6 Things to Know About Going to Family Therapy

6 Things to Know About Going to Family Therapy

Many families find healing when they seek professional help together.

By Laurie Sue Brockway

Many families struggle when one kid seems more troubled than the rest. Perhaps there is a problem in school, underage drinking, or a tendency to get into fights with siblings or bully other kids. On the other end of the spectrum, it may be that the child that is withdrawn, depressed, has a hard time making friends, and is bullied by others. The list of potential family challenges goes on.

Parents scratch their heads trying to figuring out how to control the child’s behavior and sometimes miss that the deeper problem is in the family itself. That’s when family therapy can help. While shame and fear may lead you to want to keep dysfunction a secret, many families find healing when they seek professional help for the crisis. And they’re not alone: According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), 6.1 million people are seen annually by family therapists.

Here, six things to know about seeking professional help as a family.

1. Family therapy provides intervention. It’s designed to deal specifically with the whole family -- bringing key members into the therapy room. “Therapists are in tune with the breakdowns and areas that need an intervention in order for families to function in a healthier way,” says marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar.

2. Everyone has a say and a chance to listen. Many families have ineffective listening and communication skills, but when gathered together with therapeutic support, members have a chance to hear one another’s points of view and experiences. “Family therapy helps people talk openly about their feelings,” says Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist. “Instead of negativity coming out in angry, hurtful behaviors, it's being addressed directly so that changes can take place and people can get their feelings heard. Thus, problem solving can occur.”

3. It is not only about the person with the problem. It is natural to want to place blame on someone, such as the child who seems to be creating turmoil, but family therapists look at the entire family system. “Whoever the identified patient is, they carry the symptoms of the family,” says Greer. “When you start to deal with that person's behavior, you'll see a ripple effect, and everyone else in the system will react. Their emotional energy is [then] back in their lap and on their shoulders. It's never one person who has the problem -- the whole family does.” She describes it like a body, where cancer in one part will create a breakdown in the whole immune system and require strengthening of the whole system.

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4. It is good for your kids. Not only does it show your children that you are invested enough to seek therapy together, it gives them a chance to heal and to also see your growth and progress. “It helps kids, because they have an equal voice in a therapy session,” says family psychologist Ganz Ferrance. “They are given time to talk and also receive validation for their feelings. It can help the parents see past blind spots in themselves or with their kids. It also sets a precedent that the kids can get help when they need it later in life.”

5. Therapy is a safe place for secrets. One of the reasons people put off seeking help is that they fear skeletons in the closet will be revealed, but ultimately, many families find it liberating to share the truth. “People are much more likely to tell friends they have cancer or even AIDS than to tell them they are going to therapy,” says life coach Iris Fanning. “There is a fear of being vulnerable to others. It’s this same vulnerability, however, that allows for compassion and healing.”

6. It’s helpful for preventive care, too. “People who are interested in growth, better communication, and closer family ties come in for prevention,” says Fanning. “However, there are fewer families that come in for prevention. Generally, more families come in when there is a crisis, because they are highly motivated to stop the pain and make changes.”

Have you ever experienced family therapy?

Laurie Sue Brockway is a journalist and author who has written extensively on love, marriage, parenting, well-being, and emotional health. Her work has appeared in hundreds of print and online publications, including Everyday Health and The Huffington Post.

Image ©iStock.com/nullplus

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