What Is Family Therapy And Why Is It Beneficial?

Updated October 10, 2018

Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW

The idea of Family Therapy or Family Systems Therapy originated from Dr. Murray Bowen in the late 1960's, he believed that human beings function as an emotional unit and that they are best understood when looked at as part of a family rather than a separate, isolated entity. In addition, Dr. Bowen believed that when a client is experiencing difficulty with something, whether it's a personal issue or one related to the family, the family's involvement in the solution generally proves to be beneficial to the client and yields a more positive result.


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Many different kinds of therapies can be grouped under the Family Therapy tree. It's a type of Talking Therapy i.e. Psychotherapy that helps families and couples work through their problems, improve communication and resolve conflicts. Through this type of therapy, the bond and strength between family members is emphasized and a healthy relationship is encouraged because it helps with mental and psychological health.

While it is agreed that not all families share the same level of interdependence, some interdependence is always present, small or big. This helps family members provide support, protection, and affection to each other, however, in moments of tension or anxiety these bonds can be shaken and can lead to bigger problems and concerns leading to one or more of the members to feel isolated, angry, sad or depressed. Family therapy helps to bridge those differences and brings back unity and cohesion within the unit.

  1. BOWEN'S PRINCIPLES:

Genograms (representing a family's history) were used by Dr. Bowen to assess and treat his clients. Three generation of family history is gathered through interviews, based on this information Dr. Bowen looked for patterns of behaviour and a history of emotional, mental problems. Eight interlocking principles form the foundation of Dr. Bowen's theory on Family Systems, these principles are:

  • Triangles: This is the smallest emotional system and includes a relationship where three people (Person A, B and C) are involved. In this system the tension shifts around and has an impact on all three individuals, for instance Person A and B are happy while Person C is in conflict). When the tension or anxiety in the group increases, it starts to affect 'interlocking' triangles, and in this way distributes the tension to others. This is somewhat of a band aid solution because it provides stability in the moment but does not solve the root cause of the problem. Clinical problems can stem from triangles because the tension can act as a catalyst for depression or physical illnesses.
  • Differentiation of self: The level to which an individual depends upon others to find meaning and approval in his / her life. For example, people with poorly differentiated self go out of their way to please others in order to gain acceptance, regardless of how they really feel or what they believe.
  • Nuclear Family Emotional System: Four relationship patterns, which can cause problems within a family unit. These patterns are:
    • Problems in a marriage;
    • Problems with a spouse;
    • Emotional distant behaviour;
    • Impairment of a child or children
  • Family Projection Process: This principle looks at how parents transmit emotional problems, anxiety and concerns they feel about their children to them. And how this in turn affects the children's emotional and physical development, for instance many children become very stressed and anxious themselves and develop emotional issues.
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process: This principle looks at how differences and patterns in families (in parents and their children) can be found to repeat over numerous generations. For instance, mental health problems, drug or alcohol dependence etc.
  • Emotional Cut-off: When a family member 'cuts-off' or reduces their emotional contact with others in the family in an attempt to ignore or manage an issue. This can be done physically by never being around or emotionally by refusing to discuss the issue at hand.
  • Sibling Position: How a sibling's position in the family i.e. oldest, middle or youngest can impact the family dynamic and development.


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  • Societal Emotional Process: This process looks at how emotions impact social behaviour and leads to progressive and regressive periods.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF FAMILY THERAPY?

Family therapy sessions are conducted by a social worker, a licensed therapist or a psychologist and they will work out a treatment plan based on the family's need. Family therapy is usually a short term treatment and it includes either the whole family or the people who want to participate.

Numerous types and techniques of family systems therapy are used to help individuals and their loved ones. Contrary to popular belief, therapy does not mean sitting on a chair talking for endless hours to a therapist. Talking is a big part of the treatment but most therapists rely a lot on different kinds of games and activities all of which are designed to improve communication and increase trust between family members. Some of the techniques used in Family Therapy include:

  1. Structural Family Therapy (SFT): This type of therapy looks at the problems and challenges individuals face when functioning as a family unit. The family, its structure, the rules, hierarchy, and the roles of family members are the main focus of SFT. By breaking down these variables therapists are in a better position to decipher the cause of dysfunction and provide the individuals with the necessary tools and coping methods to develop a healthy, stable relationship and resolve the conflict at hand.
  2. Strategic Family Therapy: The word strategic plays a key role in this technique and is one of the most used therapies. Unlike many other techniques, this therapy requires the therapist to be more hands on and it follows a set of processes starting with:
  • Observation - therapist observes the family and their interactions with each other;
  • Problem - therapist figures out what the conflict is;
  • Interaction - the family is encouraged to discuss the problem, the therapist analyses the family boundaries, its structure etc.
  • Goal Setting - the therapist and the family work together to outline what they hope to achieve and set goals for themselves;
  • Task Setting - each member is given a task or an assignment to resolve the problem.
  1. Functional Family Therapy (FFT): This method is often used to help youths and teens going through problems such as substance abuse or violence. It's a short term treatment for these youths and their families and success is founded on building respect and trust for everyone concerned. In addition FFT helps to motivate individuals and find the positives in their lives.
  2. Systemic Family Therapy: In this method, problems are approached in a systemic manner rather than analytically, therefore the cause, symptoms and issues of the past issues are put aside. This therapy identifies patterns of behaviour in individuals and their families and helps them to develop new, positive patterns. It's an approach that is rapidly gaining traction in other fields such as in education, social work and even politics.
  3. Narrative Family Therapy: This method encourages the individual to set themselves apart from the problem they are facing and encourages them to decrease their problems by using the skills they have. Narrative Therapy focuses on the skills and competencies that people naturally possess and encourages their use to make positive changes in an individual's life. Instead of changing the person, the goal is to change how a problem affects that person.

IS FAMILY THERAPY BENEFICIAL?

Family therapy is a very beneficial treatment and very effective at resolving problems or helping individuals (within the family unit) understand each other better. In many cases, family therapy is done as a preventative step, to address and resolve a conflict before it happens. When the idea of Family Therapy first took hold, 'family' was defined in a traditional manner with children and their parents. Over the years that definition has evolved to include individuals who are in loving, supporting relationships regardless of whether they are related or married. Basically, this means anyone in a 'family' unit can get help.


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While family therapy is not a one-stop solution for every conflict in the family going to therapy sessions should help family members communicate in a more effective manner and should help resolve concerns. However, it can't make bad things go away permanently unless you keep working at it. Every relationship needs work and commitment on a daily basis, but if nothing else family therapy will arm you with the skills you need to do the work.

Studies have shown that family therapy is an effective method for solving certain problems and it has proven to help families come to grips with traumatic events (such as a death) and has helped families deal with mental and behavioural problems along with a myriad of other issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, depression, marital problems etc. Many families choose to do interventions and then get help together as a family.

If you or someone in your family is going through something and this is having a negative impact on the family dynamic, then family therapy is something you should strongly consider. It will allow every member of the family to voice their opinions and concerns in a safe, non-judgemental environment and will help you arrive at a resolution as a family.

The first step is to speak to your family doctor or a health care professional, explain your concerns, speak to your family and together you can come up with the technique and type of therapy, which will best suit your needs. Family therapy will help you communicate and understand each other better.


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