Mayo Clinic Health Library

Family therapy

Updated: 10-13-2011

Definition

Family therapy is a type of psychological counseling (psychotherapy) done to help family members improve communication and resolve conflicts. Family therapy is usually provided by a psychologist, clinical social worker or licensed therapist. These therapists have graduate or postgraduate degrees and may be credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

Family therapy is often short term. It may include all family members or just those most able to participate. Your specific treatment plan will depend on your family's situation. Family therapy sessions can teach you skills to deepen family connections and get through stressful times, even after you're done going to therapy sessions.

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Why it's done

Family therapy can help you improve troubled relationships with your spouse, children, or other family members. You may address specific issues such as marital or financial problems, conflict between parents and children, or the effects of substance abuse or a mental illness on the entire family.

Your family may pursue family therapy along with other types of mental health treatment, especially if one of you has a mental illness or addiction that also requires individual therapy or rehabilitation treatment. For example, family therapy can help family members cope if a relative has schizophrenia — but the person who has schizophrenia should continue with his or her individualized treatment plan, which may include medications, one-on-one counseling or other treatment.

In the case of addiction, the family can attend family therapy while the person who has an addiction participates in residential treatment. Sometimes the family may participate in family therapy even if the addicted person hasn't sought out his or her own treatment.

Family therapy can be useful in any family situation that causes stress, grief, anger or conflict. It can help you and your family members understand one another better and bring you closer together.

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How you prepare

The only preparation needed for family therapy is to find a psychologist or another type of licensed therapist. You can ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a therapist. Family members or friends may give recommendations based on their experiences. Your health insurance company, employee assistance program, clergy, or state or local mental health agencies also may offer recommendations.

Before scheduling sessions with a therapist, consider whether the therapist would be a good fit for your family. Here are some things to consider and some questions to ask:

  • Education and experience. What is your educational and training background? Are you licensed by the state? Are you accredited by the AAMFT or other professional organizations? What is your experience with my family's type of problem?
  • Location and availability. Where is your office? What are your office hours? Are you available in case of emergency?
  • Length and number of sessions. How long is each session? How often are sessions scheduled? How many sessions should I expect to have?
  • Fees and insurance. How much do you charge for each session? Are your services covered by my health insurance plan? Will I need to pay the full fee upfront? What is your policy on canceled sessions?
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What you can expect

Family therapy typically brings several family members together for therapy sessions. However, a family member may also see a family therapist individually. Sessions typically take about 50 minutes to an hour. Family therapy is often short term — generally less than six months. However, how often you meet and the number of sessions you'll need will depend on your family's particular situation and the therapist's recommendation.

During family therapy, you'll examine your family's ability to solve problems and express thoughts and emotions. You may explore family roles, rules and behavior patterns in order to identify issues that contribute to conflict — as well as ways to work through these issues. Family therapy may help you identify your family's strengths, such as caring for one another, and weaknesses, such as difficulty confiding in one another.

For example, say that your adult son has depression. Your family doesn't understand his depression or how best to offer support. Although you're worried about your son's health, conversations with your son or other family members erupt into arguments and you're left feeling frustrated and angry. Communication diminishes, decisions go unmade, and the rift grows wider.

In such a situation, family therapy can help you pinpoint your specific challenges and how your family is handling them. Guided by your therapist, you'll learn new ways to interact and overcome unhealthy patterns of relating to each other. You may set individual and family goals and work on ways to achieve them. In the end, your son may be better equipped to cope with his depression, and the entire family may achieve a sense of understanding and togetherness.

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Results

Family therapy doesn't automatically solve family conflicts or make an unpleasant situation go away. But it can help you and your family members understand one another better, and can provide you with skills to cope with challenging situations in a more effective way.

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