What is a Family Therapist?

D. Jeffress

A family therapist is a licensed psychologist who helps couples and families overcome relationship, behavioral, and mental health problems. He or she typically holds both one-on-one and group therapy sessions with family members, encouraging them to openly discuss issues and learn how to work through them. Many family therapists offer a broad range of services, though some professionals specialize in areas such as divorce or group counseling. Therapists work in many different settings, including private practices, outpatient mental health centers, and government agencies.

Family therapy may consist of couples with or without children.
Family therapy may consist of couples with or without children.

When meeting with a family for the first time, a therapist typically tries to establish a friendly professional relationship with each member. He or she takes time to get to know parents and children, evaluating their personal obstacles, family roles, expectations, and concerns. By treating each family member with respect and genuine thoughtfulness, the therapist can develop meaningful connections and set the stage for productive future sessions. There may or may not be an obvious problem that a family is trying to overcome, and underlying issues often come out during the first few meetings. It is important for a family therapist to objectively assess situations in order to identify the barriers that stand in the way of healthy relationships.

Family therapists can often help resolve communication issues between partners.
Family therapists can often help resolve communication issues between partners.

The primary goal in family counseling is to help members learn how to communicate clearly, openly, and honestly with one another. A therapist often attempts to foster healthy communication by holding group counseling sessions with all members present at once. He or she can help clients learn how to express their feelings in a calm, reasonable manner to one another. Common techniques include initiating role playing games and asking members to write letters to each other.

In addition to group services, a family therapist usually holds individual sessions to better understand each family member. Individual counseling can be useful since a person may feel more comfortable disclosing private information in a one-on-one setting than with the family present. A skilled therapist can help clients address personal issues by teaching them about stress relief and behavior modification techniques, such as keeping a journal, taking more time for family matters, and avoiding unhealthy environments or triggers.

A person who is interested in becoming a family therapist can determine the requirements in his or her region by browsing government Web sites and speaking with practicing counselors. In most regions, a professional needs to obtain at least a master's degree in psychology or social work and complete several thousand hours of supervised practice. He or she can then take a licensing exam to earn the credentials necessary to begin working independently. In order to maintain a license, a family therapist needs to take periodic refresher courses and re-certification exams throughout his or her career.

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