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Family Therapy

Family therapy is based on the belief that the family is a unique social system with its own structure and patterns of communication. These patterns are determined by many things, including the parents' beliefs and values, the personalities of all family members, and the influence of the extended family (grandparents, aunts, and uncles). As a result of these variables, each family develops its own unique personality, which is powerful and affects all of its members.

Family therapy is based on the following concepts as well.

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  • Illness in one family member may be a symptom of a larger family problem. To treat only the member who is identified as ill is like treating the symptom of a disease but not the disease itself. It is possible that if the person with the illness is treated but the family is not, another member of the family will become ill. This cycle will continue until the problems are examined and treated.
  • Any change in one member of the family affects both the family structure and each member individually.

Health professionals who use the family systems model in caring for people always consider the whole family. They view any problem in one member as a symptom of change or conflict in the group.

A family therapist:

  • Teaches family members about how families function in general and, in particular, how their own functions.
  • Helps the family focus less on the member who has been identified as ill and focus more on the family as a whole.
  • Helps to identify conflicts and anxieties and helps the family develop strategies to resolve them.
  • Strengthens all family members so they can work on their problems together.
  • Teaches ways to handle conflicts and changes within the family differently. Sometimes the way family members handle problems makes them more likely to develop symptoms.

During therapy sessions, the family's strengths are used to help them handle their problems. All members take responsibility for problems. Some family members may need to change their behavior more than others.

Family therapy is a very active type of therapy, and family members are often given assignments. For example, parents may be asked to delegate more responsibilities to their children.

The number of sessions required varies, depending on the severity of the problems and the willingness of the members to participate in therapy. The family and the therapist set mutual goals and discuss the length of time expected to achieve the goals. Not all members of the family attend each session.

What To Expect After Treatment

People who participate in family therapy sessions learn more about themselves and about how their family functions.

Why It Is Done

Anyone who has a condition that interferes with his or her life and the lives of family members may benefit from family therapy. Usually, the better the family functions, the lower the stress level for the person with the health problem.

Family therapy has been used successfully to treat many different types of families in many different situations, including those in which:

  • The parents have conflict within their relationship.
  • A child has behavior or school problems.
  • Children or teens have problems getting along with each other.
  • One family member has a long-term (chronic) mental illness or substance abuse problem, such as severe depression or an alcohol use problem.

Family therapy can also be useful before problems begin. Some families seek this type of therapy when they anticipate a major change in their lives. For example, a man and woman who both have children from previous marriages may go to family therapy when they marry to help all family members learn how to live together.

The concepts of family therapy can also be used in individual therapy sessions and are very helpful for people who come from families in which there is illness and/or other problems. Adults who lived in poorly functioning families as children may benefit from individual therapy using family therapy concepts.

How Well It Works

Family therapy is useful in dealing with relationship problems within the family and may help reduce symptoms such as eating disorders or alcohol use problems. But more specific types of therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or medicines, may be needed too.

Risks

  • Family therapy can make some problems worse if it is not guided appropriately by a well-trained counselor.
  • Therapy may not sufficiently resolve issues if it is stopped too soon.
  • Family therapy may be less effective if one family member refuses to participate.

What To Think About

For the best results, all family members need to work together with the therapist toward common goals. But if one member refuses to attend sessions, other family members can still benefit by attending.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Last Revised February 2, 2012

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 02, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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