Understanding Family Therapy


Families are complicated. We are all unique individuals who experience life a little differently from one another due to our different perspectives and outlooks. We all try to live happy and fulfilling lives whilst maintaining a happy family dynamic, so it’s no surprise that family relationships can become strained.

Our own personal issues, circumstances, or events, such as mental health problems or marriage, can seep into family dynamics and begin to alter family life. Family therapy can be used when things start to get overwhelm/ing, when you are finding it hard to move past old unhealthy patterns, or to simply develop and maintain functional and healthy family relationships.

If you and your family are thinking about seeking a family therapist, you may have some questions about how the treatment works, the different forms, and the benefits these can have on different family members. Read on to find out more.

What Is Family Therapy?

Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy that works with the family to help resolve conflicts and to improve communication between different members. This form of treatment is specifically designed to aid with family life issues that affect mental health and functioning.

Family therapy essentially gives family members a chance to explore and express their feelings towards each other, or specific issues, in a safe space. A family therapist will discuss differences and difficulties to help improve communication and work towards happier family life.

The goal of family therapy is to identify and address these unique issues that a family may be facing, whether these be emotional problems, psychological or behavioural, to create a better home environment for all.

Family therapy does not mean that sessions include the entire family; family therapists can work with individual family members, such as children and adults separately or with couples. Essentially the term family can include a range of different relationships and is used to describe a collective of people who generally love and care about each other and refer to one another as their family.

Family therapy is typically provided by a psychologist, licensed therapist, or clinical social worker.

Types of Family Therapy

Several types of family therapy are used to cover different issues and scenarios. These include:

Family Systems Therapy

One of the most important aspects of family systems therapy is the idea that what happens to one family member happens to the whole family, so the family is viewed as a single unit.

Whilst focusing on the family system as one, this therapy approach considers how social, community, cultural and generational factors affect individuals and families. The approach aims to help families recognise a set of principles in their relationships to develop and work towards healthier and more sustainable relationships. The foundation is based on eight principles:

  • The Differentiation of Self: This refers to the ability to remain independent in a family unit rather than relying on others.
  • Triangles: This focuses on a common three-person relationship that can influence other family relationships.
  • The Nuclear Family Emotional Process: This refers to how emotional interactions play out in how the family operates. This includes marital problems, spouse dysfunctions, emotional distance, and impairment in children.
  • Family Projection: It’s easy for parents to project their emotions and anxieties onto children. This can result in children developing emotional problems which they may displace onto others.
  • Multi-generational Transmission Process: Differences in differentiation between parents and children can result in differences that cause problems.
  • Emotional Cutoff: Some family members distance themselves or cut others off when conflicts arise.
  • Sibling Positions: It is thought that birth order can affect the relationships and dynamics between siblings and parents.
  • Emotional Processes in Society: This concept believes that things that affect society also affect families. This can include cultural shifts, societal attitudes, and conflicts.

Understanding these eight principles can help family members establish better boundaries to improve the functioning of individuals and then the entire family.

Narrative Family Therapy

We all have our own stories that shape our experiences, who we are, and how we relate to others. This form of therapy encourages family members to view their problems in an objective way to discuss alternative narratives.

Structural Family Therapy

This form of therapy focuses on problems that may arise due to the family structure and is one of the most commonly used approaches. It focuses on subsystems that influence the family dynamic.


This focuses on educating family members on mental health conditions. Through self-help approaches and mental health treatment, family members can begin to offer support and can function as a cohesive and effective support system for each other.

Functional Family Therapy

This is typically a short-term treatment that is used for young people who are having problems with violence, risky behaviours, or substance use. It helps families and teens work together to build trust and respect for one another.

Family therapists can focus on a specific approach or can take a multimodal approach that utilises different aspects of treatments to work with the different needs of families.

What Can Family Therapists Help With?

If we are going through a hardship within our own lives, it can be easy to forget how this affects those closest to us. Family therapy teaches us how to address these issues and how to work on unhelpful patterns in the hope of improving communication and building stronger relationships. You can address a variety of problems in family therapy; financial difficulties, romantic relationship difficulties, and the impact of mental illness or substance use on the entire family.

A family may pursue family therapy as part of a treatment plan alongside other forms of therapy. This is especially the case if a family member is living with a mental health problem or substance abuse disorder.

Family therapy can help family members learn to manage and cope if another family member is living with a serious mental health condition. The family member who is living with the condition should still receive an individualised treatment plan that may include one-to-one treatment, medications, and other therapeutic techniques. Sometimes family members may participate in therapy sessions without the person living with a mental health condition.

Research found that family therapy was effective in helping families deal with mental health conditions in adolescents. It improved specific areas in family functioning to aid teenagers in learning to live with different mental health problems.

Family therapy may be used to help family members collectively work through grief, stress, or anger. Some other reasons why families may pursue family therapy include:

  • Behavioural problems in teens or children
  • Death of a loved one
  • Communication problems
  • Parent and child conflicts
  • Divorce, separation, or marital issues
  • Parenting problems
  • Trauma
  • If a family member is living with a chronic illness or disability
  • When family members are going through life changes

Taking the time to be present with family members, to sit, talk, listen and attempt to understand one another, can be easily missed when you are trying to focus on your individual lives. Family therapy sessions allow dedicated time and space to do just this.

What to Expect

Much like other forms of therapy, treatment will begin with an assessment to discuss the problems at hand and clarify what support is necessary. Typically your family therapist will discuss future plans and goals and outline how sessions will play out.

Depending on what you are seeking a family therapist for, family therapy can bring several members of the family together as well as the possibility of seeing the family therapist solo.

Family therapy sessions usually consist of 12 sessions that last for around fifty minutes to an hour. Do not worry if you initially hesitate to discuss personal matters, it sometimes takes time to build a comfortable and trusting relationship with your family therapist. It is not uncommon for families to see several family therapists in order to find one that is best suited for everyone.

The number of sessions carried out is unique for each family and will be determined by the family therapist depending on various factors, such as family issues and the participation of family members during therapy sessions. It is a typically short-term treatment; however, sessions can last for over a year.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy state that family therapy should provide the following:

  • Treatment planning
  • Diagnosis and treatment of co-occurring mental health problems
  • Physiotherapy for children, couples, or individuals
  • Family, group, or couples therapy

Benefits of Seeing a Family Therapist

The benefits of family therapy vary for each family. However, research has found that therapy is beneficial in addressing and dealing with:

  • Sibling conflicts
  • Difficulty in communication and expressing emotions
  • Dealing with a family member’s mental illness
  • Marital issues
  • Developing a healthy and functional family after a divorce

If a family member is living with a mental illness, family members may lack the awareness and knowledge on how to help, and this is okay. However, it can result in family members engaging in behaviour patterns that may enable or maintain certain parts of the illness. Attending family therapy can help family members learn more about the specific mental illness and learn new ways to deal with it and look after their own mental health.

A review carried out in 2019 found that family therapy was effective in treating a range of issues such as eating disorders, emotional problems, somatic problems, and recovery from child abuse and neglect.

Family therapy can help you and your family work on your communications and connections to work towards building a stronger family unit. It provides you with the skills needed to help deal with challenging situations to improve the family structure and in turn improve the lives of all individuals.

Treatment at The Wave

At The Wave Clinic, we utilise family therapy to help young adults regain self-esteem and confidence to work towards a happy and healthy future.

Our team of renowned experts treats young people with sensitivity and care to create programs that enable safe spaces for teenagers to achieve their treatment goals. Our unique programs are designed by leading clinicians who are experienced in providing excellence in mental health treatment for young people and their families.

We treat a range of disorders including addiction, behavioural problems, and personality disorders. If you want to find out more about how we can help you and your family, contact us today.

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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