What is Family Therapy?

family of mother and father with teen daughter standing near lake and scenic mountain view

Families often play a vital role in our lives, providing love, support, and a sense of belonging. But when issues arise, whether communication problems or boundary crossing, it can be difficult to know how to handle them effectively. Family therapy is a resource that provides a safe and supportive environment for families to voice their concerns and strengthen connections with the help of a mental health provider.

What is the Purpose of Family Therapy?

Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy that aims to address and resolve issues within a family system. It recognizes that individual family members are interconnected and that problems within the family can impact the well-being of everyone involved. Family therapy focuses on improving communication and understanding among family members and can be beneficial for a wide range of issues, from conflict resolution to major life transitions.

What Are Different Family Therapy Approaches?

Depending on your family’s dynamic and needs, you may prefer one (or multiple) treatment approaches over another. Here are some of the most common:

  • Structural Family Therapy: This approach explores and addresses issues within the family’s structure, such as power dynamics, family roles, and relationships. It emphasizes the importance of established roles within the unit and strong boundaries in the family.
  • Systemic Family Therapy: Sometimes referred to as Milan Therapy, focuses on analyzing the overarching family systems and communication dynamics. In this modality, the therapist adopts a passive stance, acting as a guide in discussions while empowering family members to devise their own problem-solving strategies.
  • Strategic Family Therapy: This model focuses on problem-solving and conflict resolution within the family. Therapists using this method often assign behavioral “homework” to promote change.
  • Narrative Therapy: In this approach, a therapist encourages individuals to rewrite their “negative” or “problem” stories with more positive or empowering narratives. This method allows family members to gain a new perspective on past events.
  • Communication Therapy: This method focuses on enhancing communication between family members. Improved communication can foster a more supportive and empathetic environment, which can be especially beneficial in addiction recovery.

The Benefits of Family Therapy

One of the main benefits of family therapy is that it provides a safe and supportive environment for all family members to express their thoughts, emotions, and concerns. It helps to promote open and honest communication, allowing family members to understand each other better and develop empathy and compassion. In turn, these positive changes will likely contribute to fewer conflicts and if conflicts do arise, then you will have the tools to problem-solve.

Another benefit of family therapy is understanding how to set boundaries and respect your loved ones’. It may feel uncomfortable at first for certain family members, but they are meant to protect your own mental health and can lead to healthier relationships. Through the guidance of a trained family therapist, families can explore the root causes of their problems and work together to find constructive solutions.

Looking at Common Misconceptions

Whether it’s the way therapy is portrayed in the media or just a lack of awareness, people can hold certain judgments or opinions toward family therapy and that’s okay. Below I unpack some of the most common misconceptions:

1. Family therapy is only for families already experiencing severe dysfunction or crisis.

This form of therapy can be helpful for any family seeking to improve their relationships and overall well-being. It can be utilized as a preventive measure to enhance family dynamics, as well as a means to address specific issues such as marital conflicts, parent-child relationships, substance abuse, or grief and loss.

2. Family therapy is about placing blame on individuals within the family.

In reality, family therapy takes a systemic approach, viewing problems as arising from the interactions and dynamics within the family rather than singling out individuals. The goal is to foster mutual understanding and collaboration, enabling the family to collectively identify and modify harmful patterns of behavior.

3. If only one person is struggling with their mental health, then family therapy is not useful.

Mental health challenges such as substance use disorder in one family member can affect the entire family system. It can lead to tension, miscommunication, and strained relationships among family members. Addressing these dynamics through therapy can help improve the overall family atmosphere, teach coping skills, and support the individual in need.

4. If a family is not open and vulnerable at home, they will be too embarrassed to be open in family therapy.

In most cases, a therapist is not going to start the first session by saying “Tell me all your resentments against your family member.” Establishing trust is the first priority. Being vulnerable in front of family members can be challenging but it is not impossible. Over time, talking through feelings and slowly building up your comfort level can help loved ones become more open.

Education, open dialogue, and reducing the stigma surrounding mental health are key steps in dispelling these misconceptions.

Choosing the “Right” Family Therapist

If you’re seeking a family therapist, there are several avenues to explore. One option is to ask for referrals from your primary care physician or mental health professionals in your community. They can provide recommendations based on your specific needs and preferences. Additionally, many online directories and professional organizations, such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), have databases that allow you to search for qualified family therapists in your area.

Schools, colleges, and universities often have counseling centers that offer family therapy services. These centers can be an excellent resource, particularly for families dealing with issues related to parenting, school-related conflicts, or adolescent behavioral problems. Community mental health centers and nonprofit organizations may also provide family therapy services on a sliding fee scale or free of charge, depending on your financial circumstances.

It’s essential to choose a family therapist who is licensed and experienced in working with families. Look for credentials such as a Master’s or Doctoral degree in Marriage and Family Therapy or a related field. Take the time to research the therapist’s approach and areas of expertise to ensure they align with your needs. Additionally, consider scheduling an initial consultation to gauge your comfort level and assess the therapist’s ability to create a safe and non-judgmental space for your family. Remember, seeking help is a positive step toward creating a more harmonious and supportive family environment.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.