Family Therapy: A Type Of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is aimed at identifying recurring family patterns contributing to a behavior disorder or mental illness and helping members break those habits. It often involves discussion and problem-solving sessions between family members. Some of these sessions may be group sessions, couples sessions, or individual ones. Family therapy examines the web of relationships between members and helps the family to communicate more effectively.  

Family therapy is typically administered by a psychologist, clinical social worker, or licensed therapist. Graduates or postgraduates often hold these credentials and belong to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).  

Family therapy usually lasts only a short period of time. Participation may be open to all family members or just those willing to participate. Depending on your unique situation, a specific treatment plan will be formulated. Sessions with a family therapist can help strengthen your family connections and get you through stressful times, even after you’re done seeing therapists.  

Why it’s done ?

A family therapist can help you improve your relationships with your children, partner, or other family members. The subject matter of the family counseling may include specific topics such as marital or financial matters, conflicts between parents and children, or the impact substance abuse or mental illness may have on the entire family. Families may seek out family therapy along with other types of therapy, especially if one of the family members has a mental illness or addiction that requires additional therapy or rehabilitation. For example:  

  • When a relative has schizophrenia, family therapy can help them cope, but the person who has schizophrenia should also continue with his or her individualized treatment plan, which may include medications, individualized therapy, or other interventions.
  • If someone is addicted, their family can undergo family therapy while they are receiving residential treatment. Family therapy can sometimes be conducted even if the addict has not sought his or her own treatment.

Family therapy can be helpful when there is stress, grief, anger, or conflict within the family. The process of understanding one another will help your family members come closer together and will help them learn coping techniques.  

The Goal of Family Therapy:

Lee (2010) explains that the aim of family therapy is to work together to heal any mental, emotional, or psychological problems that are tearing your family apart. The role of a family therapist is to guide families towards a healthy life by providing them with communication and problem-solving tools, understanding and handling family situations, as well as improving the environment in which they live. The goals of family therapy depend on the problems present in the client’s life. For instance, goals may be different in the following instances:    

  • There is a family member suffering from schizophrenia or severe psychosis: This program is meant to help other family members understand the disorder and adapt to the psychological changes that might be taking place for the patient;
  • Issues arising from cross-generational boundaries, such as shared parenting or grandparents raising grandchildren: The goal is to improve communication among family members and help them establish healthy boundaries;
  • Families deviating from social norms (unmarried parents, gay couples raising children, etc.): The purpose is not usually to address internal problems, but to help family members cope with external issues like societal attitudes;
  • Family members who come from mixed racial, cultural, or religious backgrounds: The goal is to help them get to know each other better and build relationships;
  • One member is being scapegoated or having their treatment in individual therapy undermined: If a family member feels like an outcast or receives limited support from their relatives, the goal should be to aid in increasing empathy and understanding for them within their family and provide them with support to complete their treatment;
  • The patient’s problems seem inextricably tied to problems with other family members: If a patient’s problems are rooted with others in the family, it is important to address each of the contributing factors and mitigate its consequences;
  • A blended family (or step-family): Blended families can face unique challenges. The purpose of family therapy in blended families is to create better understanding and enable healthy interactions between members of the family.

Family Counselor Trained For:

Although therapists may employ a variety of techniques and methods, they all must have significant experience in helping people with the following:  

  • Child and adolescent behavioral problems;
  • Grieving;
  • Depression and anxiety;
  • LGBTQ issues;
  • Domestic violence;
  • Infertility;
  • Marital conflicts;
  • Substance abuse.

In order to address these issues and others, therapists should:  

  • Observe interactions within groups of people;
  • Analyze and resolve relationship issues;
  • Diagnose and treat mental illness within the family;
  • Assist clients during times of transition (for example, divorce or loss);
  • Identify and address behavioral or relationship problems;
  • Help clients replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones;
  • Ensure holistic (mind-body) wellness.

A family therapist needs a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology, sociology, or social work in order to perform these functions, followed by a master’s degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy. Following graduation, the therapist must complete two years of clinical supervision, for a total of 2,000 to 4,000 hours. Upon meeting these requirements, therapists will also be required to pass a state-sanctioned exam and complete continuing education courses annually. Education prepares therapists to provide guidance with a broad range of problems, such as:  

  • Conflict within a couple or family;
  • Unexpected health issues, demise, or job loss;
  • The establishment or maintenance of a healthy romantic relationship at any stage of your life;
  • Problems with children’s behavior;
  • Separation or divorce;
  • Drug abuse or addiction;
  • Psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety.

Family Therapy can help you in:

A family’s troubles can negatively affect all areas of the members’ lives. It is possible that trouble will arise at work, at school, or in your everyday interactions with others. A family therapist can help when it feels like you can’t handle the problems in your family, and things aren’t getting better. Their guiding principles can help you find new ways to cope with conflicts, struggles, and challenges. A family therapist may help with:  

  • Family conflicts
  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Mental illness in a family member
  • Money problems or disagreements
  • Problems at school
  • Sibling disputes
  • Child behavior problems
  • Helping a family member with special needs
  • Extended family problems
  • An illness or death in the family
  • Adultery
  • Divorce or separation
  • Child custody arrangements

The Benefits of Family Therapy:

It has proven extremely effective in many cases to take a more holistic approach to treat problems within a family. With the help of mental health professionals, families can work on resolving problems in a safe and controlled environment. There are many benefits of family therapy, including:  

  • A better understanding of family dynamics and healthy boundaries;
  • Improved communication;
  • Effective problem-solving;
  • Greater empathy;
  • Improved conflict resolution and anger management.
  • Reuniting the family after a crisis;
  • Enhancing family honesty;
  • Developing family trust;
  • Creating a supportive family environment;
  • Decrease sources of stress and tension;
  • Facilitating forgiveness among family members;
  • Resolving family conflicts;
  • Connecting isolated family members.

Exercises/activities that can be used during family therapy:

  1. The Miracle Question

This exercise can be used in individual, couple, or family therapy, and is intended to help the client(s) explore the type of future they would like to build. We all struggle at times, but sometimes the struggle is greater because we simply do not know what our goals actually are. The Miracle Question is an excellent way to help the client or clients probe their own dreams and desires. When used in the context of couples or family therapy, it can aid clients in understanding what their significant other or family member needs in order to be happy with their relationship.

This Miracle Question is posed as follows:

“Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?” (Howes, 2010)

While the client may give an answer that is an impossibility in their waking life, their answer can still be useful. If they do give an impossible answer, the therapist can dive deeper into the clients’ preferred miracle with this question: “How would that make a difference?”

This question aids both the client and the therapist—the client in envisioning a positive future in which their problems are addressed or mitigated, and the therapist in learning how they can best help their client in their sessions.

  • Colored Candy Go Around

To engage in this exercise with your family, you need a package of Skittles, M&Ms, or a similar colorful candy. Distribute seven pieces to each family member, and instruct them to sort their candy by color (and refraining from eating it just yet!).

Next, ask a family member to pick a color and share how many they have. For however many candies of this color they have, instruct them to give the same number of responses to the following prompts based on the color:

  • Green – words to describe your family;
  • Purple – ways your family has fun;
  • Orange – things you would like to improve about your family;
  • Red – things you worry about;
  • Yellow – favorite memories with your family.

When the first family member has given their answers, tell them to choose the next family member to answer the same prompt based on the number of candies that person has. Once the prompt has been answered, the candies can be eaten. When all family members have responded to these prompts, initiate a discussion based on the answers provided by the family. The following questions can facilitate discussion:

  1. What did you learn?
  2. What was the most surprising thing you learned about someone else?
  3. How will you work towards making changes/improvements?
  • Emotions Ball

This is a simple exercise, requiring only a ball and a pen or marker to write with. It is frequently used with children and teenagers in many contexts, as it takes the pressure off of talking about emotions for those who may be uncomfortable sharing their feelings.

A beach ball is a perfect ball for this activity—big enough to write several emotions on and easy to throw back and forth in a circle. Write several emotions on the ball, such as “joyful,” “lonely,” “silly,” or “sad.”

Gather your family into a circle and begin to toss the ball back and forth between family members. When a family member catches the ball, have them describe a time when they felt the emotion facing them. Alternatively, you could have the catcher act out an emotion, an activity specially suited for children. The intent of this exercise is to discuss emotions with your family and practice listening to one another and expressing your feelings.

  • The Family Gift

This exercise can help a therapist to get to know a family better. To give this exercise a try, gather a variety of art supplies and a gift bag. Explain to the family that they are going to create a gift from the materials provided. This gift will be a gift for the whole family, that everyone in the family wants. They must decide together on this gift and how it can be used within their family.

They have 30 minutes to decide on this gift and craft it. Once they have created the gift, they must place it in the gift bag. Within the context of family therapy, this exercise provides the therapist with a look at the inner workings of the family, how they make decisions and complete tasks as a unit. If you are engaging in this exercise as a family without the presence of a therapist, it can help you to start a meaningful conversation. Use these questions or prompts to facilitate the discussion:

  1. Describe your gift.
  2. Tell how you each felt as you were creating your gift.
  3. Who made the decisions? For example, who decided what the gift should be?
  4. Were two or more people in your family able to work well together?
  5. Did anyone cause any difficulties or disagreements, and if so, how was this handled?
  6. Is there anything about the way you did the activity that reminds you of how things work in your family at home?
  7. How can the gift help your family? What else can help your family?

There is a wealth of information to be gained from observing these types of interactions or engaging in these kinds of discussion.

  • Mirroring Activity

The activity can be explained to a family by the therapist with the following instructions:

“I want you to stand in front of me just right there (pointing to a spot about two feet in front of the practitioner). You are going to be my mirror. Everything I do you will try to copy, but the trick is to copy me at exactly the same time that I am doing it, so that you are my mirror. I will go slowly so you have a chance to think about where I will be moving and so that we can do it exactly at the same time. We can’t touch each other. I will lead first and then you will take a turn leading. Ready? Here we go!”

First, the therapist can model this exercise with one of the family members, then that person can take a turn leading another. This is an especially useful exercise for children, but it can be used with family members of any age. It requires the family members to give each other their full attention, cooperate with one another, and communicate with both words and body language. It also allows the family members to become more in tune with one another and can be applied with siblings, a parent, a child, or even couples in marriage counseling.

  • Genogram

A genogram is a schematic or graphic representation of a client’s family tree. However, unlike the typical family tree, the genogram provides far more information on the relationships among members of the family. It can be used to map out blood relations, medical conditions in the family, and, most often in the case of family therapy, emotional relationships. Genograms contain two levels of information—that which is present on the traditional family tree and that which provides a much more comprehensive look at the family:

  • Basic Information: name, gender, date of birth, date of death (if any);
  • Additional Information: education, occupation, major life events, chronic illnesses, social behaviors, nature of family relationships, emotional relationships, social relationships, alcoholism, depression, diseases, alliances, and living situations.

By including this additional information, the therapist and client(s) can work together to identify patterns in the family history that may have influenced the client’s current emotions and behaviors. Sometimes the simple act of mapping out and observing this information can make clear things that were previously unnoticed.

The information on emotional relationships can include points of interest and any aspects of the relationship that may have impacted the client(s), such as whether the relationship is marked by abuse, whether a marriage is separated or intact if a relationship is characterized by love or indifference, whether a relationship could be considered “normal” or dysfunctional, etc. This exercise could be completed individually, but it is likely to be most effective when completed in conjunction with a qualified professional.

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