Family Therapy Techniques

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: Mar 24, 2024

Family therapy is a form of group therapy. Family therapy is for any group of people who consider themselves a family unit—children and parents, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts, uncles, caregivers or chosen families. 

Family therapy assumes the group is cohesive and interconnected, and issues are addressed as a whole. Other forms of group therapy, by comparison, involve a group of people who may or may not know each other beforehand.

Common mental health challenges affecting families

Families who choose to go to therapy together are aiming to improve communication, understanding and empathy within the family. Families may seek therapy treatment if they are experiencing a collective challenge like divorce, the death of a loved one, or financial hardships. Families may also benefit from therapy if they are facing a major change to the family’s lifestyle, such as welcoming a new child, or if they are moving to a new city or country.

They may also seek therapy if one member is experiencing difficulties that are impacting the rest of the family. These could include:

Signs your family would benefit from therapy

Every family experiences times of conflict, hardship or stress. This is a normal aspect of living with multiple people. A healthy, functional family can positively impact the overall mental wellbeing of everyone involved, particularly when it comes to the psychological development of children and youth.

How do you know if you’re just going through a challenging time, or you need professional help?

When families are under unusual stress or they do not have the tools available to communicate well, there is a risk the family will become dysfunctional. Dysfunction can be characterized by conflict, misbehaviour by one or more family members (adults or kids), or an increase in verbal or physical abuse. 

Signals that the family might be experiencing dysfunction:

  • Family members are starting to withdraw 
  • Individuals are reacting with extreme emotional responses such as excessive anger or fear
  • Someone is exhibiting symptoms of depression, like despair, helplessness or hopelessness
  • A child is misbehaving at home or school in a drastic way, such as grades dropping suddenly or having emotional outbursts
  • The family is living in an environment or uncertainty and unpredictability, such as if the caregivers’ relationship is strained, or there is an external factor at play like financial difficulties 
  • Family members find it difficult to set or respect one another’s boundaries, or there is role confusion (a child taking on caregiving responsibilities)

These issues can arise anew in family units, or they might repeat throughout generations. Breaking the cycle is not impossible. If the family decides as a unit to seek professional help, that’s great. If you are experiencing signs of worsening mental health due to your family dynamic, but your family is not willing to take on treatment, you can always seek individual therapy. This can still help with creating healthy boundaries with your family to improve your own mental health outlook.

Techniques used for family therapy

Once your family is ready to seek help through a therapist, it’s important to go through the steps to ensure therapist fit for everyone. This can include:

  • Looking for a professional who often works with families or specializes in family therapy 
  • Knowing if there is coverage available from at least one family member’s health benefits plan, or if it’s affordable in general
  • That each family member can attend the meeting time and location
  • Ensuring the therapist is licensed or credentialed properly in your province

Various therapy techniques may be used depending on the needs of the family and reason they’re seeking therapy, but typically family therapy will be a form of psychotherapy, or talk therapy. 

For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy modality (technique). CBT addresses distorted thinking patterns, and how those impact our emotions and behaviours. When CBT is applied to families, it assumes each other’s emotions and behaviours influence everyone else. The aim, then, is to help families look at how and why their thinking patterns may be based on distorted information, and how to modify those thoughts to lead to more productive emotions and behaviours as a unit. Restructuring distorted belief systems as a family can strengthen important parts of a healthy family structure: shared core values, sense of belonging, support and understanding of one another. 

Structural family therapy (SFT) is another subset of family therapy. A therapist will observe and interview the family together, look at the overall family structure, and then look at how everyone is operating. Through exercises like roleplaying and problem-solving exercises, the family can bring balance, satisfaction and healthy boundaries to the relationship and reduce anger, resentment or sadness.

Family therapy can be short-term to help build new coping or communication skills, or ongoing to ensure long term family unit health.

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.