Family therapy: When to consider counseling for your family or your kids

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At any given time, family therapists are counseling more than 1.8 million people, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 

Since 1970, the number of marriage and family therapists in the country has grown 50-fold. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes more than 42,000 family and marriage therapists exist in its most recent data, from 2017. 

For children’s behavioral problems, family therapy has been shown to be effective, demonstrated by a review of more than 20 analyses of systemic family therapy interventions. The review showed that on average, families who visited a counselor fared 71% better after therapy and at follow up than their peers in control groups. 

In both children and adults, systemic therapy has been shown to be effective in helping with more than 72 scenarios, according to a report examining studies by The Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice. The report reviewed dozens of studies, concluding that family and couples therapy have a positive effect on mood disorders, eating disorders, problems with couple relationships, substance abuse, depression, and family strife, among many others. 

What is family therapy?

Family therapy is a type of psychological counseling aimed at improving family communication, resolving conflicts, and creating a better understanding between family members.

Family counseling sessions are therapy led by a psychologist, licensed therapist, or clinical social worker, all using a variety of techniques to both understand the situation and provide guidance. Many will have master’s degrees and doctorates, and may also be accredited by the America Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

Marriage and family therapists regularly practice short-term therapy with an average of 12 sessions, according to the AAMFT.

What is the purpose of family therapy?

The cracks in family relationships can cause distress, rising tensions, and conflict. Sometimes the challenges arise from a family member in an intense situation, such as substance abuse, financial crisis, divorce, or mental health problems. In family therapy, a counselor will become familiar with any existing patterns or pre-established systems within a family, not focusing on only one person’s role. They will then provide thoughts to help family members understand how they’ve been functioning and offer ideas to modify behaviors or patterns. 

If your family is walking through some challenges such as:

  • Out-of-control child behavior
  • Recovering from the trauma of a serious illness
  • Emotional overload from anxiety
  • Sexual abuse
  • Grief
  • Living through a divorce

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You may find yourselves in a pattern that’s leaving you frustrated and angry.  Family therapy can help you pinpoint specific causes and challenges and clearly lay out positive and negative ways you’re dealing with it — as individuals and as a group.

In family counseling, you can collectively learn new ways to interact with each other and overcome unhealthy patterns. Together you can set goals and work to achieve them.

In family counseling sessions, a therapist can help a family manage:

  • Mental illness
  • Poor communication
  • Ongoing relationship frustrations
  • Children struggling to stay focused in school
  • Problems with children’s social interactions
  • Substance abuse effects
  • Trauma
  • Child outbursts
  • Parenting disagreements
  • Chronic health problems
  • Child and teenage behaviors
  • Tension between family generations
  • Navigating a blended family
  • Depression
  • Emotional disorders
  • Grief and loss
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional abuse or violence
  • Self-harm

Family relationships are an important part of psychological health, and help to shape your well-being throughout your life, according to a study, which defines well-being as impacting happiness, physical health, satisfaction with life, and good mental health. Marriages of high quality are associated with lower levels of stress and depression, according to a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 

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What are the goals of family therapy?

Going to a counselor as a family can have many different types of goals, including:

  • Improved communication
  • Reduced conflict
  • Working through financial challenges
  • Develop healthy boundaries
  • Better problem solving
  • Better two-way empathy
  • Reduced tension and frustration

Other goals can be even more specific, such as navigating divorce, managing addiction as a family, or supporting a teenager struggling with self-harm or depression. In some cases, you might seek out counseling because of challenges woven throughout your family, but in other cases, it may be an issue one person is facing. 

What are the different types of family therapy?

Family counselors will use a few different types of therapy approaches, depending on the family’s goals and reasons for pursuing family therapy.

Supportive family therapy

This is a method to help each person express their feelings surrounding a problem that affects the family. The goal of this method is to provide a safe and open environment, so everyone can honestly discuss issues. The therapist then offers practical tactics to use to work through the issue at hand.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

CBT involves the counselor supporting a change in the ways family members think or behave in certain scenarios. By bringing awareness to these patterns, family members can then change their thoughts and behaviors.

Transgenerational therapy

Transgenerational therapy addresses how each family member interacts with one another across multiple generations. These observations will help the therapist understand the core issues that are challenging the group right now, as well as future tensions that may arise.

Structural family therapy

This technique evaluates the dynamics of the family, including relationships, patterns, and behaviors during each session. Counselors can examine the subsets within the family system, such as relationships between parents and siblings, or siblings with each other. The evaluation helps guide the advice offered by the therapist.

Systemic family therapy

Systemic family therapy focuses on the feelings of the family. The counselor will work to identify pervasive ideas and attitudes shown on behalf of the family, which will help them uncover the underlying issues within the family. Then, the therapist will work to shift attitudes and relationships to a more beneficial and more realistic place.

Psychodynamic ideas in therapy

This theory looks to reveal an individual family member’s subconscious. The counselor will work to reduce problems cropping up by identifying these underlying issues, and helping families work through their difficulties based on the real sources of the problems.

Learn about our top online therapy sites.

Functional family therapy

Functional Family Therapy is an intensive, short term intervention/prevention program of in-home family counseling, that is often used to refers 11 to 18-year-olds by juvenile justice programs. FFT has been sed since the 1970s, and is designed addresses status-offending issues like curfew violations, running away, and truancy. FFT assesses family dynamics that contribute to the teen's behavior, addresses strained family communication, improves parenting skills, and aims to change behavior, relationships and long-term outcomes.

What are the advantages of family therapy?

Attending family therapy sessions can help you explore the different roles each family member fulfills, as well as behavior patterns and issues that may be contributing to conflict or poor communication.

A key result of family counseling is to learn the right tools to work through issues you may be facing.

In family therapy sessions, the counselor will work to help the family identify their strengths — of both individuals and the family unit as a whole — such as how they care for each other, as well as weaknesses that can be improved upon, such as difficulty trusting each other.

Family therapy sessions can help you work through situations causing stress, grief, and anger, according 

What are the disadvantages of family therapy?

With several individuals attending sessions, it may not always be a low-cost option.

Sometimes, a family approach may come at the cost of an individual’s needs, as “for the good of the whole” advice may not provide the right path for every individual, depending on the scenario, according to a study reported on in Psychology Today. Confidentiality is lost in a family session as well, according to the study, which may be concerning to attendees. 

When should you seek family therapy?

It is also likely to result in finding coping skills you can use individually and as a group to bring you closer together and lessen the frustrations and challenges you’re facing, the clinic shares. 

If you’re finding communication in your family at a standstill, tensions rising, frustrations boiling, or intense issues getting worse instead of better, it may be wise to seek out family therapy. 

What questions should I ask my family therapist?

Before you begin in family therapy sessions, you can ask your therapist several questions to help you better understand the process and their qualifications:

  • What is your education and training background?
  • Are you licensed to provide therapy in your state?
  • What is your experience with my family’s specific challenges?
  • Are you available during emergencies or on short notice?
  • How long is each session?
  • How much does each session cost, and are we covered by insurance?
  • What is their policy for canceled sessions?

Seeking family counseling near me? Consider online options instead

The ease and convenience of scheduling a therapy appointment online can benefit a family with schedules hard to align.

It can also be more convenient as you can use almost any device to video chat, call, or text with a therapist. Studies find that online therapy can be just as effective as in-person therapy,.

Teen counseling

About 4.4 million children ages 3 to 17 have diagnosed anxiety, and 1.9 million have diagnosed depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Over time, the CDC states, diagnosis for both these issues has increased.

In fact, more than 10% of teens ages 12 to 17 have diagnosed anxiety.

To help alleviate these and many other issues including tendencies to self-harm, struggles with bullying, recovering from trauma, and challenging relationships, it may be a good step to support your teen seeing a counselor.

“If a parent notices their child is manifesting social anxiety, persistent

worry, excessive fear, loss of interest or consistent feelings of sadness,

it is a sign your adolescent could benefit from therapy,” says Babita Spinelli, a licensed psychotherapist with offices in New York, New Jersey and Florida.

“A child or teen can also benefit from therapy if a parent notices unusual behavior or reactions during or after significant life events such as divorce, loss of a loved one or a new addition to the family.”

Does counseling help teenagers?

Therapy can help those with struggles they can’t cope with alone; it can sometimes take professional help to navigate issues such as depression and anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health states that early treatment for these mental disorders can help decrease lasting, intense problems.

Seeing a counselor can help a teen work through problems they’re facing and learn new skills. Results can, over time, help to reduce symptoms or behaviors, help teens find insight into the causes and their reactions, and improve their ability to function along with their quality of life, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Seeing a counselor can help a teenager break negative and often harsh self-talk they may engage in. Rather than abusive internal language, such as “no one cares about me,” a therapist can help a teenager learn to use more positive and realistic language, which in turn will help them change their perceptions, according to Mary K. Alvford, PhD, psychologist and co-author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That are Holding You Back. 

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Does my teenager need counseling?

Teenagers experiencing depression or struggling with mental health issues may show symptoms including:

  • Suicidal threats
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Social isolation
  • Insomnia
  • Severe mood swings
  • Panic attacks
  • Self-harm

It may be a good idea to seek counseling when you’re seeing your teen having problems in more than one area of their life. They may be feeling bad about themselves, losing confidence, or excessively worrying about the future. Your teen may also withdraw from their friends or have a significant change in sleeping habits. If you’re seeing these factors, it may be time to look for a counselor for your teen, the clinic states. 

How do I get my teenager to go to therapy?

A few things can help you normalize therapy and seeing a counselor to your teen.

If you attend therapy yourself, your son or daughter may not feel a stigma attached to it. It demonstrates to your teen that it’s OK to be vulnerable.

You could also discuss with your teen how their feelings may be part of a larger, family issue that can be addressed, and you all have improvements you can make. You’re in this together.

It’s also important that they know they don’t have to share with you the details of their conversations with a counselor. (There are a couple of exceptions where you may hear from your teen’s therapist: If your teen may be likely to inflict serious harm to themselves or others, a therapist is mandated to report that to appropriate authorities. They are also required to report any suspected child abuse or neglect, according to the American Psychological Association

Seeking teen counseling near me? Consider online options instead

Online therapy is gaining popularity for adults, couples, and families. Advantages include:

  • Convenient. A teen can use their phone, tablet, or computer to access the sessions however it’s comfortable for them
  • No commute. Your teen can benefit from online sessions without needing an adult to drive them — or drive themselves. 
  • Low cost. Online therapy from Teen Counseling, a unit of A+ BBB rated BetterHelp, is priced starting at just $35/week for unlimited text therapy and weekly live sessions.
  • Teens aged 13 and older can also find a therapist directly with BetterHelp, and one of their 8,000+ licensed and credentialed therapists. Read my own personal experience with the online therapy platform in our BetterHelp review. BetterHelp gives Wealthy Single Mommy readers get 20% off >>

Child counseling

If you’re seeing erratic or concerning behaviors in your child, it might be worthwhile to seek out a counselor.

A professional therapist can rule out specific mental health issues, such as ADHD, anxiety and depression. They can also walk you through realistic tactics you can use to empower your child.

How do you know if your child needs counseling?

Behaviors in your child that indicate he or she may benefit from counseling:

  • Crying uncontrollably
  • Angry outbursts
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Social isolation
  • Clinginess

Kids who are experiencing mental health stresses may be experiencing big emotions, but not be equipped with the language or the emotional ability to tell you what’s wrong.

When should I seek professional help for my child's behavior?

If you’re struggling with your child’s behavior, it may be a good idea to seek out a child counselor. Signs you should move in this direction can include:

  • Consistent discipline strategies don’t work
  • Their behavior is interfering with their academics
  • Struggle to make or keep friends
  • Developmentally inappropriate behavior, such as major tantrums from a 10-year-old
  • Violence such as setting fires, being cruel to animals, or self-injury

Can't afford a therapist right now? Here are workbooks you could try to DIY:

What is family therapy?

Family therapy is a type of psychological counseling aimed at improving family communication, resolving conflicts, and creating a better understanding between family members.

What is the purpose of family therapy?

Sometimes the challenges arise from a family member in an intense situation, such as substance abuse, financial crisis, divorce, or mental health problems. In family therapy, a counselor will become familiar with any existing patterns or pre-established systems within a family, not focusing on only one person’s role.

When should you seek family therapy?

If you’re finding communication in your family at a standstill, tensions rising, frustrations boiling, or intense issues getting worse instead of better, it may be wise to seek out family therapy. founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.

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