by Dawn Ferrera, LPC
Reviewed by Karri Francisco, LMFT
All families have conflicts. Siblings squabble. Parents and their kids clash. Sometimes bad things happen to really good people. These conflicts and a million other things can throw your family off balance and strain your relationships. Some challenges might be monumental. Often, a million little things have crept in, creating discord.
Families don’t come with an instruction manual, and we’re often just not equipped to deal with what’s happening. It’s not a reflection of parenting ability, your love for your siblings, or anything like that. In reality, being a part of a family means you are already too emotionally invested and “all in” to be objective about what’s happening, much less figure out how to get everyone working together again.
That’s when a specially trained family therapist can help you understand what’s happening and work together as a family to heal the pain and rebuild the connection you’re missing.
The idea of going to family therapy and essentially inviting someone new into your personal life can be daunting and unsettling. What will family therapy be like? Who should go? How do you know if your family needs help? How do you know if therapy can even help your family?
These are all questions that every family might ask. Understanding family therapy can help you make the best decision for you and your family.
What is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is a specialized type of talk therapy that focuses on relationships and improving satisfaction between family members. Systemic family therapy views the family through a contextual lens. In other words, it focuses on the interactions between family members and the contexts in which they occur.
A family is made up of connections (e.g., parent-child, spouses, siblings), and these connections exist within larger systems that can include cultural, religious, and social systems. Each person has a role in the family and rules or expectations to meet based on the family’s system.
Unlike individual therapy, where one person is the focus, family therapy focuses on the whole system; it concentrates on understanding the relationships between individual family members and their situations, including context, rules, boundaries, and communication.
That doesn’t mean that individual issues aren’t addressed or don’t play a role in the family’s struggles. Instead, family therapy helps you view the issues from different perspectives so you can better pinpoint how to improve communication and help support each other.
Family Therapy Models
Family therapists are specially trained to work within a family’s context and use approaches, called models, specifically designed to help families repair relationships and find healthy ways of communicating and interacting. They use several evidence-based interventions to help families work through the issues they bring to the session. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more well-known approaches.
Structural Family Therapy
Structural family therapy is based on the relationships, hierarchies, and boundaries that make up the structure of a family. It focuses on the direct interactions between family members as a pathway for positive change. The foundation of this approach is that when guided by a therapist, families will discover their own solutions to their ineffective patterns of interaction.
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFT) focuses on strengthening the trust, safety, bonding, and accessibility in families to help each family member feel emotionally secure so that they can productively discuss issues and concerns. When family members feel safe communicating their needs, motives, and priorities, they can get to the root of attachment and relational challenges and make foundational changes that foster healthy dynamics.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) focuses on finding solutions in the present moment and helping you set goals based on your values and desired future outcomes. This type of therapy focuses on the here and now, instead of the why, to find quick solutions that contribute to long-term growth.
Common Elements of Family Therapy
Regardless of the approach, while in family therapy, you will work on addressing issues, finding healthy ways of communicating, and resolving conflicts as you heal relationships.
While not considered a formal approach, family therapy may also include what’s known as psychoeducation. Sometimes a family member is dealing with significant mental health issues that their loved ones may not understand. Psychoeducation can help the family understand what their loved one is experiencing and how best to support each other, which is why it’s often a component of the family work done in treatment settings for substance abuse.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to family therapy or one “best” kind. Family therapists will assess and use appropriate strategies for your family’s unique needs.
Why Go to Family Therapy?
Family is all about balance. When things are going well, the family feels well-balanced. When something comes along that disrupts the balance, things break down: conflicts happen, distance creeps in, and resentments start to build.
One way to think about a family is like a mobile that you would see hanging over a baby’s crib. A string connects each part, much like relationships, values, and emotional ties connect family members. Even family secrets keep families connected. All the pieces are in balance when the mobile hangs still over the crib. When you touch one part of the mobile, it disrupts the entire thing – the mobile then wobbles and bounces until it again achieves balance.
When something happens to one family member, it affects everyone else, even if the ripple effect isn’t always immediately noticeable, and the family system can get off balance. Families can quickly regain their equilibrium and balance if they have the right tools.
Sometimes families encounter something more disruptive, making it harder to get back into balance – even small things can create major disruptions. Not all families have the tools and skills to deal with the issues they face together, whether big or small. And, when it’s your family struggling, the minor issues can seem like big ones.
This is where family therapy can help. You can be so close to the situation that you can’t see it objectively. You might not know how to deal with what’s happening – maybe your family needs someone to help you sort it all out and help you find solutions that work for your family.
What Are the Benefits of Family Therapy?
Family therapy can give you a place to talk openly about the issues as a unit, maybe for the very first time. You’ll have a trained therapist present who can help guide you and sort through problems as you find solutions that work for your family.
Like individual therapy, family therapy targets a defined goal. Your therapists will work with you to achieve the goal over a few weeks so you can make quick, effective progress together.
While every family’s needs are unique, the many benefits of attending family therapy are universal and can include the following:
- Improving relationships and communication
- Developing healthy boundaries
- Learning to solve conflicts together
- Addressing dysfunctional patterns of behavior
- Learning new coping skills
- Improving parent-child dynamics
- Strengthening parenting or co-parenting skills
- Improving how you manage major changes as a family
- Learning how to better support each other
Family therapy can even help reduce the risk or severity of some mental health issues.
Who Can Attend Family Therapy?
One of the most common questions family therapists get is, “Who can come to my family therapy session?” The short answer is it depends.
There is no such thing as a traditional family structure – your family therapy session should include your family members, not just your immediate blood relations. The concept of family has expanded over time; one of the things we now know about family is that it’s often more about connection than genetics. A family is a group of people who love and care about each other.
At All Points North, we offer a comprehensive and intensive family program for partners, family members, or family of choice – those who have an active role in the family system.
In today’s family therapy, it’s not uncommon to see parents, siblings, grandparents, close friends, and extended family members participate. About 40% of today’s families are blended, so it’s common to see step-parents, co-parents, partners, and close friends participate.
Your family session depends on your family. When deciding who to include, consider the following:
- Who are the people in your world that give you support?
- Do you want to reconnect with any estranged family members?
- Are there rifts with important people that you want to repair?
- Who do you need help communicating with?
All these questions (and more) are worth considering before inviting family members to therapy. Your therapist can help you to determine who is most appropriate to participate in family therapy sessions.
Family Therapy Versus Couples Therapy
One crucial thing to note here is that family therapy and couples therapy are different. While your partner might participate in family therapy as part of the larger family group, there are better environments to discuss relationship issues than family therapy. Instead, you can address those issues and receive specialized support in couples therapy.
A family therapy session is not the appropriate setting for working through intimate partner issues. In other words, there are family issues and there are couples’ issues – All Points North can support you in separate settings and hold space for each dynamic.
Heal With Professional Support
If you’re not sure whether or not your family needs family therapy, we can help.
All Points North offers a full continuum of care, from detox and assessment to residential and outpatient treatment, mind-body fitness, interventional psychiatry, neurotechnology, family therapy, and couples therapy. Our evidence-based, client-centered treatment approaches can support you and your family, both as individuals and as a unit.
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