Family therapy is a specialized type of group therapy where the clients in therapy sessions are related in some manner.
Family therapy goes by a number of different names that often describe the type of family members who may be involved in treatment, such as couples therapy (where romantic partners are involved), marriage and family therapy (where typically first-degree relatives from a single family are involved), family counseling, and systems therapy (where the family system is the unit being treated). Family therapists can adhere to any particular therapeutic theoretical approach, such as a systems approach, a psychodynamic approach, a cognitive behavioral approach, etc.
Family therapy attempts to explore how the family structure affects and/or is affected by the presenting issues of the family members. For instance, someone with a substance use disorder (addiction) may jointly be affected by certain aspects of family life that contribute to the substance usage, and the substance use may be affecting certain aspects of the family system. The goal of family therapy is to realign the pattern of communication, relationships, power structures, and other aspects of the family system in order to make it a functional unit and, at the same time, address problems that have resulted in disequilibrium.
How Family Therapy Intervenes
Family therapists conceptualize the family as being both a single entity and a conglomerate composed of different parts. Based on this notion, family therapies make several basic assumptions:
- The family is a single unit made up of different components
- The different components in the family – the family members – are also separate entities that exist as part of the family and as independent people
- When issues occur, they often do not just affect the independent person, but their effects influence the family
- Serious issues can result in different types of ramifications throughout the entire family system. These ramifications can lead to dysfunctional relationships within the family unit
- Some of the ramifications of these dysfunctional relationships are:
- There may be a loss of trust between certain members of the family.
- Family members may harbor secrets from other members.
- Dishonesty between certain members of the family may occur.
- Alliances may form between certain members of the family that target other members.
- Some family members may just try to isolate themselves.
- Other family members may try to take control.
- The tension within the family affects other members and their responsibilities.
As mentioned above, in case of someone who has a substance use disorder, the disorder may be fueled by tension within the family, and that individual’s substance use disorder may produce tension between family members. This can lead to a downward cycle of stress on the family that may result in severe consequences, such as the dissolution of the family, isolation of certain members, alliances that family members form against one another, etc. These alterations may lead to lasting effects.
The family therapist attempts to restore balance in the family. The family members work together to address whatever issues led to the disruption, and the therapist helps to stabilize the family. Through the course of the therapeutic process, the members of the family learn functional strategies to address future issues.
The Benefits of Family Therapy
Family therapy has been demonstrated to address a number of issues, including such hard-to-treat issues as addiction, eating disorders, and personality disorders. Individuals with very severe disorders, such as schizophrenia, can benefit from family therapy that is designed to assist individuals in positive forms of communication and emotional expression (although family therapy is not considered to be any type of standalone treatment for schizophrenia). The benefits of family therapy include:
- Bringing the family together following a crisis
- Creating honesty between members of the family
- Instilling trust in family members who have started to distrust one another
- Developing a supportive family environment for every member if issues with anger, isolation, and/or resentment are present
- Reducing sources of tension and stress within the family unit
- Helping members of the family forgive others for perceived wrongdoings or for past behaviors
- Conflict resolution in areas or between members who are engaging in conflict
- Bringing back members of the family who have been isolated
These benefits are typically achieved by:
- Educating members of the family regarding how families function as units and are not closed systems
- Demonstrating how the personal actions of family members affect the entire family
- Improving communication skills within the family
- Improving problem-solving skills
- Teaching family members conflict resolution skills
There are several misconceptions regarding family therapy that should be addressed. Family therapy is not just a kind of educational program but an actual therapeutic approach that engages the family members in understanding their motivations, changing their behaviors, and learning how to better work together as a unit. Family therapy is not:
- Only for parents who have children with behavioral issues.
- Primarily for married couples who are having problems in their marriage. Although family therapy can be used to address these issues, it has been shown to be useful in a number of different situations and with a number of different psychological disorders.
- A type of therapy that blames the parents or the child’s upbringing. Family therapists do not place blame on anyone but work on restoring a functioning family unit.
- Ineffective if only a few family members attend. Family therapy does not require every member of the family to be involved in treatment.
For some types of issues, individuals in the family may also need to attend individual therapy that focuses on treating their personal issues. For instance, individuals with substance use disorders should attend individual treatment for their substance abuse problems and family therapy to address the broader issues regarding how their substance abuse affects their living environment.
Family therapy is useful in addressing a number of issues that affect specific members of the family and affect the family unit itself. Family therapists use different theoretical approaches and are able to address issues effectively. Recent research has indicated that family therapy can be useful in the treatment of even extremely severe psychological disorders, such as substance abuse and addictive behaviors.