What Is Family Therapy?

An image of a family talking to a family therapist.

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What Is Family Therapy?

Family therapy is a type of treatment designed to help with issues that specifically affect families' mental health and functioning. It can help individual family members build stronger relationships, improve communication, and manage conflicts within the family system.

Some of the primary goals of family therapy are to create a better home environment, solve family issues, and understand the unique issues that a family might face.

Types of Family Therapy

There are several types of family therapy. A few that you might encounter include:

  • Family systems therapy: This type is an approach that focuses on helping people utilize the strengths of their relationships to overcome mental health problems.
  • Functional family therapy: This is a short-term treatment often utilized for young people experiencing problems with risky behavior, violence, or substance use. It helps teens and families look for solutions while building trust and respect for each individual.
  • Narrative family therapy: This type encourages family members to each tell their own story to understand how those experiences shape who they are and how they relate to others. By working with this narrative, the person can start to view problems more objectively than just seeing things through their own narrow lens.
  • Psychoeducation: This type of treatment is centered on helping family members better understand mental health conditions. By knowing more about medications, treatment options, and self-help approaches, family members can function as a cohesive support system. 
  • Supportive family therapy: This type of therapy focuses on creating a safe environment where family members can openly share what they are feeling and get support from their family.

Some therapists may stick with a specific type of family therapy. In contrast, others may take a more eclectic, multimodal approach that incorporates aspects of different types of treatment to suit the needs of the family.

Techniques

The techniques utilized in family therapy typically depend on factors such as the theoretical orientation of the therapist and the specific needs of the family. Some methods that may be utilized include:

  • Behavioral techniques: These methods often focus on skills training and psychoeducation to help family members address specific problems. For example, modeling and role-playing might be used to help family members resolve communication problems.
  • Psychodynamic techniques: These methods involve assessing how each family member interprets and responds to the problems they are facing. The therapist works with the family to develop new emotional insights and explore new ways of responding more effectively.
  • Structural techniques: These methods focus on helping family members with boundaries and power dynamics within the family. Such techniques can help families create new boundaries and establish routines that improve how the family functions.

Techniques used in family therapy focus on improving emotional awareness, assisting with major changes within a family, helping people accept things they cannot control, and improving communication and collaboration.

Other specific techniques used in family therapy may include learning to practice empathy, emotional validation, reflective listening, and cognitive reframing.

What Family Therapy Can Help With

Family therapy can help people with many different issues. Some of these include:

  • Behavioral problems in children or teens
  • Changes within the family 
  • Communication problems
  • Death of loved one
  • Divorce, separation, or marital problems
  • Parent-child conflicts
  • Problems between siblings
  • Parenting issues
  • Stressful events or major life transitions
  • Trauma

This type of therapy can also address individual mental health problems that can affect the entire family, such as anxiety, chronic illness, depression, and substance use.

Benefits of Family Therapy

Because this form of treatment addresses communication, family members can learn how to better share their thoughts and needs and resolve conflicts in a way that is less likely to damage relationships.

This type of therapy also focuses on how family members can address an individual family member’s difficulties. For example, if one family member has a mental health condition, family therapy can help alter some conditions that sometimes contribute to the problem.

When individuals are affected by mental illness, family members may sometimes lack awareness of how to help. As a result, they may engage in behaviors that maintain or even worsen aspects of the illness. Family therapy can help members of the family learn more about what they can do to support their family member who has a mental disorder while preserving their own mental well-being.

Effectiveness

Research suggests that family therapy can be effective for a range of purposes. Some supporting evidence includes:

  • A 2018 review found that family therapy could be useful in treating adult-focused problems, including relationship distress, intimate partner violence, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychosis, alcohol issues, and adjustment to chronic physical illness.
  • A 2019 study found that family therapy helped improve different areas of family functioning to help teens who were experiencing mental health problems.
  • One 2019 review found that family therapy demonstrated effectiveness in treating conduct problems, emotional problems, eating disorders, somatic problems, and recovery from abuse or neglect. The study also found that it was useful either when utilized independently or as part of a multimodal treatment program.

Further research is needed to better understand how family therapy may be most effective and how it compares to other forms of treatment.

Things to Consider

Because family therapy involves talking about emotional problems and conflicts, it can be difficult and upsetting. In some cases, people may initially feel worse before they begin to improve. It is important to remember that a professional therapist is there to help members of the family work through these conflicts and handle the intense emotions that people may experience.

While family therapy can be useful for various issues, that doesn’t mean it is right for everyone or every situation. Some other types of treatment that may also be useful include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or child psychotherapy.

How to Get Started

Family therapy is often short-term, but it may also take place for a year or longer, depending on the situation and needs of the family. While it frequently involves all family unit members, it may also focus on those who are willing or able to participate in treatment. 

During therapy sessions, the therapist will ask questions to learn more about the problems that have brought the family to therapy. They will also look at other factors contributing to issues, such as underlying mental health conditions and environmental stress.

This type of therapy is often provided by licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), but it can also be practiced by other mental health professionals including licensed professional counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

If you are interested in trying family therapy, it can be helpful to ask your doctor for a referral or look for professionals in your area who specialize in this type of therapy. You can also search the online directory at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy website.

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