Family therapy can help to address conflicts in relationships and other disconnects within a group of family members. Sitting in a therapist’s office with your whole family and confronting challenging issues may seem stressful, but there are many potential beneficial outcomes that can be realized from spending that time together.
Asking loved ones to start a shared journey into family therapy can be intimidating, but there are plenty of ways for everyone involved to learn valuable lessons and benefit collectively or individually.
Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy used to treat families as a whole rather than individually, according to an explainer from AAMFT. It’s focused on both the individual’s set of relationships and how a family’s patterns of behavior can affect those individuals.
What family therapy is:
Brief: There are typically 12 to 20 sessions.
Solutions-focused: Attainable therapeutic goals are established.
Systemic: Therapy consists of family members, the individual, or a combination of both.
Designed with an “end” in mind: Therapy is meant to address a specific issue(s).
Ultimately, family therapy is focused on how different interactions within the family contribute to overarching problems in the unit. According to Earnshaw, when families are together without that third party, they tend to act in the same established patterns of behavior. The therapist can help that interaction change in a way that is more productive.
“There’s another person in the room that can help you articulate yourself in a way that you might not have been able to do before,” Earnshaw said.
A typical family therapy session might focus on what the marriage and family therapy community refer to as “the identified patient,” also known as a black sheep or scapegoat. Families can often put blame on this one person for causing conflicts or chaos.
“When you move into family therapy, what starts to happen is that we recognize some of the symptoms of that identified patient are based off of symptoms that are showing up in the entire family unit,” Earnshaw said.
It’s helpful for all members of the family to look at themselves and take responsibility for their role in the dynamic and in the healing.
According to statistics by AAMFT, marriage and family therapists treat over 1.8 million people at any given time.
98% of clients of marriage and family therapists report therapy services as excellent.
90% of clients report an improvement in their emotional health.
Family therapy can address events that have transpired in the past, while paving the way for opportunities to construct a new narrative and make healthier choices in the future.
Addresses intergenerational trauma
Intergenerational trauma is a phenomenon where if someone in the family has experienced a terrifying event, their relatives would also show the same emotional and behavioral reactions to the event similar to the person who experienced it, according to the American Psychological Association.
Helps clients move past an individualistic narrative
Earnshaw also noted when a client has their entire family in the room, it allows for everyone to look at each person as a human being with their own challenging experiences rather than going in by themselves and easily demonizing their family members.
“When you start to hear people’s stories, you can start to create what’s called a coherent narrative, which is a really important piece of trauma treatment that allows you to make sense of the situation through each person’s story,” Earnshaw said. “It doesn’t mean that you start to think what happened was OK or that it doesn’t matter anymore, but as a family you can start to look at the types of patterns that have been passed down due to trauma and start shifting how you engage and empathize with one another.”
Gives people space to understand their shared history
For individuals, the benefit of family therapy is that they are allowed more space to talk and be heard. Even if someone doesn’t change, individuals can walk away with a better understanding of what’s going on because they were able to have the conversation and create plans or ideas of how they want to continue to manage their relationships within the family.
How to Decide if Family Therapy Is Right for You
Family therapy might not be for everybody, and that’s OK. Here are some questions people can ask themselves to decide whether family therapy is right for them and their family:
Have you tried family therapy before?
How did you feel afterward? Was it an experience worth repeating?
Is there a family member who is highly abusive? Do you feel completely safe with them enough to do that kind of one-on-one work?
What are the emotions you experienced through certain difficult situations?
Do you or your parents have a child who is struggling in any way?
As for your family, what is going to work best for you?
If you choose to attend family therapy, how do you want to progress?
How do you want to make things better for everyone who is involved?
“There aren’t a ton of circumstances where it wouldn’t in some way be helpful, even if the outcome might not be what you want it to be,” Earnshaw said.
How to Ask Loved Ones to Join You in Family Therapy
When asking a loved one to participate in family therapy, it’s important to be sensitive and mindful of how they might respond because it’s a big step. The reaction may not always be positive.
“Oftentimes, people don’t see themselves as having a problem. As a family, they’re always looking at that one person who’s the problem,” Walton said.
However, that “problem person” could be resistant to joining out of fear that others will gang up on them.
“They get enough of that at home, so they don’t want to sit down with a therapist and allow themselves to be further involved in an oppressive situation,” Walton said.
Walton and Earnshaw provided the following tips to ask loved ones to join family therapy:
Be gentle and transparent. Explain some of the things they’re doing that are impacting you negatively, but do not point fingers at them for being a negative or bad person.
Don’t criticize. Avoid using family therapy as a form of punishment and using put-downs to get someone to join. This does not foster an environment of safety.
Focus on the positive. Start the conversation with a positive observation about them, such as something you respect, to soften up the delivery of what is negative.
Talk about why it’s important. Suggest family therapy because you are seeking a way to connect in a more positive way. Focus on what you do want, not what you don’t.
“You want to make sure that each person in the family unit gets to talk about how they feel about how things have been happening in the household, ask questions, discuss specific concerns, and ground it into the greater good so we are happier and get along better,” Earnshaw said.
What to Do if a Family Member Says ‘No’ to Therapy
In that case, going without the person can help clients process what’s happening within the family dynamic, according to Earnshaw. The therapist could help show what’s going on in the bigger picture, then empower clients to figure out how they want to respond. Whether the family goes without that person, or an individual goes without their family, there are still issues that can be addressed that can make life feel more functional.
“It’s important not to blame anyone for what’s going on. You’re just expressing how their behavior has impacted you. So when you want to try to convince someone to come into therapy, you do it from a place of understanding and empathy,” Walton said.
What to Say if Somebody Doesn’t Want to Attend Family Therapy
Some reactions to family therapy may come across as angry, defensive or even withdrawn. There are ways to help family members become more open to the idea and to leave the door open for someone to join family therapy at a later time.
According to Walton and Earnshaw, some ways to respond to common reactions from family include:
Reaction:“We don’t need family therapy.”
Response: “I really respect the way you stand by your convictions, but this is how [x] makes me feel when this happens.”
Reaction: “I don’t want to be teamed up on.”
Response: “I’m not saying you are a bad person, but how you made me feel is impacting me (or us) negatively.”
Reaction: “Do I have to join you for it?”
Response: “I’m going in to see a family therapist next week. I would love it if you joined. But if you say no, that’s fine. I’m going to let you know that I’m going so that you always feel comfortable coming in if you’re ever ready.”
Reaction: “What if there is no equal playing field and the therapist is biased because you’ve been going to family therapy without me?”
Response: “Would you consider seeing a new person to help us look at the entire system?”
Reaction: “I don’t want to hear bad things about myself.”
Response: “This is what we’ve been talking about (or want to talk about) in family therapy sessions. I’m sharing this so it’s a part of your frame of reference.”
Family therapy involves hard work and dedicated effort on everyone’s part, but it can provide worthwhile and long-lasting benefits to the family structure when done correctly.
“The idea of validating your family’s feelings is, ‘If I truly love and respect you, then I don’t want you to feel that way. I don’t want to be the cause of these kinds of feelings, so maybe there is something for us to work on,’” Walton said.