Family therapy views a person’s symptoms as taking place in the larger context of the family. Without understanding that larger group and the complex, dynamic interactions that take place and how those interactions were formed, it may not be as easy to help the identified patient (the person with the “problem” that everyone else in the family is concerned about).
Just as a particular department in a business organization may suffer because of the problems in another department, a person with depression may be responding to larger family issues. For example, a depressed adolescent’s symptoms may be related to her parents’ marital problems. But if a therapist only saw the depressed teen, they may not share the greater family problems that could be an important part of their depression.
Family therapy is a psychotherapy style where cognitive, behavior or interpersonal therapy may be employed. However, it is most often used with interpersonal therapy.
Some special techniques of family therapy include:
- Genogram — A genogram is a family tree constructed by the therapist. It looks at past relationships and events and what impact these have on the person’s current emotional technique.
- Systemic Interpretation — Views depression as a symptom of a problem in the larger family.
For example, 16-year-old Billy’s getting into trouble in school and staying out at night are viewed as unconscious attempts to shore up his parents’ failing marriage. It is noted in the sessions that the only time his parents get along and work together as a team is when they are dealing with Billy’s problems.
- Communication Training — Dysfunctional communication patterns within the family are identified and corrected. People are taught how to listen, ask questions and respond non-defensively.
Family therapy takes cooperation and a willingness to participate on the part of all the family members. A single holdout or someone who “doesn’t see the point of it” could make family therapy a little less effective. Even if only a part of the family can attend, family therapy can be a very powerful therapeutic modality that can lead to more lasting and quicker changes than individual psychotherapy alone.
While not as often practiced as individual psychotherapy, family therapy can be especially effective with children, as often the problems are inter-related with what is going on in the family at the moment. A child’s problems rarely exist in a vacuum, so how the family reacts to the child is important.
Family therapy can seem particularly scary as families don’t want to “air their dirty laundry” in front of others. All families keep “family secrets” that aren’t generally shared outside the family. Family therapy may shed light on some unwanted areas in the family, which can be threatening to particular family members who may feel vulnerable or attacked.
Family therapy is generally conducted in a safe and supportive environment once a week in a therapist’s office. Look for a therapist who has specific family therapy training, specialization, and experience (more than 5 years is preferred, but usually the more, the better). While it’s not for everyone, family therapy may be a psychotherapy modality worth trying.