9 Things to Know About How Family Therapy Works

Having family issues is challenging for each member of the family. And reaching out for help for the first time can seem just as overwhelming. If you are thinking about starting family therapy, you should know what to expect and how family therapy works.

How Does Family Therapy Work? 

1. A Family Affair 
As opposed to individual therapy, family therapy involves the entire family. While the family therapist may choose to see family members individually and as a family, this type of therapy targets the dynamics of the whole family and works to make these dynamics change for the better.

2. Confidentiality
If you’ve gone to individual therapy before, you’ve probably heard the basic tenets of confidentiality: that the therapist can’t disclose anything you tell them unless you are planning to harm yourself or someone else, or you are at risk for being harmed. Because in family therapy, the entire family is the client, informed consent can function a bit differently. So you aren’t blindsided, you may want to ask your family therapist how they utilize confidentiality. And if you say anything to the therapist in confidence that you would like them to keep secret, be sure to be upfront about this and discuss how far their confidentiality extends.

3. The Identified Patient 
Oftentimes, families seeking family therapy have one family member which is creating particular trouble. When these family seek family therapy, it is with the clear indication that one individual is the problem. Family therapists refer to this person as the “identified patient.” If your family has an identified patient, you should be aware before beginning family therapy that the therapist will treat the identified patient’s problem behavior as a direct effect of the family’s unhealthy dynamics.

4. How Long Will We Be in Therapy? 
When looking to start therapy, people can often be deterred in the process by being unsure about what they are agreeing to, and how long they are agreeing to treatment. This can depend on many factors. First and foremost, the place where you are receiving services may have its own protocol in regards to length of service. Furthermore, the length of service is often determined by the family’s issues and willingness to change, as well as how receptive they are to treatment.

5. Therapy vs. Medication 
There is a lot of confusion around who can prescribe medication for mental health issues. Unless you are receiving therapy from a psychiatrist, they cannot prescribe medication. However, your therapist may refer you to a psychiatrist for evaluation and possible medication in addition to therapy.

6. Forget Freud
We all know some basics of Freudian theory through jokes on television or in movies. Everything is centered around sex, phallic imagery, and complexes that make children have sexual feelings for their parents. Plenty of individuals in the modern era have been turned away from therapy because of anxiety surrounding these Freudian theories. But, don’t worry — Freud has basically been discredited at this point. No modern therapist or psychologist sees Oedipal and Electra complexes as a central component of the family dynamic. Relax and trust that your family therapist will see the reality of your underlying family dynamics and not give in to outdated theories.

7. Feelings, Feelings, Feelings! 
One of the central aspects of family therapy is open and honest communication. Many interpersonal issues are caused by a lack of communication, and turning the tables on this can make big changes in how your family interacts with one another. It can be incredibly difficult, but also incredibly beneficial. So sit back, and get ready to feel!

8. The Family Tree 
We all are deeply impacted by our environments, especially our environments when we are growing up. So when we become adults and begin our own families, we can’t help but have our actions impacted by our parent’s actions and issues. Issues happening in your family are not isolated. They are connected to the issues seen in your parents, and in your parents’ parents.

9. Always Looking Up 
Becoming a healthier family unit is a lifelong process, and family therapy is only the beginning. Don’t be discouraged if changes feel like they are taking too long, or not happening. Give yourself and your family patience and understanding, and your family will continue to learn how to both treat themselves, and each other, better. Family therapy may only last for your family for a couple months, or a year. But learning to love each other better is a journey you all will continue on for the rest of your lives.

Deciding to begin family therapy is the first step to a happier family life. It can be a terrifying step, but by taking it, you will be empowering yourself and your family to become the best versions of yourselves that you can be.

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