The Importance of Family Therapy

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Why is involving all members in family therapy important for healing? Family may include parents, step-parents, carers, grandparents, siblings and those who have become ‘family’ by choice.

How Family Therapy Works at The Wave Clinic

When treating young people with mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders, it is impossible to consider just the individual on the route to recovery. Children and teenagers are shaped by their circumstances and are hugely influenced by their family members. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and close family friends all play a significant role in a young person’s life, and any therapy aiming to provide lasting and effective treatment must take this into account.

The need to provide treatment which includes the entire family has been well-established by psychologists and researchers, particularly in cases relating to young people. Family therapy has emerged as a significant tool for therapists, coaches, counsellors, and all manner of healthcare professionals working with mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders around the world.

At The Wave Clinic, family therapy sessions are a major part of the treatment programmes we offer. Involving those who are close to our young people to participate in the recovery process through family therapy sessions is beneficial to all: family members feel as though they are a part of the journey alongside the young person they love and want to support but without the pressure of feeling responsible for fixing their struggles and behaviours. 

By contrast, young people who may have struggled to connect to family members while suffering from the symptoms of their condition are offered guidance and support by trained therapists in communicating their experiences and feelings honestly.

In this blog, we use the actual words of Parent X – a parent who has participated in their child’s recovery journey at The Wave Clinic to underscore the principles of family therapy and where it is especially beneficial in treating mental health conditions in young people.

(Names and gendered pronouns have been removed to protect the anonymity of our young people and their families).

History and Principles of Family Therapy

“For me, the family therapy program was a good balance between structure and free time. The group sessions were not too long and were productive, and there were clear objectives. My child was very articulate in expressing their position – and I am sure a lot of preparation went into this with The Wave team.” – Parent X

Family therapy, sometimes referred to as family counseling, is a type of psychotherapy in which the entire family is viewed as a unit, and that unit is the subject of treatment rather than the individual.[1] Unlike individual therapy, a family therapist involves other family members in the therapeutic process and explores their views and relationships, to uncover the concerns, communication and behaviour within the family system.

As a therapeutic practice, family therapy emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and has its roots in systems theory, which focuses on communication patterns and interactions between individuals.[2] This means that, rather than focusing on one member of the family and their feelings or actions, family therapy aims to identify how members of the family habitually communicate with one another, how those habits form hierarchies of power within families, and how those hierarchies affect individual behaviours, feelings, and anxieties. 

Therefore, the main goal of family therapy is to facilitate change for individuals by reducing and hopefully eliminating problematic patterns and interactions that influence negative behaviour patterns.[3]

As such, enabling each family member to communicate their feelings and their position openly and freely beforehand, without the influence of these patterns of interaction, is very important to the success of family therapy. This is particularly true where age plays a part in power dynamics: young people, for example, often feel unable to communicate their position to their parents, who are the authority figures in the family.

But, as Parent X points out, there is a significant benefit in taking the time to help young people establish and articulate their position. This enables them to communicate their feelings clearly, without falling into the habitual power constraints of the family. A family therapy session can provide a non-judgemental environment for children, and family therapists may be more active in asking questions than some other kinds of therapists, enabling them to talk about their feelings and their position.

The specific challenges focused on in therapy sessions will determine how often a family meets with a family therapist, and how many sessions they will need. They may meet with one therapist or a team of therapists all working together, depending on the situation.

Scaffolding Recovery As a Family

“The focus was on my child showing they are in a good place and ready to move on. The emphasis was very much on looking ahead. There was some discussion on their resilience in the face of setbacks or triggers. They themselves demonstrated their resilience when talking about their past traumatic experiences.” – Parent X

Once the communicative patterns and power structures of families have been established, challenged, and hopefully overcome, the family therapist places emphasis on scaffolding recovery strategies as a family. This requires systematically addressing past family relations or points of pain within a family and making clear plans to move forward with new communication patterns in the future.[4] 

Parent X specifically highlights the way in which their child was able to articulate the challenges they have faced in the past and clearly demonstrate a willingness and an ability to move forward with a new, more positive approach which forefronts resilience and open communication.

Reassurance and Recovery For All

“It was fantastic to see my child looking very well both mentally and physically and also happy to see me. They have clearly taken greater responsibility for their own well-being, and they seem less concerned about what other people think and more able to express their own needs and look after themselves.” – Parent X

Family therapy is not just about treating the individual; it is about mobilising the family’s internal strength and functional resources as a unit.[5] Mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders do not only affect the individual young person who is struggling with them; they are also extremely painful and challenging for the loved ones of that young person. When the whole family is in difficulty, the strength of the unit is affected. Therefore, providing reassurance and recovery for all members of the family unit is critical to achieving long-term success in therapy.

Reaping the Benefits of Family Therapy

By strengthening the family unit, family therapy can help with a wide range of issues. Every family arrives with a unique narrative, concerns, anxiety and sometimes fears for the future. They can often feel overwhelmed and powerless.

Family therapy can change child or adolescent behaviour, rebuild relationships between family members after traumatic or stressful events, and lead to positive changes in physical and mental health in children or other family members.

Within many families, adults suffer stress in their marriage due to a family member struggling with mental health or substance abuse and may need marital and family therapy. They may experience financial problems, have disagreements about parenting, undergo divorce or have issues over child custody. Children involved in high-conflict divorce also experience a higher level of alcohol and drug use, school difficulties and erratic and disruptive behaviour.

It may be difficult for parents to resolve conflicts or solve problems while the focus is on a loved one’s addiction or recovery, while their conflicts and relationship difficulties may, in turn, be one of the main contributors to their child’s substance abuse. Leaving these aspects unresolved affects the general family life and the family dynamic, which is why marriage and family therapy combined may be useful.

Marriage counseling or couples therapy often links with family therapy in approach and can help couples to cope with the effects of stress on relationships. Marital and family therapy can provide them with new skills to address the difficulties between them in healthier ways, discuss and explore their parenting issues, and help them achieve a sense of togetherness.

A marriage and family therapist may also be helpful when parents have a child with special needs and are experiencing relationship difficulties or strain in providing care. There may be specific challenges that the couple faces, and marriage and family therapists can help address the relationship between the couple, as well as how this affects other family members.

A marriage and family therapist may help parents to better provide care for a loved one who is in recovery or is struggling with mental illness by helping them in effective communication and decision-making as a parenting unit.

Both marriage and family therapists can help children and adults in families affected by:

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD, ADHD and more
  • Emotional distress, such as grief or suicidality
  • Adjustment to chronic physical or mental illness
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Behaviour and conduct problems

To learn more about family therapy, or any other aspect of our treatment programmes, visit https://thewaveclinic.com/family-services/

Further reading can be found via our blog The Effects of Divorce on Children.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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