Family therapy, also referred to as systemic therapy, is an approach that works with families and those who are in close relationships to foster change. These changes are viewed in terms of the systems of interaction between each person in the family or relationship.
It is understandable that families and those in relationships sometimes get into difficulties due to their differences, or feel the strain when loved ones have troubles. The aim of therapy is to work on these problems by encouraging family members and loved ones to help and empathise with each other. They are given the opportunity to understand and appreciate each other's needs, build on family strengths and ultimately make useful changes in their lives and relationships.
On this page
What is family/systemic therapy?
Systemic therapy is rooted in family therapy, a therapeutic adaptation of a larger interdisciplinary field known as systems theory.
Systems theory is a study of the complex systems present in nature, science and society, and its framework investigates and describes any group of objects that work together to produce a result. This could be a single organism such as a plant or a single human, or it could apply to a large organisation or indeed a family.
While the systems theory and systemic therapy can be applied to individuals, couples and in a variety of other settings, it is most commonly practiced in a family setting, as it doesn't seek to address people on an individual level and instead focuses on understanding problems in a contextual framework. On this page we will therefore be exploring the use of systemic therapy in a family setting.
How can family therapy help?
Family therapy and systemic practice supports the notion that family relationships form a key part of the emotional health of each member within that family. This type of therapy can help people who care for each other find ways to cope collaboratively with any distress, misunderstanding and pain that is affecting their relationships and putting a strain on the family unit.
Common problems that a family therapist will work with include stressful and traumatic life events such as: divorce and separation, illness or death of a loved one, and transitional stages of family development that can cause pain and upset. Work and school-related problems, psychosexual difficulties and parent-child conflict can also be explored through family therapy.
Family therapists may also work alongside health professionals to address specific conditions such as ADHD, eating disorders, addictions, depression, and any other conditions that may be having a damaging effect on family life. This makes family therapy useful for times of crisis and long-standing problems that are taking their toll on the family.
Essentially, by evaluating these issues and providing support, family therapy can help families and individuals to:
- better understand how their family functions
- identify strengths and weaknesses within the family system
- set goals and devise strategies to resolve problems
- develop their communication skills
- make the entire family unit stronger.
Who can benefit from family therapy?
As well as addressing a range of problems and health conditions, family therapy is sensitive to diverse family forms and relationships, beliefs and cultures. It is also considerate of the needs and problems of each individual within a family unit and takes into account all other key relationships in people's lives. This makes it a useful approach for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Families from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds may find family therapy particularly beneficial. This is because they are generally more vulnerable to external issues such as unemployment, which can negatively impact family life and relationships. Families who have children with behavioural issues may also find family therapy particularly valuable.
What does family therapy involve?
Family therapy will typically take place in the form of sessions in which individuals and their loved ones will be brought together with a family therapist to discuss the issues that are affecting their relationships. These sessions - and the family therapy techniques used - will be adapted according to the therapy goals and the ages, needs, resources and preferences of the individuals involved. Sessions involving children for example may include drawing and play exercises to help them express their emotions in a more creative and engaging manner.
Most forms of family therapy will borrow from other approaches, such a systems theory - an integrated approach that explores behaviour patterns and human experience of individuals as part of a group or family. Other models of family therapy are based on experiential, cognitive-behavioural or psychodynamic approaches. Ultimately though, they are all designed to help families and loved ones overcome problems affecting their relationships and develop a deeper sense of connection to one another.
What happens during a session?
Generally family therapists will aim to adopt an approach that does not take sides or blame individuals, but instead engages families in sharing understanding and views with each other - getting them to discuss the problems that are putting a strain on their relationships. By supporting this system of interaction, and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute to discussion, family therapy enables family members to explore ways forward that will work for them as a unit.
The number of family members who attend each session can vary, depending on therapy goals. Sometimes a family therapist will offer individual sessions to supplement the family meetings. These can be particularly beneficial for those who want to meet with the therapist before a family session to decide on the best ways to express their thoughts and feelings with others. In family therapy involving parents and children, therapists may wish to chat with parents separately following family sessions.
Whilst some family therapists work individually, others will collaborate with a co-therapist or team. In some cases, these colleagues will observe sessions to monitor how the family therapist and clients interact. They will then be in a position to share reflections and explore possibilities to help resolve issues. Many families find this approach to complex issues very helpful.
How many sessions will be needed?
Family therapy tends to be a solution-focused and short-term approach, and generally around six to 20 sessions are needed for families to realise their strengths and find ways forward. For families and loved ones who are experiencing more complex difficulties however, further sessions may be needed.
Sessions can last from between 50 and 90 minutes, and intervals between each one could be several weeks at a time depending on various factors, such as the problems being addressed, the stage of treatment and the needs of family members. Ultimately all elements of family therapy, including the setting, family therapy techniques and length of sessions will result from a collaboration and mutual agreement between the therapist and family.