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What To Look for in a Family Therapist

Family-Focused Therapy is a counseling process  which focuses on the family as an interconnected unit. This type of therapy differs from group counseling (such as 12-step programs) or individual psychotherapy. Typically, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT/MFT) has focused their studies on the family as a system.

Family therapy can occur with a couple, a child and a parent, or multiple children, parents, aunts, uncles, and even grandparents. This inclusive process aims to start a healthy dialogue between each individual in order to resolve conflicts. Its goal is also to solve the problem that prompted the need for therapy in the first place. 

Family therapy may help resolve a specific issue like preparing the family for a big life event. A therapist might also counsel clients on how to deal with the pain and grief caused by a traumatic experience (examples: physical or mental health illnesses, separation, divorce, or death).

Family therapy has a different set of challenges than couples counseling or individual psychotherapy. Within the family system are relationships, feelings, and experiences that can span back decades in some cases. Often times, the hurt may be more suppressed and therefore, more intense. The hard work of therapy will benefit from having all members of a family present and actively participating.

Each family carries within it, deep memories and experiences of the environment that they all shared. In order to work with complex histories and conflicts, family therapists need to understand how the individual functions. Through sessions they also learn how the combination of communication styles, experiences, and personalities of each member all intertwine. Family therapists may choose to use various modes of therapy, based on the family’s needs.

Family Therapy and Addiction

A family therapist can help families of substance abusers who need help, are entering treatment, or have just come out of treatment and detox center. A therapist can help families gain awareness, develop an understanding about the inner workings of addiction, learn about behavior warnings, how to initiate interventions (if needed), what recovery entails, and what to else to expect.

While primary treatment must be completed for a drug and alcohol addict, family therapy can be used also used to help family members understand how drug and alcohol abuse is affecting their loved one. Sessions can be helpful prior to the family member entering treatment.

Family therapy is beneficial in understanding the changes and restrictions that will occur for the individual and the family once a person leaves treatment and begins the recovery process.

Families can learn how to prevent drug or alcohol abuse in other family members (children), what actions will nurture or hinder sobriety, how to best support a recovering abuser, and what to do if they relapse.

Additionally, family therapy also exists to support adult children of substance abusers, who are experiencing the effects of trauma. A therapist will help the adult child understand their own self-sabotaging behaviors, correct destructive thoughts, and discuss how the presence of substance addiction affected them in the past and present.

Qualities to Look for in a Family Therapist

A family therapist is licensed as a marriage and family therapist (LMFT). Other kinds of mental health professionals include: licensed professional clinical counselors (LPCC/LPC), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), social workers (LCSW), clinical psychologists (PhD/PsyD), and psychiatrists (MD).

For marriage and family therapy, clinical counseling, and mental health counseling, all practitioners must have completed an advanced degree at the Master’s level. They also complete supervised training during graduate school as well as during their internship.   Psychologists have their doctorate degree, while psychiatrists are medical doctors (who can prescribe and administer medication).

All licensed mental health professionals are trained, mentored, and supervised to provide the best care possible. However, the most important factor of productive counseling is to find a therapist you feel comfortable opening up to and safe with. This can be more challenging in family therapy, because different members have different preferences of who they feel safe with and trust.

The group dynamic of therapy might make it difficult for each individual to be heard and speak. However, a skilled therapist will guide the session to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak and be heard. One of the main strengths of therapy is the ability to feel heard and understood.

Qualities to Look for in a Family Therapy Session

While there is usually a specific problem that brings a family into counseling, a family therapist should be able to help individual members understand the feelings of others, strengths and weaknesses within the family, conflicts, trigger points, and how to communicate more efficiently.

Therapy is hard work that requires patience, listening, honesty, and a willingness to share. While being vulnerable in front of a relative stranger may be an intimidating prospect, a therapist is not someone to fear. Families should feel safe and protected. Without that security, individuals will have a hard time participating and finding resolution.

Making the Most of Family Therapy

Therapy sessions typically run forty-five to fifty minutes. If there are difficulties, like distance, therapists may accommodate those limitations and work longer or provide alternate scheduling. Regardless, it’s important to make the most of the limited time.

If possible, prepare prior to session. Write down questions, concerns, family members you would like to address, and the overall problem that caused you to seek out therapy originally. If speaking in front of certain family members is daunting, rehearse what you would like to say prior to the session. Remain calm and try to keep your delivery firm and respectful.

Remember to refrain from tedious arguing. While this may be difficult based on the level of disagreement and hostility, it is important to stay focused on the main issue or issues to make the most out of therapy.

Healing the Family Unit

Family therapy is a collaborative process between patients and therapists, which works to find the best solution for the family unit as a whole. This type of specific therapy may also help children at any age handle transitions of major life changes like, illness, remarriage, divorce, an absent parent, addiction, or loss of a loved one. By getting to know each family member and their feelings, complex histories, relevant conflicts, and communication styles, therapists can begin to understand how each individual affects the group dynamic.

Family therapists look at the whole family. They address each individual member and all the components that make up the family structure. Their therapeutic work looks to reaffirm relationships, build respect, and develop understanding for one another. Therapists who conduct successful family-focused therapy achieve better communication styles, a healthier atmosphere, and healing.

Do you feel your family is in need of therapy? Let me know what questions you have in the comments below!