Family Therapy

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article on family therapy might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Deciding whether to attend family therapy can be challenging. Many families may feel that attending family therapy sessions is only an option for those experiencing mental health conditions or families who have exhausted the rest of their options. However, family therapy can be for any family and family member, regardless of diagnostic status, concerns, or relationship with each other. With a family therapist, parents, children, caregivers, and other family relatives can receive guidance from a licensed professional, such as marriage and family therapists, who treat mental and emotional disorders within the family system.

It isn't always easy to reach out for help when we need it

What is family therapy? 

Family therapy is a type of counseling focused on strained relationships between relatives. The goals of family therapy could be to resolve conflicts, improve communication, or strengthen relationships. Families might attend family therapy for various reasons, including the following: 

  • A child experiencing mental illness or a mental health condition
  • Parents going through divorce hoping to support their children's emotional needs
  • Parents having conflict impacting their children 
  • Sibling rivalry 
  • Extended family conflict
  • In-law conflict 
  • Family planning concerns 
  • Infertility concerns 
  • Polyamorous polycule therapy 
  • A child experiencing bullying or school issues 
  • Adoption or foster care support 
  • Adult children of parents hoping to discuss conflicts 

Family systems therapy can be tailored to many families and support each individual, as well as the group as a whole. The American Psychological Association (APA) has found that about half of marriages end in divorce, which can be a common topic in family therapy. In addition, divorce is a cause of childhood post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some children, so addressing it early on in family therapy can be beneficial in minimizing behavioral problems, emotional problems, and other mental health conditions.

Family therapy aims to provide counseling programs and education to drive conversations that are catalysts to improving and strengthening the connections between individuals and their families. It can also focus on helping members understand mental health conditions that may be affecting the way individual family members interact and the entire family dynamic. The number of therapy services and how many sessions required can vary by the family's preferences and the severity of their concerns. The number of relatives involved may not be as essential as considering the perspective and the framework behind sessions. Marriage and family therapy can address various issues, including emotional health, substance use, and serious clinical problems.

Types of family therapy 

Couples and family therapy can have advantages in treating mental and emotional disorders, and there are many types of therapists and mental health professionals, such as mental health counselors, specializing in relationships. Learning more about these types of therapy, including psychotherapy and family systems, can help you understand which type of family therapy treatment might work best for your family and improve overall physical health. 

Strategic family therapy

Strategic family therapy is a structured approach and involves several stages of counseling across therapy sessions, including the following: 

  • Social stage
  • Problem stage
  • Interactional stage
  • Goal setting stage
  • Task setting stage

Often, strategic family therapy is utilized for parents experiencing conflict with younger children or addressing adolescent drug abuse. It is a short form of family therapy that involves replicating conversations or conflicts to develop a unique treatment plan. Family therapists treat both the child and adult family members, believing that a child's mental health and behavior are directly influenced by how the family treats them. By changing the adult family relatives' approaches and enhancing their interpersonal skills, the therapist may be able to support the child along with other members of the family. 

Structural family therapy

Structural family therapy was developed by Salvador Minuchin. In this form of family therapy, providers focus on the following: 

  • The interactions of the group as a whole rather than individuals 
  • The "matrix of identity," a term for the unique connections between family relatives
  • The family structure connected to social interactions 
  • How well the family responds to structure and changes in the dynamic 
  • The position of the therapist in supporting the family as they develop, grow, and improve the entity as a whole 

Structural therapy works more on the family structure and how to bring forth a framework that works for everyone.

Systemic family therapy

System family therapy considers the development of various family systems, encompassing family life relationships within the family systems, and community involvement. For example, it looks at how two people within a family unit interact and how that impacts the unit as a whole. It can also look at how society and outside influences impact families nationwide. The therapist can guide the family in creating healthier systems by understanding these details and working with clients to foster positive change in their family functioning. 

Functional family therapy

Functional family therapy is a short-term form of therapy focusing on at-risk youth within a family. This form of therapy specifically addresses behaviors such as running away, breaking curfew, truancy, or mental health concerns affecting other relatives and the family as a whole. Therapists aim to identify issues and patterns in how the family functions that may have contributed to the child’s behavior and facilitate positive relationships and development to help the child overcome these challenges.

Narrative family therapy

Narrative family therapy focuses on roleplay, story creation, and the development of goals related to a family unit's hopes for the future. By creating stories and acting them out, families can learn to rewrite their narrative to a healthier structure. The therapist can guide them and ask them how they might feel if their goals were reality.

Transgenerational family therapy

Transgenerational family therapy addresses the differences between generations within a family unit and how those differences may cause conflict. The therapist can look for behavioral challenges in children or how the parents enforce rules. Based on how each group interacts with their generation, miscommunications may arise. The therapist can bridge the gap between parent and child. 

In this type of family therapy, generational trauma may also be addressed. This type of trauma involves lessons or behaviors passed down through multiple generations of parents. By addressing these patterns in therapy, parents and caregivers can replace them with healthier patterns to break the cycle for their children. 

Communication-based family therapy modality

Communication-based marital and family therapy addresses communication patterns between children, parents, and relatives. The therapist can teach clients skills like active listening, speaking with "I" statements, and practicing empathy. In addition, if there are communication issues due to cultural differences, adoption, fostering, or generational factors, the therapist can address these in their strategies. 

If families constantly argue, leave emotions on the back burner, or invalidate each other, the therapist can help them discover the potential causes behind these communication barriers. As suppressing emotions can harm emotional and physical health, therapists can help clients fully express themselves in a safe environment. 

Bowenian counseling for communication

Bowenian is one of the family therapy techniques that addresses triangulation and differentiation. Triangulation uses the tactics of diversion. For example, a son ranting to his father about his mother might be an example of triangulation. Differentiation is a strategy that teaches relatives to react healthily and directly to conflicts by recognizing the unique roles of each relative. It can include writing to decrease emotional reactivity and techniques for increasing emotional connection. 

Why find a family therapist? 

Families are often the primary support system for individuals and their family members. With the importance of family connections, mental health, and physical health may be impacted by unhealthy dynamics. Communicating healthily with family relatives can also help you learn healthy patterns in your other relationships. In addition, it may heal bonds between parent and child in cases where they are broken. 

A few reasons you might benefit from a family therapist can include the following: 

  • A child experiencing school performance challenges 
  • An unexpected loss of a family relative or family friend 
  • Domestic violence
  • A family member experiencing a chronic illness
  • A significant trauma that impacts everyone in the family, such as relocation, a natural disaster, or the incarceration of someone in the family
  • Family adjustments, whether it be a new sibling, a grandparent in the home, or foster children
  • Marital problems between parents
  • Divorce or licensing a new marriage
  • Parental conflict
  • Child trauma 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

How to find effective marriage and family therapists 

Many peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated the efficacy of marriage and family therapy. However, finding a therapist can be a complex process if you, a primary care doctor, or other professionals in your life have determined that family therapy could benefit you. When searching, seek a professional with a master's or doctoral degree with clinical experience in working with relatives or couples You can search online, ask for a doctor's referral, or ask family and friends for advice. You may also use the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) directory and published content to find licensed marriage and family professionals within the association who treat families and couples.

Once you find a therapist for family therapy, ask them the following screening questions: 

  • What is your approach for treating similar concerns to mine? 
  • Do you target conflicts by targeting past or present issues? 
  • What role do you play in your sessions? 
  • Do you have certification from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)?
  • How long have you been practicing marriage and family therapy?
  • Is this a child-centered type of therapy, or does it focus on the group as a whole? 
  • How long do sessions take? 
  • What is your cost per session, and how long are those sessions?

By asking these questions, you can screen therapists before making a choice. Family therapy has been proven effective for many concerns, so considering the benefits of family counseling for your family can prove advantageous. 

It isn't always easy to reach out for help when we need it

Counseling options for you and your family members

You can find a therapist through various methods, including a referral from your primary care physician or an online search. However, there are alternative options if you are struggling to find services in person. For example, many individuals and couples seek online therapy, which offers a reachable, flexible, and modern way to receive support for prospective clients. 

Although many online platforms do not offer family therapy counseling online, couples and individual therapists with a master's degree are available in the thousands. You can choose a time slot that works best for you through an online platform, including after standard business hours. In addition, online therapy is a cost-effective option for those struggling to afford in-person therapy. According to the occupational outlook handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for therapists, particularly mental health and family therapists, is quite promising. Labor statistics indicate a faster-than-average growth rate in this profession as the demand for mental health services continues to rise. As therapists develop their organizational skills, they can better manage their practices and provide efficient online therapy services to their clients.

Studies have found that internet-based interventions are especially effective for those seeking individual support with family conflicts involving long-term stress or mental illness. You can sign up for a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples to meet with one of over 30,000 therapists licensed to provide relationship and family advice or support.

Takeaway

Family therapy can benefit various individuals, including those of a chosen family. If you have questions about the modalities mentioned above or want to learn how a therapist can personally support you, reach out to a marriage and family therapist in your location or online for further guidance and support. You can also find out more about family therapists, mental health, and marriage and family therapy by reviewing the resources offered by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. If desired, online individual therapy can be a powerful tool in resolving family conflicts.

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