Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy that treats two or more members of the same family. Family therapists study and help to improve the dynamics in a family in which one or more members is experiencing mental distress.
Family therapy is based on the premise that, because interaction among family members is so close and intense, the beliefs, personality and experiences of each member affect the well-being of the family as a whole. The designated “patient” in a given family not only has an impact on the other members, but may be the subconsciously designated representative of the entire family’s inner turmoil.
Modern-day family therapy is not limited to treating individuals related by blood or marriage. Anyone living as part of a couple or intimate group may benefit.
Family therapy is particularly helpful for those who come from dysfunctional nuclear families. Under the guidance of a skilled therapist, how to interact with family members in a healthy way is taught, and the patient learns new coping skills.
There are a many reasons people seek family therapy. Among the most common are the following, and each may be an issue for one or more family members:
Substance abuse or alcoholism
Depression or mood disorder
Behavioral problems at school or work
Marital or couple instability, sexual dysfunction or discord
Conflict and communication problems
Suicidal ideation or behavior
Sexual abuse suffered within or outside the family
Illness or bereavement
Family therapy is also a successful proactive tool, and is helpful for families in which problems, such as those created by a marriage that changes a family’s composition, are expected to develop.
Smiling parents with two children on the beachA major benefit of family therapy is that family members become aware that the family dynamic can change. As family members begins to understand their own complicity in family dysfunction, they are able to begin to establish more constructive behavior patterns. As each person in the family makes small positive changes, the family as a whole becomes less divisive and more supportive of all of its members.
Family therapy offers specific benefits, which may include helping family members to:
Focus on the dynamics of family behavior as a whole
See the value of working together
Avoid scapegoating the designated “sick” family member
Let go of dysfunctional roles such as victim, bully, fixer or enabler
Identify problems as they arise and develop strategies to cope with them
Feel included and respected
Listen nonjudgmentally and express themselves noncombatively
During therapy sessions, family members are taught to become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of other family members. All members are shown how to take responsibility for their own behavior patterns.
Family therapy is a proactive type of psychotherapy, with the therapist often giving family members assignments to improve their interactions with one another. One member may be asked to not offer any criticism or suggestions to other family members for a week. Another may be asked to delegate tasks rather than to complain about being overburdened. As the family works together and begins to see positive changes, the family unit becomes more cohesive.
Depending on the severity of the problems and the dedication of the participants, family therapy can involve a short- or long-term commitment. Not all family members are asked to attend all therapy sessions. Progress can often be made even without the full cooperation of all family members, because changes in the behavior of some will precipitate changes in the family’s behavior as a whole.