Family Therapy Techniques: How Family Counseling Works

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

What is Family Therapy?

Family therapy is a type of systemic therapy that works to improve stress or other distress by strengthening interaction between family members. It is often characterized as strength based treatment because it aims to adjust problems or patterns rather than to treat the problems as residing inside a person.

Counseling Can Help Create A Stronger Family Bond
Get Matched with a Licensed Family Counselor Today!


Family therapy is less about having everyone in the same room and more about the methods used to fix problems within your unit. Your therapist may choose to have you all together, or in some cases, they may alternate between speaking to the parties involved.

For example, if therapy is sought after as a result of a child misbehaving at school, the therapist may choose to have everyone present at the first session, and then speak only to the child or parents following that. The idea is to make small changes and adjustments to remedy negative emotions or activities.

There are several different marriage and family therapy programs and each one has its own characteristics that make it right for each person.

Bowenian Therapy

If you are the kind of person that isn't comfortable with allowing others in the room with you while therapy is in session, the Bowenian approach might be the right one for you. This form of therapy focuses on two areas: triangulation and differentiation.

Triangulation involves the tendencies we have to involve a third party when something is going wrong in our lives. We feel better when someone else takes our side. Although this momentarily aleves anxiety, it is usually not a healthy response to a disagreement because it alienates the other person. If you are a person that struggles with triangulation, you might do this as a way to divert anxiety or conflict.

For example, when you get into an argument with a close friend or family member, you may call a parent or close friend to vent about the issue and ask for help. The third person helps you to calm yourself and gives you tips on how to resolve the issue.

Family therapy will aim to place the therapist in the place of the third party, but instead of suggesting things that you can do to resolve the problem, he or she will instead encourage you and your family member or members to find ways to manage your own anxiety and to find your own resolutions internally and in a healthy way.


Differentiation is something that your therapist will help you to work on internally as well. Many people who seek out family therapy are struggling with issues that are brought on by how they see the world. They may be exhibiting explosive emotional behavior as a result of this and are not sure how to handle their feelings or views.

The goal of differentiation is to free oneself from these struggles. It is the process of learning how to form your own opinions and live your life in a way that is free from the negative influences of your family. There is also emphasis placed on doing this in a way that allows you to continue with healthy and strong relationships with your family members as well.

Once you have mastered this method, you will be able to better handle family issues, recognize your role in the problem and use this knowledge to react differently in the future.

Structural Family Therapy

One of the other types of family therapy is called Structural Family Therapy. This approach is a good option for those whose problems can be resolved by reorganizing how roles and power are distributed among your family unit.

This form of therapy is most commonly used in situations where a child is involved. The therapist will begin by drawing a chart of your family, and noting how the relationships are between each of you. Once positions of power are identified, your therapist can identify what changes need to be made in order to fix the problems that you are experiencing.

In order to successfully treat a child, the full cooperation of the parents and other members of the family is always required. This method of therapy was developed based on the belief that the root of many childhood problems comes not from the child himself, but from issues within the family unit that go unsolved.

The idea of structural family therapy is to restructure the family once issues are identified. Your therapist could have you participate in role-plays, acting out problematic situations that occurred in the months or weeks prior to your session. At times, the therapist may appear to be taking sides. This is a method used in an effort to break up negative patterns and to promote a more healthy family dynamic.

Counseling Can Help Create A Stronger Family Bond
Get Matched with a Licensed Family Counselor Today!


Additionally, problems within a family could come from an uneven amount of power, such as a father making all of the decisions and excluding the mother, or it could even come from a child having the power in the family. No matter which issue you are facing, your therapist will get involved and help you to restructure your family life.

It is all about balance in this school of thought. You want everyone to feel comfortable where the power lies and it must be distributed appropriately in order to maintain a healthy and happy balance within the unit.

Strategic Family Therapy

Strategic family therapy is perfect for families that want a quick approach to solving their problems in a short period of time. This therapy works by using specific methods that are tailored specifically toward the problems that you and your family are struggling with.

If you see a therapist that practices strategic family therapy, you may find this person to be more like a coach or a referee than a licensed professional. The premise of this type of therapy does not concern itself with where you have been or what you have gone through. The goal is to figure out where you are now and make a plan to address and solve the problem quickly and efficiently.

Your treatment plan will begin by identifying problems that can be fixed. You will then move on to setting goals and your therapist will work out pathways for you to be able to reach those goals. Once you get to this point, your therapist will observe the response you and your family shows to meeting these goals, and finally it will be time to observe the outcome of the therapy as a whole.

Your therapist will be highly involved and hands on in your treatment. They should remain actively interested in your well-being and will do all they can to make sure the outcome you get from therapy is a long lasting and positive one.

The best thing about strategic family therapy is how personal and tailored it is exactly to your family. You can rest in confidence that if you trust the process you will come out the other side better than ever!


Systemic Family Therapy

Systemic Family Therapy or Family Systems Therapy is different from the other popular forms in the sense that it classifies family problems as coming from the subconscious of the family rather than the purposeful actions that are being taken.

The main concept behind this form of therapy is that conflict within the family comes from interlocked issues that are beneath the surface. This is to say that we have connections and conflicts that happen on a subconscious level that could be causing many of the family issues that we experience.

Unlike Structural Family Therapy, Systemic Family Therapy does not believe power can belong to one person or a group of people within the family unit. According to this discipline, the power lies in the unconscious "game" that each family member takes part in. The idea is that this "game" perpetuates problems and does so without making itself known to the people participating.

If you choose to engage in systemic family therapy, your counselor or therapist will help you to unravel and uncover the subconscious issues and bring them out into the open. He or she will help you to understand the cycles or rituals (I.E. "games") that you are participating in. Once you bring the problems to the surface, they are more easily dealt with.

One of the things that attract so many people to Systemic Family Therapy is its way of offering a new and fresh perspective to the issues that many families are experiencing. If you have tried just about every other form of therapy to no avail, this method may be just the right thing for you.


Previous Article

8 Common Family Issues and How to Solve Them

Next Article

6 Ways To Thrive As A Blended Family
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Counselor Today
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.