What Is Family Therapy?

Also Known as Family Counseling

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Family therapy is a type of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that looks at the entire family, including the relationships between the individual members of the family. This is a treatment used to address the mental health challenges of one or more family members, address relationship challenges between two or more family members, and improve family dynamics as a whole.

Family therapy is sometimes known as marriage and family therapy, couples and family therapy, and family counseling.

Teenage girl and her mom attend family therapy session

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Conditions Treated

Family therapy is used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions of one or more members of the family. It can also be used to support the emotional side of physical health conditions, relationship and bonding challenges, and overall family well-being.

Sometimes this is used to help support one member of the family who is struggling with a mental health diagnosis by addressing their interactions and relationships with other members of the family. Other times, there is more of a focus on the family as a whole.

For example, a family struggling with frequent disagreements may seek support through family therapy, even without a specific diagnosis, to improve communication, strengthen their connection, and navigate stressful situations.

Conditions Treated With Family Therapy

Family therapists can address a variety of situations and conditions, including:

  • Addiction
  • Adoption
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Attachment disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Behavioral challenges
  • Blended family
  • Communication challenges
  • Conflict
  • Death
  • Depression
  • Disability
  • Divorce or separation
  • Domestic violence
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional challenges
  • Grief
  • Infertility
  • Marital conflict
  • Mood disorders
  • LGBTQ challenges
  • Physical health concerns
  • Race, ethnic, or cultural challenges
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Religious challenges
  • Schizophrenia
  • Self-harm
  • Stress
  • Transitions
  • Unemployment

Process

The process of family therapy depends on the situation, why the family is seeking support, and the family members involved. It also may depend on the ages of the children and the abilities and willingness of each family member.

Typically, the process begins with an evaluation or assessment. The provider may speak with the family as a group, members individually, or both individually and as a group. Children could take part in play therapy, which is a form of therapy that involves playing together to learn about the thoughts and feelings of the child.

Objectives of Family Therapy

Some of the objectives of family therapy sessions include determining how well the family expresses thoughts and emotions and solves problems, looking at the rules, roles, and behavior patterns of the family that lead to problems, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the family.

From there, the therapy sessions can focus on how to work through issues, strengthen relationships, and function better together. This happens with conversations between the provider and the family members, either one-on-one or in a group.

Professionals

Family therapy is provided by mental health professionals. This may include psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, therapists, or counselors. These professionals, especially those specializing in family therapy, are trained in many different techniques that benefit families and the challenges they face. State licensing boards provide licenses or certifications for marriage and family therapists who meet the qualifications of their states.

Types

There are many approaches to family therapy that are based on different theories. Mental health professionals practicing family therapy may choose the techniques that will best serve the individual or family. They often use a combination of methods to resolve issues and teach strategies to the family.

Types of Family Therapy

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy involves the connection between thoughts, feelings or emotions, and behaviors, and focuses on bringing awareness to and changing patterns that are not helpful.
  • Narrative family therapy involves making space and separating each person from their problems so they can develop more useful narratives about their lives and relationships.
  • Psychoeducation involves teaching about mental health conditions and families.
  • Relationship counseling involves supporting couples in working through their challenges and strengthening their relationships.
  • Supportive family therapy involves creating a safe environment for each member of the family to communicate their feelings and discuss practical solutions.
  • Systemic family therapy involves viewing the family as an emotional system, exploring the beliefs and feelings of family members toward a problem, and finding solutions that serve the family as a whole.
  • Strategic family therapy is a family treatment model that may be utilized for youth with behavioral problems.
  • Structural family therapy involves coming to an understanding of the structure of the family unit and how the members are organized with one another, and then considering changes that can improve these dynamics.
  • Transgenerational therapy involves exploring the generations of families, past histories, interactions between multiple generations, and how they relate to one another to better understand current issues and predict future issues.

How to Prepare

To prepare for family therapy, ask what to expect at the time of scheduling the appointment. Determine if the provider wants to start by meeting with all family members together, or with individual family members, and which family members.

Helping Children Prepare

Meeting with a new professional can be scary for children, so it is helpful to prepare them by explaining what is happening, why, and how it can help them and the family.

It is important to reassure children that they did nothing wrong, and this is a process designed to improve life for everyone involved. This helps to reassure children and increase the chances of a more positive, beneficial experience.

Outcomes

The specific outcomes of family therapy depend on the circumstances and reasons for seeking support, along with the involvement of family members. In general, the benefits of family therapy include improved boundary awareness, communication, family patterns and dynamics, problem solving, empathy, conflict resolution, and anger management.

Overall therapy can help family members grow their understanding of one another, strengthen their relationships, and learn techniques to overcome challenges together.

A Word From Verywell

Family challenges are especially difficult because they involve multiple people who may have different beliefs or different levels of desire to make changes. They can also be especially rewarding to overcome because problems can be transformed into bonding experiences between family members.

If you and your family are facing a challenge or struggling through a transition, a mental health professional trained in family therapy can help. Your family doctor or primary care practitioner may be able to provide a referral, or you can directly seek the support of a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or clinical social worker.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Family therapy.

  2. Mayo Clinic. Family therapy. Updated June 19, 2021.

  3. American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. MFT licensing boards.

  4. Premier Mind Institute. Types of family therapy. Updated January 29, 2017.

  5. North Brooklyn Marriage and Family Therapy. 4 types of family therapies. Updated November 2, 2016.

  6. Apex Recovery Rehab. Types of family counseling. Updated March 12, 2019.

  7. Positive Psychology. What is family therapy?. Updated September 13, 2021.