Family is something universal, we have all, at times, been part of a family. Our interpretations, experiences, and understandings of what family is, however, can vary greatly. For some people, family are those who you grew up with, shared pivotal defining moments with, and with whom are deeply connected. For others, family is associated with a practical definition: those who you are genetically likened to and are related to.
Regardless of how you perceive your family, or in what way you feel related, it is likely they have impacted your life and who you are as a person. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we often learn our ways of interacting with the world from them, sometimes through modeling and sometimes through shared experience.
Our early relationship with our family can dictate our future relationships, in that, if we form strong attachment bonds with our close family members we are likely to form strong attachments with people later in life.
Given the importance of these key relationships, working through our dynamics in family therapy can have a profound impact on our mental health and well-being. Here we will look at what family therapy sessions involve, how they can help and who can benefit. If you are thinking of going to family counseling or therapy, the information below may help you in deciding the best approach.
Family therapy, also referred to as family counseling, is a broad term that encompasses any form of therapy involving a number of family members. This does not mean the entire family must be present, that depends on the circumstances of each case. Family counseling can be used to manage any number of issues that are affecting how the family unit communicates and functions.
Often, although not always, family therapy is provoked by a specific event or situation, for example:
- Communication difficulties
- Conflict or arguments
- Big life events or changes
- Financial struggles
- Divorce, separation, or relationship breakdown
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Difficulties communicating needs or fears
- The development of mental illness; depression, anxiety, eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Physical illness
Introducing somebody who is not personally involved in the family dynamics can enable everyone to feel listened to and supported in their positions. Even when communication is good between family members, having an outside perspective can help to highlight new ideas, solutions, or strategies.
Family therapy should meet the needs of all the attending members, there will typically be agreed shared outcomes, as well as some personal goals. Through this form of treatment, you can work towards creating a better functioning home environment, improving communication channels, and living more harmoniously as a unit.
Who Can Benefit From Family Therapy?
Being part of a family is never going to be without its problems. Even when there is a lot of love and care for each other, family problems arise. One of the most important steps before you even begin therapy sessions, is to accept this and remove any guilt, shame or blame you may be holding.
Being a human being means you are unique, therein your feelings and behavior patterns may be different from those of your parents or siblings. Accepting our differences is a hugely beneficial step towards working together cooperatively.
Therapy can benefit families of all kinds, whether you are working through big challenges or you feel stuck in a communication rut, a family therapist can worth through the emotions and feelings coming up and help to create a smoother dynamic between you.
Some people may ask; why is it important to involve multiple family members in what seems like one person’s ‘issue’? The truth is, although one family member may exhibit the signs of a problem through a mental health condition or ‘problem behavior’, this could be an indicator that there are wider family issues to manage.
Trained family therapists will be able to adapt to all ages, ensuring that the needs of each person are met while maintaining age-appropriate discussions. It may seem abnormal to involve a child in discussions around their own behavior for example, or in discussions around mental illness or divorce, but often this can lead to a more enlightened understanding of what is truly going on and how it can best be managed.
Family therapy looks at individual mental health problems and communication difficulties in the wider context of the whole unit. Working on the premise that understanding how the group works together can lead to solving family problems.
A family therapist may use elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy in their practice, depending on what approach they take. Each practitioner will have their own unique way of structuring your therapy sessions so it’s important to research this before you choose a family therapist.
Family therapy is not only for people who cohabit. As aforementioned, family is different for everyone, and some people may regard family members that do not follow the traditional idea. You may be asked to bring the people who have been pivotal to your life and development, whether that is close or extended family members, your mother or father-in-law, stepchildren or parents, and so on.
What Can I Expect From Family Therapy?
Every family, and every family member, is completely unique, therefore treatment should reflect this. There is no one size fits all method, rather it’s up to each group to work with the therapist in creating a plan with some clearly defined goals.
People often ask, ‘how many sessions can we expect to have?’ Typically you may have around 10 – 15 sessions unless there are multiple or very complex issues to manage – in these cases it’s likely that one or more members are also engaged in individual mental health treatment too.
Most therapists have a defined approach, but within the sessions, there will be diversity. Sometimes you will work through what has happened in the week leading up to the meeting, or discuss how a certain technique worked in practice.
It’s also possible that the therapist will request for one family member to attend family therapy alone for one session, if that felt particularly useful or necessary. Your practitioner will be aware of keeping the balance in order so that all members feel informed, listened to, and supported throughout.
There is a range of evidence-based treatment options which can be used to approach family challenges. Sometimes, you may find that the therapist uses mostly elements from one therapy, but complements them with another therapy style to get the most out of each session.
Here we look at some of the most common forms of family therapy available:
This form of therapy is concerned with the idea that all members of the family have their own narrative about their experiences and the world around them, including experiences they shared with their family. So although we may have a shared experience, our interpretations and responses to them may be very different. These stories shape who we become as people and how we move through the world.
Narrative therapy works to distinguish the person, or people, from the issue. Unpicking the story we hold and working to view things objectively instead. This therapy aims to empower each member to rewrite their own narrative in a healthier manner while allowing for the differences of others. By objectifying and externalizing issues, we can remove any shame or responsibility which inhibits us from moving forwards.
Structural Family Therapy
This therapy is focused on understanding how family members relate to one another, including their communication methods. Structural family therapy uses a term called the ‘matrix of identity’, which refers to the development of the self within the family structure.
Through this method, you will work with a therapist to deeply understand how you interact, what hierarchies exist, where boundaries lack, who are allies and which relationships could be strengthened. With the knowledge of how you currently interact, you can begin to restructure for the better.
Strategic Family Therapy
This therapy modality looks at the way family members communicate. Strategic family therapy is a problem-solving method where you will create techniques to achieve agreed goals. In this form of therapy, you are less likely to delve deeply into the past or unpack the family dynamic, rather you will look strategically to solve issues with positive outcomes.
Systemic Family Therapy
This form of therapy is concerned with your fundamental belief systems. Systematic family therapy recognizes the impact of the social and cultural context within the family system and is focused on cohesive problem solving, rather than individual problems. It is generally divided into five elements which therapy sessions are then framed around:
- Deconstruction of the problem
- Identifying behavior patterns and feedback loops
- Beliefs and explanations
- Emotions and attachments
- Contextual factors
Systematic therapy is concerned with the idea that there is no single issue or person, rather the interactions between people can be the source of contention and must be unpacked to find solutions.
Transgenerational therapy is concerned with the family history which predates any current issues. Focussing on the idea that by identifying previous problems, it is possible to predict how future conflicts might unravel. By understanding how the family has dealt with problems in the past, we can prepare for the future. Therapists will encourage family members to consider the different response systems of each family member, and put them in the context of other generations.
Psychoeducation endeavors to educate people about the mental illness that they, or their family member, is living with. By understanding their condition, the family counselor can give practical techniques for symptom management, behavior regulation, and better communication pathways.
Through psychoeducation individuals living with serious physical or mental illness can feel empowered by deeply understanding their condition with the support of their family members. This is an especially helpful model for helping family members adjust to the development of a mental health condition or substance abuse.
Family relationships can be strained by a variety of issues. Relationship counseling aims to help individuals understand the experiences of one another and come to solutions that embrace the needs of everyone. Issues that might be addressed in relationship counseling include:
- Mental health
- Marital conflicts
- Money issues
- Loss of communication
- Family conflicts
- Loss of intimacy
- Domestic violence
These are just some of the modalities used, and although they all employ different techniques, there are some shared goals of family therapy. These include:
- Understanding communication styles between family members
- Restoring communication pathways
- Unpicking problems for clarity on issues
- Conflict resolution and management strategies
- Relationship healing
- Responding to a mental health diagnosis
- Empowering individuals to create appropriate boundaries
How Can My Family Members Benefit from Family Therapy?
Like any therapy, the outcome of family therapy very much depends on a number of factors. It’s important to do your research and find a style and family counselor which suits your needs as a unit.
Additionally, forcing or coercing somebody into attending sessions will not result in improved family functioning. It’s crucial for everybody to be willing to work together, despite that sometimes being challenging and painful.
Some of the benefits of family therapy include:
Engaging in family therapy is likely to considerably improve communication between members. Sessions with the therapist can enable people to feel like valued members of the family, in a way they may have not felt previously. Removing any sense of blame and opening conversations to allow each person to express their thoughts and feelings can result in clearer and stronger communication.
Good communication is the fundamental foundation to improving family dynamics, and furthermore for nurturing non-family relationships too.
Creating Healthy Boundaries
There is a common misconception that boundaries shouldn’t exist within families. In every relationship there should be recognition of what is and is not appropriate, maintaining respect for each other’s changing needs. It is okay not to know what somebody’s boundaries are, but if they have clearly stated them it’s of utmost importance that you honor their feelings.
This means that when it comes to your own needs, you are also owed the same dignity and respect. It can be hard to define your personal boundaries but with the help of a mental health professional you can work out where you sit on a number of important issues. A nice way to think of it is, creating boundaries is not to remove people from your life, it’s to keep them in it.
Boundaries are important for people of all ages, from children right up to grandparents.
Increasing Honesty and Trust
Trust is the foundation of a good relationship but, for many reasons, it can be eroded in relationships. Family therapy offers families a chance to heal and mend the trust between each other, and enables people to be more honest with each other, and most importantly, with themselves.
Particularly in situations where there has been substance abuse, it can take some time for trusting bonds to be re-established, engaging in family therapy sessions is one of the most successful ways to do so.
Some Other Benefits of Family Therapy Include:
- Improves family relationships between family members
- Supports family members to understand dysfunctional relationships
- Highlights the needs of all family members
- Improves the mental health and well-being of the family unit
- Helps family members understand mental health conditions
- Teaches you coping skills for conflict resolution and stress
Family counseling or therapy is often used when a child or adolescent is at risk of developing a mental illness, or they are already struggling with a specific disorder.
As you have read, there are many methodologies that can be employed in the area of family therapy. Although they may come from different theories and backgrounds, family therapists are likely to use some similar approaches to help you achieve your goals of family therapy. Some of these techniques include the following:
When you are going through a crisis it can be difficult to remember that you have a great amount of strength within you as a family. A family therapist will help you to identify the power you hold within you which can increase the positivity and hope of the entire family.
Understanding your family’s strengths will also help the practitioner to understand the dynamic better. Through this, they can guide you to problem-solving techniques within your capabilities, and identify points where you could increase your strength for improved experiences.
Active listening is something we can all learn to do in order to improve our general communication skills. Helping children from a young age to be active listeners is likely to increase their overall cognition and learning experience. When we are stuck in a communication rut we can forget to focus on listening, if we feel defensive or angry we may assume we know what someone is thinking. Your family therapist will employ active listening during your sessions, therefore will teach you through modeling, but additionally, they will use some exercises to work on your own skills.
If you have felt hurt or disappointed, it can be difficult to understand how your other family members are feeling. Your therapist will help you to change perspectives so you can compassionately understand how somebody else is feeling. This is a helpful technique in the moment of a disagreement, and also in resolving issues from the past.
Attending family therapy with your relatives can be a challenging process, especially at the beginning while you adjust to the new experience. However, persevering can see some incredible changes in the way you communicate with other family members and how you resolve family issues. Caring for your mental health through family counseling can be of great benefit to you and the whole family.
Mental Health Treatment at Alina Lodge
Family therapy can be a successful component of mental health treatment for a broad range of people, experiences, and disorders.
At Alina Lodge, we offer a safe environment from which you and your family can begin to heal past traumas and move into a healthier, happier future together.
Get in touch with us today to see how we can help provide family support for you and your loved ones.