Family Therapy

Family therapy involves working with members of a family to solve a group or individual problem. Learn how family counseling works and the benefits of seeing a therapist as a group.

Working with a therapist to solve problems can take place on an individual basis or in a group setting, which involves all members of the family seeing a therapist. Family therapy is most often used to help treat an individual’s problem that is affecting the entire family, such as an addiction, depression, or behavioral problems. This type of counseling can also be useful for addressing family-wide problems such as conflicts between siblings, spouses, or parents and children.

Family Therapy: When to Get Family Counseling

Family therapy is a particular approach to psychotherapy. Instead of addressing problems on an individual basis, family counseling recognizes that the problem impacts a number of people, rather than one person, and so the solution should involve all family members.

“Family therapy says there are a number of people who are impacted by a problem, so everyone should work together and support the individual who has the problem,” explains Anthony Siracusa, PhD, a psychologist in Williamstown, Mass., and a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association.

Problems with one family member may be an indicator of a larger family problem. And treating only the person with the problem is akin to treating the symptoms of a disease without addressing the disease itself. Family therapy is more solution-focused than individual therapy, and is generally shorter and more specific, with defined end goals.

Family Therapy: What to Expect

In family therapy, the therapist usually meets with the individual as well as the other family members. The younger the children are, the more the family is the focus of treatment, says Siracusa.

After a meeting or two, the therapist can usually determine which treatment therapy will work best. “For example, the therapist may meet with a teen who has a drinking problem and then invite an older sibling who may have gone through his own problems with drinking and marijuana to the sessions,” says Siracusa. “The older sibling might offer guidance, which might be more powerful than a therapist’s words.” So on a Friday night, when the teen may be surrounded by bad influences and temptation, the sibling can step in and intervene. “Then, the therapist might be able to see what gets that child into the next circumstance as well,” says Siracusa.

A therapist has many treatment approaches at his disposal. “In this day and age, a combination of therapies may be used,” says Siracusa. That means someone who has a problem with, say, alcohol may work with an organization such as Alcoholics Anonymous, receive family therapy, and also have individual therapy sessions.

Marriage and family therapy have been shown to effectively treat problems such as:

  • Drug abuse
  • Depression
  • Alcoholism
  • Obesity

It also can help solve conflicts among family members and teach them better ways to handle problems.

Family Therapy: How to Prepare

It’s important to help the family member not feel like he or she is in this alone, says Siracusa. “Understand and explain to your child that this is a problem you can work on as a group. Say, ‘We will all be there to work on this problem. We will help you deal with this,’” Siracusa recommends.

Family members should expect to take responsibility for problems; some may be identified as having to change their behavior patterns. In general, family therapy works best if all family members are willing to meet with the therapist and if the therapy is completed — and not stopped — before the length of time determined by the therapist and the family. Not all family members have to attend every session, but treatment is most effective when all family members are involved.

Family members may be given assignments as part of therapy, such as communicating with each other in a different manner or parents delegating more responsibilities to children.

The end goal: To work together to heal any mental, emotional, or psychological problems tearing your family apart.

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