The definition of a family is, today, much broader than it was decades ago. A family used to be solely defined as a unit containing parents and their offspring.
But now, family can be anyone with whom you have a long-lasting, supportive relationship, regardless of whether you’re related by blood or through marriage.
No matter how your family came into your life, by fate or by choice, conflicts and issues are bound to arise at one point or another. And when those conflicts become too much to manage within the family unit itself, family therapy (or family counseling) can help you.
What Is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is a way for a trained and licensed counselor to help a family address, and deal with, issues that are affecting the family as a whole. While there are individual people within a family, the family is a larger unit to which the individuals belong, and families often seek treatment when problems spring from individual interactions within the unit.
Why Do Families Seek Therapy?
Common issues that affect whole families can include things like:
- Behavioral or emotional issues in children
- Trouble establishing roles and boundaries between children and adults
- Inability to communicate
- Going through grief or loss
- Struggling with parenting problems
- Managing conflict
- Blending families
- Sexual orientation
- Any situation that causes added stress to the family members
Though there are many common reasons that families will seek therapy, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Every family has its own unique culture and identity – and every family deals with conflict and communication in its own way, too.
If you feel like the issue you’re facing has overtaken your family’s dynamic and everyday life, then working with a therapist could help you learn new strategies to deal with your unique issue. The ultimate goal of family therapy according to Katherine Lee is to “heal any mental, emotional, or psychological problems tearing your family apart.”
The Benefits of Family Therapy
Deciding to start therapy with your family might not be an easy choice. Some family members might feel resistant to the idea of seeing a therapist. They might think they can handle issues on their own, they might not want to air “dirty laundry” to a stranger, or they might feel shy speaking about their pain in front of the person causing it.
The good news is that if you can get your family into therapy, there are many ways it can benefit you.
Identify the Underlying Issues Causing Tension
While every family may deal with issues from time to time, sometimes issues don’t go away. They linger, and fester, getting worse and worse. When that happens, it’s often easier to see the symptoms rather than the actual underlying cause. And, just like with an illness, treating the symptoms doesn’t cure the disease.
For example, if a child is acting out by throwing tantrums, the tantrums are the symptom, not the disease. You stop the tantrums by figuring out why the child is throwing them in the first place. The same holds true for communication issues. Not communicating well is the symptom; you need to figure out why the communication problem is happening in order to open up better communication.
Find (and Fix) Ineffective Communication Problems
Good communication is key in any type of relationship, but families are around each other so much that sometimes bad communication habits form without meaning to. In family therapy, the therapist can help identify the bad habits and recommend strategies for making it better.
Break from Old Thought Patterns
When you’re in the middle of a problem it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. You might not recognize your thought patterns or behavior patterns. And if you don’t recognize them, how can you fix them? Working with a family therapist will help you see and understand your thought patterns and how they’re affecting your family dynamic. The therapist can also help you figure out the best way to break from these patterns and form new, healthier patterns.
Clearly Define Roles and Boundaries
Children don’t come with instruction manuals and so many parents don’t know the best way to define their roles and boundaries with their children. This often brings up behavior issues when the parent doesn’t understand how to, well, be a parent. A therapist has a clear understanding of what sorts of behaviors are developmentally appropriate – and what behaviors warrant further investigation. They can also help teach parents better strategies for dealing with negative behaviors, setting boundaries, and clearly defining roles (in a healthy, respectful way).
Work Through Conflicts With a Neutral 3rd Party
A therapist is a neutral third party who can help you with your conflicts. They’re not invested in one outcome over the other. They simply look for the best way to deal with the issues at hand.
It can really help the family relationships to have an impartial, unbiased person sort through the issues they’re dealing with, and recommend how to work through those issues. That’s exactly what family therapists are trained to do!
Develop Long-Term Solutions for Recurring Issues
Sometimes problems keep coming up over and over even when you feel like they’ve already been resolved. If that’s happening to you and your family, chances are the actual reason for the issue occurring in the first place hasn’t been found and fixed. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results doesn’t work for anybody. But trying something, new having a fresh perspective and new set of eyes view your problems, really can help you understand the way to fix it in the long-term and stop the issues from happening.
When you’re embroiled in a conflict it’s easy to only see from your own perspective. Working with somebody who sees through a neutral lens can help you make decisions not based on emotion and anger but on more logical conclusions. Issues pertaining to family are often highly emotionally charged and it’s easy to to get caught up in the chaos and emotional swirl of the conflict.
Plus, working with a trained professional takes the pressure off of you to figure it all out yourself. They will help you understand what’s going on, and the best way to move forward to make it better for everyone involved.
How to Find a Family Therapist
As you can see, there are many benefits to working with a family and marriage therapist. However, there can also be some disadvantages.
A therapist might get embroiled in the family conflict or not understand the best way to help a family navigate through the conflicts. A therapist might be more invested in making the client feel “right” rather than doing what’s best for the group.
While it’s not common, there are family therapists who need more education and experience to really help families learn to communicate better and work together. But there is a way to weed out the good therapists from the bad.
Try asking these questions before you start any sort of session to get a feel for how the therapist works, and will work with your family.
- Please describe your background in training and family therapy.
- How do you feel about saving a marriage versus helping couples break up?
- How do you approach the situation when one partner wants to end the relationship but the other partner wants to save it?
- How much of your practice is devoted to family therapy?
- Do you have experience with the issues my family is facing?
- What sorts of techniques and theories do you adhere to?
If All Else Fails…
If your family is facing difficult times, but one or more members of the family refuse to see a therapist, all is not lost. You can still get help for yourself on your own and that can help you learn how to deal with a family that won’t, or can’t, change.
Just know there’s help, there’s hope, and if you want to talk to someone, contact us for a free consultation.
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