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Family therapy

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

A couple and their son sit and talk to a counselor who sits out of frame

The close relationships in our lives have a big impact on us. When financial problems, substance abuse, mental health concerns, communication breakdowns, and other challenges create stress and conflict in our families, therapy can help us work through problems and improve our relationships for the future.

What is family therapy?

Family therapy happens when family members go to therapy together. Treatment focuses on family dynamics (meaning the ways the members interact) and the issues they face.

This type of therapy can include all or just some members of a family, and it’s generally short-term. A therapist works with the family to create goals and plans that address their concerns.

How does family therapy work?

While each family and each issue is unique, you can expect some elements in common.

At the first session, your therapist will want to learn more about what’s bringing you all in. Each participating family member will have a chance to share their take on the main issues.

After that, your therapist will gather more information. They may ask about your family history and what coping skills you’ve used to deal with issues in the past. Then they’ll create a treatment plan based on what you’ve all shared.

Benefits of family therapy

The benefits of family therapy depend on the issues at hand. But in general, it can help:

  • Improve communication
  • Provide family members with coping tools
  • Encourage members to develop healthier boundaries
  • Prepare the family for better problem-solving
  • Address unhealthy behaviors and patterns

Family therapy can also help with a range of specific issues. If one or more members have mental health concerns like depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, or addiction, the family can learn healthier ways to navigate them. Or therapy can help families address major events like adoption, loss, divorce, trauma, or infidelity.

Types of family therapy

Your therapist may borrow some techniques from individual approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT). But generally they’ll use a treatment approach created specifically for families, such as one or more of the following.

Family systems therapy

Family systems therapy can help families with issues like mental health disorders or substance abuse. Treating the family as both a system and a unit, the therapist examines how the family works as a whole. They also look at how each part of the system is working. Individual family members are treated as inseparable parts of the whole: Each person’s behavior and situation affects the others.

Functional family therapy

Functional family therapy (FFT) is an intensive, short-term type of treatment for families whose adolescent members are struggling. Research suggests it’s effective for treating teen substance misuse and behavioral issues.1 FFT focuses on addressing protective factors and risk factors, both within and outside the family. The therapist helps the family identify relationship patterns, interrupt unhealthy dynamics, and strengthen relationships between adolescents and other members.

Structural family therapy

Structural family therapy aims to understand and treat behavioral problems in a family setting. Its goal is to help members get better at interacting, relating, and caring for one another. In this type of therapy, the therapist may:

  • Use role-playing techniques
  • Help the family establish clear and healthy boundaries
  • Make a visual “map” of problems that shows how family dynamics are contributing
  • “Join” the family through an empathetic and sharing relationship

Psychoeducation

Psychoeducation involves helping people learn about an illness or a problem (such as a mental health or substance use disorder) and its treatment. This approach focuses on the illness rather than on the family, which makes it different from other kinds of family therapy. The goal is for everyone to work together to support the recovery of the family member with the disorder.

Find a family therapist

If you’re ready for next steps, ask for recommendations from your family physician or search our directory for a licensed family therapist.

If you have health insurance, check to see if family therapy is covered and under what circumstances. You’ll also want to make sure the therapist you choose is covered by your plan, and that your therapist accepts your insurance.

If you don’t have insurance, some providers are able to offer sliding-scale therapy that’s tied to your income. You can ask if they offer sliding-scale fees, or go to our therapist directory and search by location. Select “Refine your search,” then “Insurance and payment,” then “Yes” under “Sliding scale.”

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 potential providers about:

  • What generally happens in a session: Get an idea of how a typical session usually goes. Some therapists offer more structured sessions, while others let the family determine the course of discussion. Think about which approach may be best for your group.
  • The role they intend to play in the session: For some families, it helps if the therapist is a strong mediating presence. For others, it’s most helpful for the therapist to create a safe space or offer helpful insights. Think about what works 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 therapist plans 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, teens struggling with addiction, or families going through divorce. Make sure the provider you’re considering has experience with the main issues affecting your family.
  • Where their office is located, and whether they offer virtual sessions if you’re interested in telehealth.

About the author

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

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