When considering marriage and family counseling, most people think about the marriage part of the equation. After all, marriage is the foundational relationship of the family, but don’t overlook therapy for other problems your family might experience. Family counseling can be just as crucial and helpful as marriage counseling.
Whether your family is going through a rough patch with an individual member who needs support, experiencing high levels of conflict or undergoing grief, tragedy, or trauma, family counseling can help you work through these difficulties and forge stronger bonds and healthier relationships.
Family therapy can be short-term or long-term, focused on a specific problem or individual, focused on the general goal of decreasing conflict and improving communication, or all of the above.
What is Family Counseling?
Family therapy doesn’t just mean that family members go to therapy, this therapy is a unique form of psychotherapy. Individual counseling may reference family dynamics, but in the end, it’s generally limited to what happens in therapy for that person. The rest of the family may offer support, but they may or may not be involved in the process.
By contrast: “Family therapy or family counseling is designed to address specific issues that affect the psychological health of the family, such as major life transitions or mental health conditions. It may be used as the primary mode of treatment or as a complementary approach.” (Good Therapy)
So the focus in family therapy may be on one individual who is suffering from a particular condition, but the treatment goal still involves the whole family. The point is to treat any issues that are having an impact on the family’s psychological health. As Good Therapy points out, sometimes family therapy is used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, such as individual therapy, and at other times it is the main focus of treatment.
For example, a teenage girl suffering from anorexia may be attending therapy for her disorder and co-occurring conditions such as anxiety or depression. In the meantime, she and her parents and siblings might also become involved in family therapy to help manage their overall family response to this issue and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Family therapy can also help by increasing the support other family members are able to offer the individual who is struggling. And it can address related issues influenced by the central issue, such as other siblings feeling like they are receiving less attention, or the parents’ marriage struggling.
“In a nutshell, the goal of family therapy is to work together to heal any mental, emotional, or psychological problems tearing your family apart (Lee, 2010).” (Positive Psychology)
Like other therapies, family therapy is meant to offer healing. If your family is suffering due to one of any number of issues of an individual (addiction, mental health issues, chronic illness, etc.) or issues facing the family as a whole (financial crisis), going to counseling together can help you cope. Family counseling can apply to anyone with whom you have a long-term supportive relationship, not necessarily just blood relatives.
Types of Family Therapy
There are a few different approaches your family therapist might employ, based on your family’s situation and needs. Often, an integrated approach is needed, combining counseling for the family with treatments used in individual therapy, such as Cognitive Therapy, Behavior Therapy, or Interpersonal Therapy.
The combination of treatments your licensed marriage and family therapist uses will depend on the issue for which you’re seeking therapy. One prominent model of family therapy is based on family systems theory, or the Bowenian theory, which involves the concepts of triangulation and differentiation:
Triangulation focuses on the tendency to involve a third party in family conflict.
Differentiation refers to a person’s ability to emotionally regulate themselves apart from another individual.
According to family systems theory, your ability to differentiate yourself is closely linked to your emotional and relational maturity. While recognizing that it’s natural, normal, and inevitable for families to influence each other’s emotions, it’s important for each individual to have the space and maturity to regulate his or her own emotions.
This especially applies if one or more of the family members are suffering from mental illness, addiction, or other types of dysfunction. Another aspect of emotional maturity that will often come up in family therapy is your ability to differentiate your thoughts from your feelings. This is self-awareness. It will allow you to choose your responses to others instead of just reacting out of emotion.
Systemic family therapy, based on the family systems theory, can take a few different approaches:
The structural approach involves the therapist observing the family’s behavior within the therapy session and basing the treatment plan off of those observations.
The strategic approach is briefer, more direct, and focused on what happens outside of the therapy sessions. There are often “homework” activities assigned to complete between sessions.
The intergenerational approach focuses on past dysfunctional patterns and how they are still influencing individuals’ current mental health and relationships.
The licensed marriage and family therapist has a complex job. Her skills range from observation to assessment, diagnosis of mental illness or other disorders, helping her clients through any crises they are facing, and helping to identify and replace dysfunctional patterns (Positive Psychology). It’s difficult for family members to accomplish this on their own, which is why professional help can be invaluable if your family is facing difficulty or crisis.
What Happens in Family Counseling?
Your experience in counseling will vary, but here’s a general overview (WebMD):
1. Assessment: the therapist will ask questions of the different family members in order to gain an introductory knowledge of what brings the family to counseling and what approach to take. Assessment can involve mostly what happens in the sessions, as in the structural approach, or asking questions to understand behavior outside the sessions, as in the strategic approach.
2. Treatment plan: the goal is to improve communication, solve problems, and develop healthy coping skills. The specific type of therapy used may include those described above, or others, based on the initial assessment.
3. Average number of sessions: 12.
Each family member will be allowed to express themselves and feel heard in the sessions. Therapists often encourage the use of “I” statements rather than blaming statements—rather than saying, “You did this to me,” you might say, “I feel this way when you do this.” Therapy sessions provide a safe, neutral, guided context for each individual to share their feelings and experiences.
Why Go to Family Counseling?
What kinds of issues might lead you to ask, “Should we go to family therapy?” Here are a few of the most common issues addressed in therapy for families:
- Family member with mental illness – depression, food issues, etc.
- Family member with an addiction
- Financial hardship
- Death of a loved one
- Chronic illness
- Behavioral issues in children and adolescents
Whether it’s one of the above problems or another issue affecting your family, you’ll know therapy should be considered if the problem is affecting your day-to-day functioning and making daily coping difficult or impossible. As mentioned above, family therapy can be used in conjunction with individual therapy, allowing you to address your personal struggles as well as acknowledging the system in which you’re experiencing those struggles (your family).
You might also choose to go to family therapy proactively, for example, if a family member receives a diagnosis of a serious disease, or if your family has a big transition coming up, and you haven’t felt the situation has disrupted your family yet, but you want to create a stronger bond and prevent any problems that might arise.
Christian family counseling, often held in a family counseling center, offers an integrated approach using proven therapeutic techniques in the context of a biblical worldview. When you meet with your experienced Christian counselor, he or she will do an assessment and help you figure out the next steps to develop a treatment plan and offer healthier relational skills, communication skills, and coping mechanisms for whatever your family is going through.
Stress at home can be worse than stress anywhere else since the home is supposed to be a safe haven. By attending family therapy, you can alleviate the worst case of stress and find a place of healing, safety, and renewal, by rebuilding or strengthening your relationships.
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