Family therapy

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Julie Crawford
Last updated 28th February 2022 | Next update due 27th February 2025

Family therapy looks to help members of a family understand each other better, change negative behaviours and resolve conflicts. It is appropriate for all ages and can even be useful for individuals. Here we’ll take a closer look at what’s involved in family therapy and how it could help you.

Families can be very complicated things. We’re all unique, we have different perspectives and experience life events a little differently. When you throw family dynamics into this mix, it’s perhaps unsurprising that relationships can become fraught.

Lots of different events and circumstances can make family life stressful, from mental health problems to getting married. When things become overwhelming within a family, or when you’re finding it difficult to move out of old, unhelpful patterns, family therapy may be able to help.

What is family therapy?

Counsellor Alexis Powell-Howard explains more about family therapy: knowing when to seek support, what to expect from sessions and how to find the right therapist for you.

Family therapy gives families the chance to express and explore their feelings in a safe, non-judgemental environment. Working alongside a therapist, families can discuss difficulties and differences within their relationships with the aim of improving communication and finding a way forward, together.

This approach looks to be inclusive and considerate of every member of the family, avoiding any sense of ‘ganging up’. It looks to recognise an individual’s strengths and build on these within sessions and work with members of the family in a collaborative way. Family therapists will invite engagement and be sensitive to the diverse nature of family relationships, forms, beliefs and cultures.

Family therapists don’t exclusively work with an entire family. They may only work with certain members of the family, with children and adults individually or with couples. They may even work with other groups and communities - the term family can cover a range of relationships and is generally used to describe a group of people who care about each other and call each other ‘family’.

Some family therapists will specialise and work with people and groups under-represented in mainstream services, such as LGBT clients and those from minority ethnic communities.

Often communication is at the very heart of relationship problems and family issues are no different. The parents divorce, siblings and parents become estranged and often it can be through miscommunication or different styles of communication that rifts start and last.

- Counsellor Graeme Orr in his article, ‘Do you struggle with family issues?’. 

What can family therapy help with?

Family therapy can help with a range of difficulties, from relationship difficulties to dealing with trauma and mental illness. Common examples of how family therapy can help include:

  • When a family/couple wants to improve their relationship.
  • When a member of the family is struggling with addiction.
  • When a member of the family is living with a mental illness.
  • When a member of the family is living with a disability or chronic illness.
  • When parents/guardians are worried about their child’s behaviour.
  • In the case of separation, parents are worried about the impact on the family.
  • When a family is coping with loss or trauma.
  • When family members are going through a life change (e.g. moving away, changing schools, getting married etc.)

If we’re going through something difficult ourselves, it can be quite easy to forget how other people are affected. With family therapy this can be addressed, giving members of the family a chance to express their concerns and communicate in a controlled environment.

By having a family therapist present to facilitate, reflect and enquire further, differences can often be understood and potentially resolved. Taking the time to talk and listen can be difficult with the everyday happenings of family life, having family therapy sessions gives you a dedicated space to do just that.

What happens in family therapy?

As with most types of therapy, your journey will typically begin with an assessment. This is when you meet with a therapist to help them understand what difficulties you’re facing and what you would like support with.

At this point, your therapist can also explain how they will be able to support you and discuss a plan for future sessions. Usually, the whole family will be seen together in one room for this therapy, so you are all able to speak and hear each other. Sometimes, however, therapists will work with individuals, couples or a particular group of family members. This will all depend on the problem you’re seeking support with.

In the sessions themselves, you may work with one therapist or a team of therapists. If you are working with a team, you may notice they talk to each other in front of you about the concern and any idea they have - many families find this insightful.

Therapists will avoid taking ‘sides’ or blaming particular individuals. Instead, they will look to engage the family as a whole and explore with you ways to move forward. They should give everyone ample time to speak, with a typical session lasting between 50 and 90 minutes. Often, sessions will take place weekly, but your therapist can discuss the frequency with you in your assessment.

Your particular circumstances will be taken into consideration, with your therapist adapting their methods depending on people’s ages, needs and preferences. For example, sessions that involve children may include drawing and play elements.

Our family systems are unique, fragile and fluid. Understanding our position within not only our system but within the wider community, can provide us with a deeper and more enriched way of looking at our interactions with others, as well as how we view and treat ourselves.

- counsellor Joshua Miles in his article, ‘Family dynamics and the roles we play’.

Systemic family therapy

Systemic therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on an individual's personal relationships, behaviour patterns, and life choices, and how they are linked with the issues they may be facing. Systemic therapy can be particularly beneficial in family therapy, as it seeks to reduce distress and conflict within family dynamics by addressing and improving the systems of interactions between individuals.

Systemic therapy can involve anyone in the family, whether parents and children, grandparents, siblings and even partners, friends and carers.

Systemic therapy aims to identify deep-rooted patterns within individual relationships with family members. This approach helps to uncover communication and behaviour within the family system, also assuming that the individual’s emotional issues are a result of difficulties within the family dynamic, and relationships outside of the family.

Typically, systemic therapists will not see the problem as that of the individual, but one for the whole family and wider circle.

What if a member of the family is reluctant to come?

For some family members, the idea of family therapy can feel a little daunting. In this case, it can be useful to arrange a meeting with the family therapist and the family member, giving them a chance to ask any questions they may have before officially starting the therapy sessions. Family therapists will be able to explain how they work and seek to find a way of working that makes everyone comfortable.

Can I see a family therapist alone?

You can see a family therapist as an individual. For many, it is helpful to have the family present in sessions to discuss together what’s happening, but of course, this isn’t always possible. Seeing a family therapist as an individual can still be very helpful.

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