What Is Family Therapy?

The sudden adrenaline rush was not a pleasant one. It was like being lowered into a crocodile pit or being caught in a tornado.

It was my first session as a professional therapist. It was family therapy with 10 people!

There weren’t even enough chairs for everyone to sit. Mom, the matriarch of the clan, sat in the middle. There were adult sons and daughters, cousins, and others. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I heard about a murder, drug dealing, and bitter resentments. That was just background information. I felt overwhelmed. But, I did succeed in getting them to talk with each other. Despite my anxiety, and an insufficient number of chairs, I think they received value for the low fee they paid for the session.

This proved to be a rather atypical session for me.

The more likely experience

Over the past 25 plus years I have found that family therapy usually involves two to five people in my office. It’s a mom and her 17-year-old daughter. It’s a dad with his 10-year-old son. Or, it’s two parents and their three kids. It can be a middle-aged woman with her father, a young adult with one or both parents, or two siblings whose fights are dominating the household.

Sometimes everyone involved in the conflict is in my office. Other times, I meet with subsets of the family: an individual session followed by meeting with three family members and then a couples’session with Mom and Dad. Making these strategy decisions is part of the creativity required to be an effective family therapist.

Generally, it’s the little things.

Family conflict is often ignited by “little things.” After the bitter argument, one or more family members might be embarrassed for making something small a hill to die on. So why do we humans fight over little things? Answer: we fight over small things because they symbolize the big things. The big things are respect, dignity, freedom to choose, control, needs and many others.

When individuals within the family learn how to communicate, the sense of relief is palpable. Families can learn to talk about old things in new ways. They can learn how to recognize ways that respect and closeness are expressed through the little things.

There are at least four major benefits of family therapy.

The first benefit has to do with communication skills. Family therapy helps families find new, comfortable ways of talking about needs and concerns.

This means less conflict! With new communication skills, steps, and tools there are fewer arguments. And the necessary disagreements don’t send emotional shrapnel into everyone around.

Every family has unspoken rules about who in the family can talk about certain issues. As family members grow and change, these expectations overlook important needs and frustrations. In our family therapy sessions, I will coach you on how to say things in new ways that fit with your personality and the personality of each family member

The second major benefit is a transformation from a haphazard, reactive family to becoming an intentional family.

Family therapy helps families become more intentional, especially with family rituals. There are so many distractions (think devices!) to pull families apart. To thrive, families need their own rituals of connection. It could be an evening meal, a Saturday breakfast, or a daily check-in. Families that don’t have these rituals of connection just don’t do well when it comes to staying close.

Families are little societies that develop over time. Often the way the family atmosphere feels is due to a series of reactions to circumstances over time, instead of intentional planning. Family therapy helps each person in the therapy to become a stakeholder in how the family should change. It’s about being an intentional family instead of one that just reacts to the various ebb of life.

Third, family therapy helps families understand, develop, or appreciate their family identity

Every family has distinct characteristics. There’s the roommate family where no one really knows or cares what the others are doing. There’s the athletic family where time and energy revolve around sports schedules and games. There’s the brainy family, the musical family, the service-minded family, and many other variations and combinations.

Often a family will start family therapy because of a conflict that appears unsolvable. By the time they finish with a series of sessions, the problem has been solved with a major side-benefit. The family members have more understanding and respect for the individual needs of each person. And they have a greater appreciation of the unique strengths of their own family.

The fourth benefit of family therapy is that it solves key ongoing problems. It takes the sharp rocks out of your shoes!

An unresolved family problem that goes on and on is like trying to hike with a sharp rock in your shoe. You can keep going out of sheer willpower, but it’s a whole lot more fun if you can get the rocks out of your shoes…and enjoy the view! Family therapy helps solve special challenges, because it unleashes the wisdom of the whole family. I’m often surprised by how children and teens have insights into problems that parents think the children know nothing about.

Does your family need family therapy?

The best way to answer this question is have one family therapy session. One of the reasons that I enjoy being a family therapist is that I have seen how one session can change the trajectory of how a family is dealing with a big issue. Sometimes there is a new channel of communication that is poised to open. Contact me today to see if an evaluation session makes sense for you and one or more of your family members.

Want to know more about my specialty of relationship and family therapy? Click here.