When Psychology was still a young science, most experts used to think that individuals are solely responsible for their mental or emotional issues.
As a result, many psychologists focused exclusively on treating a specific problem without paying too much attention to the family context in which individuals usually function.
Nowadays, mental health experts have a broader understanding of family systems and group dynamics that can influence one’s health and well-being.
Sometimes, problems at the individual level can affect family dynamics and vice versa. In such cases, family therapy and couples counseling can restore healthy group dynamics and facilitate active communication between family members
In case you’re wondering “what is family therapy” and “how can I become a family therapist,” here’s what you need to know.
What Do Family Therapists Do?
From a broader perspective, both individual and family therapy have the same goals, to promote mental and emotional health, uncover dysfunctional patterns of thinking or behavior, and assist individuals, couples, or families in building authentic interactions with their loved ones.
As for the process, both approaches focus on assessment, psychoeducation, and intervention strategies.
However, a family counselor places much more emphasis on group dynamics and interpersonal communication than a psychologist who practices individual therapy.
To get a better sense of what is family therapy, let’s take a closer look at how the whole therapeutic process unfolds.
Assess family dynamics
A family therapist will begin the process with an extensive assessment of the family or couple dynamic. The purpose of this first step is to uncover problematic attitudes or behaviors within the group and identify potential resources that the family can use to achieve well-being.
During the assessment stage, family counselors or therapists use different evaluation tools (questionnaires, personality tests, structured interviews) and create space for each family member to voice his/her issues and concerns.
When evaluating couples or families, psychologists usually focus on personality traits, attachment styles, compatibility level, and internal or external resources.
Provide an overview of family and couple issues
The assessment stage doesn’t just help family counselors plan their intervention but also provides clients (couples or family members) with valuable insights. By knowing the inner workings of their problems and what resources they have at their disposal, clients can finally gain a sense of clarity and direction.
Based on the assessment protocol, psychologists draw key conclusions that summarize the family or couple’s overall problems. Armed with a comprehensive case conceptualization, the family therapist will set up specific goals that help families the issues that brought them to therapy.
Unfortunately, many couples resort to family counseling when their problems have worsened, and the risk of divorce is high. After years of dissatisfaction, resentment, and hatred, partners may find it impossible to reach common ground and figure out how to save their relationship.
An essential aspect of family or couples therapy is identifying and highlighting resources. Any relationship or family has its resources, but members are often too focused on the negative aspects.
A good family counselor will cultivate awareness and guide families towards the positive aspects of their interactions.
Suggest intervention strategies
Like any other psychotherapeutic intervention, family therapy relies on a set of strategies and techniques that help clients achieve therapeutic progress.
Depending on the reasons that brought them to therapy, the nature of their problems, and the goals they wish to pursue, clients experiment with different therapeutic exercises designed to trigger self-awareness, develop empathy, improve communication, cultivate emotional resilience, and deliver effective problem-solving.
Since clients cannot remain in therapy forever, they need to have specific techniques they can resort to whenever tension rises within the family context.
Think of it as a toolbox that they can use to make small tweaks and repairs before consulting a professional again.
Improves intrafamily communication
We know for a fact that communication is at the core of happy couples and families. The ability to express yourself openly and clearly, coupled with empathic listening and the desire to discover your partner’s inner universe, is what ensures healthy and stable interactions.
But people tend to filter messages based on their expectations and interpretations. For example, some people can interpret silence as a symbol of rejection. That means whenever a partner or family member is silent; they might interpret this gesture as a sign of rejection.
To restore healthy and authentic communication within couples or groups, a family therapist will identify dysfunctional communication patterns, create a space where clients can work on this issue, and help them develop empathy and understanding towards one another.
Assist family members in cultivating healthy interactions
Just because clients understand the source of their dysfunctional family dynamics and are armed with techniques to help them navigate difficult situations doesn’t mean everything is peachy.
Achieving balance and well-being (individually or as a family) takes time, patience, and careful guidance. But no one knows precisely how much time couples or families need to reach their desired goals.
As it depends on a wide range of factors, the therapeutic process can last anywhere from several months to two or three years.
During this time, the counselor acts as a guide or mediator who facilitates meaningful interactions between family members and helps them develop the skills necessary to achieve balance and well-being.
It is a long and sometimes arduous process, but it’s the only way to help couples or families who are so caught up in defensiveness or criticism that they can’t help themselves.
What Makes a Good Family Therapist?
As a future family therapist, you will need to adopt a solid set of skills, principles, and values to ensure a successful practice.
Even if you realize that you might be missing some of the ‘ingredients’ listed below, keep in mind that, with effort and dedication, you can become a good family therapist.
Honesty and morality
When working with people, honesty and morality are crucial if you wish to cultivate trust and build a fruitful collaboration.
There is no room for manipulation, deception, seduction, and dishonesty in therapy.
Every counselor must inform clients about the process in which they are about to engage and answer any questions that come along the way. Furthermore, a good family therapist will help clients adjust their expectations by informing them about what he/she can or can’t offer.
For example, it’s a sign of honesty to tell a client that you cannot work with him/her or when his/her problems are beyond your level of expertise. In such cases, it’s best to recommend the client to a colleague who has more training and experience.
Furthermore, it’s honest to tell your client that he/she might need to consult a psychiatrist. When it comes to severe emotional or mental problems, psychotherapy is relatively limited, and most experts recommend a mix of talk therapy and medication. 
A good therapist knows his/her limits and doesn’t ‘bite off more than he/she can chew.’
Solid interpersonal abilities
In essence, interpersonal skills refer to how well you can navigate social contexts, interact with others, and build authentic relationships.
For a mental health professional, interpersonal skills make the difference between a conversation and a strong therapeutic alliance.
A good family therapist can express himself/herself well, understand what clients think or feel, and cultivate interactions based on warmth, acceptance, and empathy.
By doing so, he/she creates a space where clients feel safe and comfortable enough to engage in meaningful (sometimes even painful) conversations about the problems that brought them to therapy.
Furthermore, a therapist should tell when a client wants to delve deeper into a specific topic but doesn’t quite know how to do it. In such cases, a well-trained counselor can provide guidance using insightful questions and active listening.
The best predictor for success is the therapeutic alliance, and a good family counselor knows how to create one.
As you probably know, therapy is not just about pouring out your painful emotions in front of a trained professional who can provide an empathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on.
Psychotherapy is an active and collaborative process that relies on a clear action plan. During and between sessions, clients experiment with different therapeutic techniques and coping strategies to achieve their desired goals.
But none of this is possible without the input of a therapist or counselor who can design a step-by-step plan based on detailed assessment and case conceptualization.
Whether we’re talking about therapy, counseling, coaching, or any other goal-driven process, planning provides structure and direction.
Long story short, a good family counselor performs an evaluation right from the beginning and comes up with a clear plan. The treatment plan is then discussed with the client and made not to exceed the client’s ability to adapt or change.
Flexibility and spontaneity
Although planning is an essential ingredient for therapeutic success, counselors and therapists should exercise a certain degree of flexibility.
Let’s not forget that clients are human beings with unique traits and experiences, not preprogrammed machines that operate on strict algorithms.
A good family counselor doesn’t just follow treatment schemes to the letter. He or she can adapt the intervention depending on what changes might occur within the family system.
Sometimes, couples can discover new goals they wish to work on; other times, partners realize they no longer have the resources to make their relationship work. A therapist needs to accept the changes that might occur along the way and integrate them in the process.
Lastly, good psychotherapists are open-minded and respect their clients’ culture, religious or spiritual affiliation, and sexual orientation, without trying to impose their values or opinions.
Dedication to excellence
Like any other well-established science, psychology is a dynamic field. Each day, researchers and mental health professionals make exciting discoveries about the human mind.
Ideally, counselors and therapists should keep up with the latest research regarding effective interventions for various emotional or behavioral problems. Although it takes some time and effort to comb through scientific journals, it’s one of the best ways in which psychologists can ensure the best possible intervention strategies for their clients.
Counselors and therapists can also stay in touch with the latest advancements in their field by attending conferences, workshops, and courses.
In a world where science and technology are advancing rapidly, the only way to stay relevant and provide quality services is by keeping up with new trends and discoveries.
And mental health is not an exception to this rule.
What Degree Do You Need to Be a Family Therapist?
Now that you have e better understanding of what is family therapy, let’s talk about how you can become a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). Although it may seem a bit complicated at first, the process is pretty straightforward.
Here are the four steps you need to follow to become a family therapist:
As with any other profession, you need to have a bachelor’s degree to unlock the next step in your career path.
While some family counselors have a background in psychology, philosophy, or communication, it’s important to remember that graduate psychology programs don’t place too much emphasis on your undergraduate major.
As long as you have a bachelor’s degree, you can safely apply to a master’s program in psychology.
This is the step where your career as a family counselor begins to take shape. To become an LMFT, you will need to obtain a master’s degree.
You can opt for a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS). While MA programs tend to focus more on cognitive and behavioral science, counseling, and communication, MS programs place emphasis on statistics and methodology.
If you’re planning to teach or do research, you will also need doctoral studies. Although some family counselors hold Ph.D.’s, it’s not a requirement when you wish to obtain your license.
State licensing exam
Once you obtain your master’s degree, the final step to becoming an LMFT is taking the state licensing exam.
That is where the process gets a bit tricky because each state has its own requirements, so be sure to review the standards.
In most states, you are free to choose between the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination or the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification. However, some states prefer one test over the other so do your homework well before you decide.
Once you pass the state licensing exam, you can proudly call yourself a licensed marriage and family therapist.
As for career options, you can choose to work in a hospital, mental health clinic, substance abuse treatment center, transitional living center, rehab center, and the list goes on.
Another viable option is to open your own private practice. Although this path puts more responsibility on your shoulders, it also offers independence and flexibility.
In the end, it’s up to you to decide which career path suits you best.
Is Family Counseling a Good Idea?
Family counseling is among the most sought-after mental health services.
In general, people seek counseling services when a relationship is going through a rough patch (and partners don’t have the resources to cope) or when a family has suffered a potentially traumatic event (divorce, death, terminal illness, accident, financial instability).
Divorce or separation
For many couples and families, divorce is a sensitive issue, especially when a child is affected by this change.
Even though parents might find a way to accept this harsh option, the child will always suffer the most.
That’s why families on the brink of separation need to consult a professional who can assist them (and the children) in coping with this unpleasant change.
A new family member
In general, a new newborn baby is a cause for joy and celebration. However, there are times when the new family member’s arrival can upset the balance of the family system.
Parents might radically change their priorities, and not every family member can adapt so quickly. That may give rise to communication problems, heated arguments, misdirected anger, and resentment.
With the help of a therapist, parents and children can learn to cultivate balance within their group dynamics and navigate transitional periods successfully.
The passing of a loved one
The death of a loved one can be a profoundly traumatic event that affects each member differently.
Such events can have a dramatic impact on the family system, generating tensions between members. If they don’t find a way to process their loss, the consequences can be devastating for all of them. Counseling provides a secure space where clients can mourn their loss and find a way to recover.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to assist clients in cultivating emotional health and well-being as a family counselor.
|n.a., “How Do I Choose Between Medication and Therapy?,” American Psychological Association, July 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/medication-or-therapy#. [Accessed 7 November 2020].