Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy that treats two or more members of the same family. The family therapist addresses the individual family's constellation as a unique variation on a common social system. Family therapists study and help to improve the dynamics in a family in which one or more members is experiencing overt distress.
Family therapy is based on the premise that, because the interaction among family members is so close and intense, the beliefs, personalities and experiences of each member affect the well-being of the whole family. The designated "patient" in a given family not only impacts 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. Any individuals living as a couple or intimate group may benefit from this type of therapy.
Family therapy may be particularly helpful for people who come from nuclear families in which there was dysfunction. Under the guidance of a skilled therapist, healthy family interactions are taught so that family members can learn ways to be supportive of one another during difficult times rather than to engage in conflict.
Reasons for Family Therapy
There are a many reasons people seek family therapy. Among the most common are the following, which may be evident in 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
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal ideation or behavior
- Post-traumatic stress
- Sexual abuse suffered within or outside the family
- Illness or bereavement issues
Family therapy can also be a very successful proactive tool and is often sought out by families in which problems can be reasonably expected to develop, such as where there is a marriage which will change the family composition or in which there has recently been a death.
Benefits of Family Therapy
Perhaps the most important benefit of family therapy is that family members become aware that the family dynamic is available to 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
- Improve communication
- 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
Family Therapy Sessions
During therapy sessions, members of the family are taught to become aware of their own strengths and weakness as well as those of the other family members. All members are shown how to take responsibility for their own behavior patterns.
Family therapy is a very active variety of psychotherapy and the therapist may often give family members assignments to improve their interactions with one another. One member may be assigned not to offer any criticism or suggestions to other family members for a week. Another may be assigned to delegate tasks rather than to complain about being overburdened. As the family works together, setting mutual goals and beginning to see positive changes, trust and bonding may re-establish themselves and the family unit may become 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.