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What is Family Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 31, 2024
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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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By sunshine31 — On May 24, 2011

@Sunny27 - I think that family therapy counseling in these situations is really a good idea because if not there might be lifelong problems in all of these relationships. For example, my mother in law remarried when my husband was five and had another child with her new husband.

Both my husband’s stepfather and mother catered to this child to the point that now as adults my husband can’t stand his half brother because of the favoritism that resulted. My husband would get a modest birthday party in the park while his brother would get a party at whatever venue he wanted. He also got a brand new $20,000 car when he turned 16, while my husband had to drive a used car that was $1,500 when he was the same age.

Although this happened during his childhood he never forgot what happened and could not resume a relationship with his half brother as a result.

In addition, they say that second marriages have a higher chance of divorce because of these same types of problems and in fact my mother in law divorced her second husband as well. Structural family therapy would have been a good idea for this family.

By Sunny27 — On May 23, 2011

@Cupcake15 -I agree with what you said totally. I know that strategic family therapy is usually called for in many blended family situations. Sometimes when parents remarry spouses with children and they choose to have more children it sometimes creates a strain in the family relationship.

For example, the stepmother might treat her biological children better than her spouses’ child which creates a level of resentment. The children of the spouse might even resent the stepmother for trying to take the place of the mother by telling these kids what to do and punishing them like their mother would have.

By cupcake15 — On May 21, 2011

@BrickBack - I think to go back to your point, regardless of what dysfunction a person may have experienced they are responsible for their own behavior. This is why a person can be labeled with a psychiatric disorder that may have been influenced by the person’s childhood or family for that matter.

For example, the other day I was watching a television show about a lady that was bulimic for thirty years. The source of her pain came about because her mother always rejected her and never thought that she was good enough.

This perfectionist standard manifested in an eating disorder because she not only hated herself for not being good enough for her mother but she used the bulimia and anorexia as a way of reaching an ideal weight that she would never reach.

In this case, individual and family therapy with her mother might help the mother understand how her behavior affected her daughter and this could also help the mother interact with her daughter in a different way so that she could start to heal her pain.

Since this was not possible for the bulimic women then the next best thing is group therapy with likeminded people. Group therapy is healing for these people because it helps them see their problems in others and realize that they are not alone. I find the program very therapeutic and I am only a viewer.

By BrickBack — On May 19, 2011

@Anon63684 - I think I understand what you are trying to say. I think that a troubled person is not healthy. Maybe they are struggling with drug addiction, overeating or even alcoholism. They need individual and family therapy because they first have to understand the source of their troubled behavior and realize why they make destructive decisions in the first place.

I think that someone with a dysfunctional family may be more likely to have emotional problems but the individual has to get therapy to understand this dysfunction because the dysfunction might be seem normal to them. The person might be used to a chaotic environment because they may have grown up in an alcoholic household for example.

Family therapy can help the family deal with their dysfunction and change destructive behavior patterns that would lead to a more cohesive family dynamic. If all of the members of the family are toxic to the individual and they are not willing to go to therapy to see how the relationship is hurting each of the family members then the person has to continue with individual therapy and forget about the family therapy.

But I know that there are always members of the family that are worth working with so finding the people that are most willing to help is important with family therapy counseling.

By anon63684 — On Feb 03, 2010

The basis of family systems therapy is the idea that an individual's problems are in fact influenced by the interactions they have with people close to them.

At the same time, though, if a troubled person presents himself to a therapist, saying that people around them are trying to "influence his/her thoughts", they will be considered psychotic. Why?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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