex couple and their children, or any group of adults and the children they care for. It could also include distant relatives, adoptive parents, biological parents, foster parents, and many other caregivers and relatives. Some people may have a chosen family, a group of unrelated individuals who they feel safe with. The way you were raised by your family of origin will have a considerable impact on your development.
At times, a family lives together under the same roof. They may also live apart but be closely related. Separated parents may live apart but have custody of their child. In that case, the child may be considered a part of each parent's family. Family therapy for such a family may include both adults if they are using whether co-parenting or parallel parenting.
Signs You Might Benefit From Family Therapy
Families that have struggled to develop healthy behaviors and communication patterns may experience conflict in the face of adversity. Additionally, families who have previously had healthy dynamics may struggle if life stress or loss such as divorce or death of a family occurs. If you see any of the following concerns within your family, you may benefit from family therapy.
Children's Behavioral Problems
If a child is misbehaving, there might be dysfunction in the family. Unhealthy family dynamics or adverse childhood experiences may be the cause, or the family may feel stressed and unsure of how to care for their child. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the family dynamic “influences the individual and therefore may need to be a part of the treatment plan”. Addressing the child's behavior and finding a resolution may prove rewarding.
Child and teen behavioral concerns may include:
- Acting out at school
- Failing at school
- Skipping school
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Trouble with making friends
- Bullying or being bullied
- Substance use
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Adult Relationship Or Marriage Struggles
When adult relationships are troubled, the entire family may experience difficulties. For example, studies have found that divorce can be challenging for children of all ages to cope with and understand.
Perhaps you face difficulty in resolving conflicts within your partnership. If you don't communicate with your partner, other family may have communication issues. Intimacy concerns or financial problems within a marriage may cause concerns for everyone within the family unit.
Couples therapy could allow you to renegotiate the relationship to decrease family conflict or marital problems while improving family functioning when these types of difficulties are present in a marriage.
Conflict Between Caregivers And Children
Parents and children may sometimes experience conflict, disagreement, or behavioral concerns. Who causes this discord may not be at the root of solving it. Instead, a therapist may help both the parent and child work together to come to a resolution.
Common parent-child dysfunctions include:
- Favoritism toward one child
- Being strict or permissive
- Sheltering children
- Expecting a child to take on adult responsibilities
- Inconsistent discipline
- A lack of communication
- Not providing emotional support or nurturing
- Unrealistic expectations
- Disrespecting children or adolescents
Sibling rivalry can be common in some families. However, it can also be a form of bullying or family conflict. When children compete against each other for parental attention or success, they may be causing each other emotional hurt. They may learn that competition and antisocial behavior is the only way to succeed.
When a family lives together, they may face life challenges such as:
- The death of a loved one or family pet
- Financial challenges such as low income, debt, or foreclosures
- Natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes
- Criminal attacks such as a break-in in the family home, home invasion, or assault
- Social conflicts with friends, neighbors, or extended family
How Does Family Therapy Work?
Family therapy is typically administered by mental health professionals—typically, therapists who have a specialty in marriage and family therapy. According to the American Association of Marriage And Family Therapy, family therapy typically lasts 12 sessions, though the duration will typically depend on the family, the mental health professional, and the challenges being addressed. Families might feel apprehensive about their first family systems therapy session as they might not fully understand the mechanisms of family psychotherapy. During the first family therapy session, the therapist may explain the family therapy process and their approach to treatment. Often, the family attending therapy will consist of those impacted by the concern, often within the immediate family unit.
In later family therapy sessions, counselors, having gathered significant initial information, may focus on the most severe concerns in communication and family functioning. They could spend more time with the families experiencing distressing symptoms or individuals in the best position to make changes for the better through new communication skills, perspectives, or coping skills. They might make suggestions for improving communication, focus on defining family roles, or unpacking emotional problems.
Licensed marriage and family therapists may also assign homework to complete between family therapy sessions to help resolve conflicts. The homework may be education on a new behavior to practice, a journal-writing topic, or a request to develop solutions to a problem.
How many sessions you or your other families may be recommended will depend on a number of factors, such as the presence of any mental health problems, the strength of ingrained behavior patterns, and whether grief is a part of the family dynamic.
You may choose to go to a family therapist who practices in your city or work within the community mental health system for some family counseling services. Additionally, you could ask your primary care doctor if they can make a referral. You can also search for therapists through the American Association of Marriage And Family Therapy’s Therapist Locator tool. Before you choose a family counselor, give them a summary of your concerns and ask them if they are available for support.
While some families may choose to participate in therapy together, other families may not have the cooperation of all family members. Or some individuals might experience family problems or challenging childhood events but hope to resolve them without another family member present. In these cases, individual therapy can be an option for working through troubled relationships. You can choose to attend individual counseling online or in person. Online child and family counseling or therapy can be attended on a smart device like a laptop or phone, and clients can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with their licensed therapist.
Online couples therapy or parent counseling can also be beneficial for discussing family concerns related to marriage or couple conflicts. A recent study suggests that couples who work with online marriage and family therapists find the format conducive to their feelings in a way that leaves them feeling less judged than in an in-person setting. Participants felt that video-based therapy allowed them to focus more intently on the experiential therapeutic process and offered a more meaningful sense of control and comfort than traditional face-to-face therapy.
The cost of online therapy is typically similar to that of traditional in-person therapy. If covered under your health insurance plan or an employee assistance program, you will pay the same as you would for other types of mental health care. However, if therapy is not covered by your insurance or employee assistance, online therapy may save you money, as sessions usually cost less due to lower overhead costs. This may make it a good fit for those who have to pay out of pocket.
“Ms. Pamela is a kind and genuine active listener. She has provided activities and worksheets that have helped my family and I tremendously with our daily lives. We are so grateful for the help. I look forward to my sessions with Pamela every week!”
“I met with Debra to find a way to resolve a family conflict. I was new to counseling and was hesitant to reach out for help. Debra was a compassionate listener who immediately made me feel comfortable. I have found a new confidence in setting boundaries in other areas of my life as well.”
Frequently Asked Questions
For examples of questions that might be beneficial to explore in therapy, please see below.
What is the difference between family therapy and counseling?
What are the goals of family therapy?
Why do parents need counseling?
How do I prepare for family counseling?
What is the most significant goal of family therapy?
Who needs counseling?
What are the 5 stages of family therapy?
What happens in a family therapy session?
What is the most popular family therapy?
What is family therapy and types?
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