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While much of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis focuses on the individual, family therapy is distinctively different. Instead of evaluating the needs of one person, this field emphasizes the relational aspects of people to each other, especially those with close ties such as parent/child, sibling, or spouses. Individual therapy evolves a therapist/client relationship, from which to work on significant issues of the sole person, but family therapy takes a holistic approach toward looking at the way that a whole family unit or couple works, and the areas of dysfunction that require intervention.
There are many different theoretical approaches to family therapy, and many diverse groupings of people that might make up a family therapy session. A couple without children might easily enter couples counseling or family therapy in order to learn how to cope with their differences and deal with communication problems, or many other reasons. Such therapy could also occur with adult siblings and parents, foster children and foster parents, or family units of several generations. Therapists in such a setting may work with the various members of the family all together in session, and sometimes work with one or two individuals for a session or two.
Although you can find different types of approaches to this form of therapy, one focus is observing how people with family ties relate to each other, and what these interactions say about the health of these relationships. Focus may rest on teaching family members to understand behaviors that tend to hurt relationships, and sometimes on specifically teaching skills like active listening that may help heal communications between family members.
Therapists may address individual members of the family if they appear to be suffering from severe mental health issues that without treatment continue to threaten the potential for good relationships within the family system. Thus a person in a family with alcoholism or untreated major depression might be referred to another therapist who could give that person more individual time to cope with and overcome these conditions. Typically, the therapist providing family therapy is not focused on one member of the family. He or she is focused on the whole family, and must not give the appearance of favoring one person over the rest of the family members. This can be a hard balance to strike, but a necessary one so that each person in the family feels supported in the therapeutic setting.
Family therapy is offered by licensed therapists, like licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), marriage and family therapists (MFTs, formerly classed as MFCCs) and psychologists. Unlike individual psychotherapy, which might continue for a number of years, there is often an endpoint and goals in sight for each family. Sessions required to help learn skills to improve family dynamics can range anywhere from five to twenty over the course of several months. Once goals have been reached, family members may exit therapy, decide to pursue additional goals, or may take a break and re-enter therapy at a later point if the family again seems to need assistance.