What Does a Family Therapist Do?

Similar to other kinds of therapy, family therapy, is designed to address issues of psychological health and mental wellness. In the case of family therapy or family counseling, the goal is to work with an entire family unit.

Family therapists are uniquely trained to work with families to assist them with all manner of problems that may be affecting their functioning and overall well-being.

In some cases, people attend family therapy as a primary approach to deal with their problems. Other times, it is used as a complementary treatment, while specific family members may also receive individual therapy from other providers. The exact plan will depend on the needs of the family and family members. A family therapist can make more specific recommendations. Learn more about family therapy and the work that family therapists do to help people have healthy relationships:

What is a Family Therapist?

Mental health providers have been providing family therapy for years, even before there were any designated family therapists. In the early twentieth century, social workers largely took on the task of family-focused work. Around that same time, child psychologists were also actively working with families. This work was influenced by research from Nathan Ackerman.

In the 1950s, family therapy started to develop as its own unique area of specialized treatment. The development of the field was influenced by several researchers including Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson, Jay Haley, and Murray Bowen. Over time, they collectively shaped the field of family therapy. In the 1960s, the approach was formally recognized as a unique valuable psychotherapeutic approach.

The field of family therapy has evolved over the years. Today, family therapists learn how to treat the family unit as a whole, and by addressing the relationships of the family unit, they help each individual person. However, family therapists do not only address relationship problems. The work they do can assist with treating serious mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. This work is typically done in a brief, goal-oriented, and solution-focused model.

Currently, to learn how to do their work, family therapists tend to be specially trained mental health professionals. Most attend training programs in marriage and family therapy. In those programs, they broadly learn about family systems and how to provide psychotherapy. At the end of their training, they can diagnose and treat a wide range of concerns. Once trained and adequately experienced, they can become licensed (then they are typically called Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists or LMFTs).

Since the field was formally established, there has been a significant increase in the number of LMFTs. Now, at any given time, these specialists are collectively serving more than 1.8 million individuals. The field is well-respected. Marriage and Family Therapists are considered among the main mental health providers, often working alongside psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists.

Family Therapy Theory

Most practitioners of family therapy take the perspective of systems theory. The approach of family systems therapy assumes that the internal dynamics of a family can lead to and maintain problematic behaviors in the individual family members. Essentially, the system of the family may be the culprit and cause of any other problems. It is thought that the dynamics must be addressed to bring change.

Some practitioners take other approaches such as experiential, psychodynamic, and cognitive-behavioral. No matter which specific approach is used, all family therapists can help families to address communication problems, improve coping skills, solve problems, and strengthen the family connections.

How Does Family Therapy Cause Change?

When families face stressors from life events they may need the help of a family therapist to adjust and settle back into a healthy dynamic. Precipitating life events could include changes to the family unit such as the addition of a new family member or loss from the death or departure of a family member. The divorce of parents could also necessitate family therapy as the children adjust to the change. Other life events could be seen in financial strain or a family move to a new location.

Family therapy may also be recommended if one or more members of the family are struggling with mental health concerns. If those issues are affecting the family as a whole, then family therapy can help everyone learn how to best support the individual. Parents may find it helpful for addressing childrens’ behavioral problems. Family therapy is also recommended when there are communication problems or interpersonal conflicts. A family therapist can help the family work through these challenges.

The goal of family therapy is to increase the sense of understanding and collaboration within the family unit. It is thought that by increasing the functionality of the whole family unit, the individual family members will benefit. Moreover, the problems of individual family members are typically perceived as being the result of the broader dynamics. For example, a teenager’s eating disordered behavior would be seen as something for the whole family to address so they can best support that individual person.

What Happens in a Family Therapy Session?

Family therapy sessions usually occur one time per week. Most sessions last approximately 50 minutes. There could be some variation depending on the provider and your family therapy goals. Generally, family therapy occurs in a short-term, solution-focused format. This means that progress can occur in just an average of 9-12 sessions, which means any specific family may need more or fewer sessions.

The specific family members to attend sessions will vary, depending on the family’s goals and the needs in a given session. For example, if a session is going to focus on a teen’s drug use, younger children in the family unit may not need to attend, especially as some of the content discussed may be too mature for them. The family therapist will make recommendations and determinations for who should attend.

Does Family Therapy Work?

Research indicates the approach of family therapy is fairly effective. In some cases, it is even the preferred treatment. Studies have shown family therapy to be helpful in addressing depression, substance use, children’s behavioral problems, adult substance use, eating disorders, and chronic illness emotional distress. All these conditions effect and are affected by the family dynamics.

As noted, family therapists take an approach to mental health treatment that is solution-focused and goal-oriented. Research shows that the average length of treatment is 9-12 sessions. A majority of cases can be resolved in 20-50 sessions. Family therapists do provide some services in an individual or one-to-one format and many spend approximately half of their time providing those services.

Studies also indicate that people are generally happy with the services they receive from LMFTs. Generally, clients tend to report improvement in relationships, emotional well-being, and daily functioning. Most people who have worked with a family therapist will freely report receiving good services and recommending similar services to others who need help.

Concerns/Limitations of Family Therapy

Family therapists can help with many different problems. Families who are struggling in their relationships and dynamics will find it beneficial. It can be used to assist families when one particular member has a mental health concern that may interact with the family dynamic. It is fortunate that family therapy can be applicable for many different problems. However, it cannot address everything.

In some cases, family therapy may not be the best approach. This could be the case if the presenting problems do not lend themselves to the collective discussion. For example, if parents are struggling in their marriage, they would be better helped by relationship counseling. Other times, individual members of the family would be best served by individual therapy. This can be done as a simultaneous or concurrent treatment and a family therapist would make that recommendation as needed.

How to Find a Therapist

Most often, family therapy is provided by a licensed marriage and family therapist (abbreviated as LMFT). Some other mental health providers are also given training to conduct family therapy. For example, psychologists, professional counselors, and social workers may also be able to provide family therapy. These providers could work in private practice, family counseling agencies, community agencies, or treatment centers. The provider you choose will depend on several key factors.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMFT?

An LMFT (or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) will have had graduate training (earning either a Master’s degree or a Doctoral degree). This formal training will also be followed by supervised experience in the field. Some LMFTs choose to be a part of the America Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Membership can reflect a commitment to professional development through ongoing education for the latest updates in the field.

This means that as you look for an LMFT, you will want to check that they are appropriately credentialed, and you may want to find out whether they are a member of a professional organization. Beyond that, you will want to make sure that they have experience working with presenting concerns similar to your own. Finally, you will want to look for someone that you and your family feel comfortable working with. This will lead to the best therapy outcomes.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

After doing some research and finding your top options for family therapy providers, you may want to ask the potential counselors some important questions. You will likely want to ask about their education and training. You may also want to ask about their previous experience working with families. You will also want to ask about their experience working with presenting concerns similar to your own. You want to be sure they will know how to help you.

Find a Therapist with ThriveTalk

If you are interested in pursuing family therapy, there are a few ways to find the right therapist for you. One way is to ask your doctor for a recommendation. You can also ask friends or family who they recommend. Finally, you can research online to find the right provider. There are many great resources online to can help you find the right therapist.

The Psychology Today website has search tools to find local mental health providers. SAMSHA also has a treatment locator to locate low cost therapy options. Today, many people also choose to attend therapy appointments online. Online counseling is confidential and convenient. This can be an ideal choice for busy families who may not want to go into a therapist’s office.

If you choose to use online counseling, consider the Thrive Talk platform. It is simple to use. You just make an account and then you can look through their registered providers to find the right one for you. Each therapist is well-trained and appropriately licensed to offer the help that you need. Once you find the right choice, you can schedule and work with them online.

Final Thoughts

Overall, family therapy has been shown as a helpful approach for a wide variety of presenting concerns. People use family therapy to address not only relationships but other mental health problems (such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, behavioral problems, and dementia). These problems are addressed by attending to the whole family unit and any ways that the family dynamics might be contributing the presenting problems. Families can also be affected by some member of the family having a mental health concern and family therapy can help with that too.

If your marital relationship or family functioning is currently impaired, consider working with a family therapist. These specialized providers know how to help people improve the quality of their family relationships. By working with the entire family unit, various problems can also be addressed, including serious mental health problems. Each individual member of the family unit can be helped by family therapy. Simultaneously, the therapy work that is done can improve the entire family dynamic.

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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