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Family therapy: Types, benefits, and techniques

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

A family of three in a therapy session.

What Is Family Therapy?

The close relationships in our lives have a big impact on us. When a family goes through a difficult time, family therapy can help members handle issues like financial stresses, breakdowns in communication, big transitions, substance abuse, and other situations that can create stress and conflict for families.

Family therapy happens when multiple members of a family seek therapy together. The therapy that takes place focuses on the dynamics of the group and how the family interacts and communicates with each other.

Family therapy can include all members of the family or just some members, and it is generally short-term. A therapist will work with the family to establish a plan and goals, depending on the issue bringing the family to therapy.

How Does Family Therapy Work?

While each family and issue is unique, there are some common aspects you can expect when you enter family therapy. 

At the first session, your therapist will want to learn more about the issue that is bringing the family to therapy. Each member of the family who is present at the session will have a chance to talk about what they feel the main issues are.

After that, your therapist will try to gather information about your family, its dynamics, and the main issues that your family is facing. This might include asking about family history and what coping skills the family has used to navigate issues previously. Then your therapist will create a treatment plan based on the information your family has shared and the approach that the therapist feels will be best.

Family Therapy Techniques

As part of your family treatment plan, your therapist may use a variety of approaches. For example, they may use techniques from individual therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy.

However, in most cases, they will use therapies developed specifically for families, such as family systems therapy and structural family therapy.

Benefits of Family Therapy

The benefits of family therapy can differ from family to family, depending on the issues at hand. In general, family therapy can help:

  • Improve communication
  • Provide coping tools for family members
  • Develop healthy boundaries
  • Equip the family for better problem-solving
  • Address dysfunctional aspects of the family

Family therapy can help with a range of issues. Families who have one or more members with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, or other mental health issues can find it helpful in navigating these issues. Family therapy has been shown to be an effective element in the treatment of eating disorders as well, and it can be beneficial for families who are going through adoption, loss, divorce, trauma, infidelity, and other life events and transitions.

Types of Family Therapy

There are many different options when considering family therapy. In general, most family therapists use one or more of the following four approaches:

1. Family Systems Therapy

Family systems therapy uses the idea of the family as a system and unit. The therapist examines how the family works as a whole, as well as how each part of the system is working. 

This form of therapy holds the idea that individual family members are inseparable from the family system as a whole. As such, changes in the behavior of one family member affect other family members. This form of therapy can be helpful for families who are navigating mental health disorders or substance abuse issues.

2. Functional Family Therapy

Functional family therapy is an intensive, short-term form of therapy for families who are dealing with high-risk youth. This therapy focuses on improving protective factors and decreasing risk factors to improve the family dynamics and the relationships between adolescents and other family members. This type of therapy has been shown to be effective in treating adolescent substance misuse and behavioral issues.1

3. Structural Family Therapy

Structural family therapy is focused on strengthening the structure of the family and its communication. One technique used in this type of therapy is the family map, which is a visual map of problems that shows how the dynamics of the family contribute to or maintain the problem. 

In this form of therapy, the therapist may:

  • “Join” the family through an empathetic and sharing relationship
  • Use role-playing techniques
  • Help the family establish clear and healthy boundaries

4. Psychoeducation

Psychoeducation refers to providing education and information about an illness or problem and its treatment. Psychoeducation is different from other forms of family therapy as it focuses on the illness rather than on the family. It may be used with families who are experiencing a mental health disorder or substance abuse issue. The goal of psychoeducation is for the family to work together to support the recovery of the family member experiencing the mental health disorder.

Find a Family Therapist Today

If you’re ready for next steps , you can ask for recommendations from your family physician or browse our directory for a licensed family therapist. Be sure to ask:

  • Is the therapist licensed in your state?
  • Where is the therapist’s office? Do they offer virtual sessions?
  • Does the therapist accept insurance? 
  • Does your insurance cover family therapy and include this particular therapist?

Family therapy may be covered by your insurance, particularly if the therapy is necessary to help treat a family member for a mental health disorder. This can mean that families without a diagnosis, but who want to improve communication or solve another issue, may not be covered. It’s best to check your insurance to see if family therapy is covered and under what circumstances.

Finding the Right Fit for Your Family

It can be hard to find a therapist who fits your family’s needs and expectations. Be sure to ask any potential family therapists:

  • What generally happens in a session: Get an idea of how a typical family therapy session usually goes. Some therapists offer more structured sessions, while others prefer to let the family determine the course of discussion. Consider which approach may be best suited for your family.
  • What role the therapist intends to play in the session: For some families, it helps to have a family therapist who is a strong mediating presence. For others, it’s most helpful to have a therapist who creates a safe space or offers helpful insights. Consider what kind of role would be best suited for your family’s personalities and problems.
  • Which of the four main therapies they offer: One type of family therapy may be better suited for your family’s problems than another. Be sure to ask which approach(es) your potential family therapist intends to use.
  • Their level of experience with certain issues or illnesses: Some family therapists specialize in certain issues or illnesses, such as parents with borderline personality disorder, children struggling with addiction, or a family going through a divorce. Make sure any family therapist you’re considering has experience with the main issues or illnesses afflicting your family.

To make an appointment, visit our directory to find licensed family therapists near you.

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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