By Kathryn Millán, MA, LPC/MHSP
If your family has undergone a period of high stress and conflict, or if you simply want to grow stronger together and make a plan for a better future, family therapy may offer a new beginning.
Experts estimated that in 2015, 43.4 million adults in the US — nearly one in five — experienced mental illness.1 On top of that, approximately 20.1 million Americans aged 12 and older struggled with a substance use disorder in 2016, and approximately 8.2 million adults aged 18 and older experienced both substance use and mental health disorders at the same time.2
Chances are, you or someone you love has struggled with one of these conditions. Family therapy offers an encouraging, safe space to learn new coping skills, build broken relationships and help each other maintain ongoing wellness.
What Happens in Family Therapy?
There are many misconceptions about family therapy. Often family members hesitate to enter this type of counseling because they fear being singled out, diagnosed or judged. Sometimes family conflict is so unpleasant that the idea of sitting in a room together feels impossible. Don’t give up — family therapy is designed to encourage and strengthen all family members, and it does not single out any one person or place blame.
Family therapy is often a short-term process. It’s designed to focus on solutions your whole family can put into practice. Because some coordinating may be in order, your family therapist may first work with one or two family members to determine the best times for scheduling and the overall goals for therapy. Each family situation is different, so your therapist will develop a treatment plan that fits the needs and availability of as many family members as possible.3
During your first meeting with a family therapist, you may be asked to describe your family issues and then determine goals together. You may all work together to determine your family strengths and weaknesses so that you can develop a plan of action. This is a good time to ask your counselor about his or her approach to working with families and get a good idea if this counselor will be a good fit for your family.
Some common goals of family therapy include:
- Coping with and helping a loved one who struggles with mental illness or addiction
- Gaining new communication skills to reduce conflict and enjoy family life again
- Healing from past trauma, loss or difficulties
- Strengthening family bonds, building a better marriage, or learning how to co-parent effectively
- Finding resolution on conflicts before a life event, such as the birth of a child, a wedding or a big move
- Becoming a sober-supportive family to help enhance long-term wellness after substance use problems
Myths and Facts About Family Therapy
MYTH: Every family member must attend all family therapy sessions.
FACT: We live in a busy world, and schedules don’t always line up. It may not be possible for all family members to attend all sessions, but those who are able to attend can gain skills and information that will benefit everyone. Plus, newer technology makes it easier for more family members to participate from a distance, and your therapist may have this technology on hand.
MYTH: Ultimately, one family member will have to accept blame for the situation.
FACT: A quality family therapist understands conflict well. Family therapists see the family as a unit, and they work to heal and improve the entire family system as a whole. With this view, it would be counterproductive to blame one or more family members. Some family members may worry about blame, but the family counselor will work as a temporary team member — a person who advocates for each and every person in the family. Family therapy aims to help all family members enjoy being in the family again. An experienced family counselor will be able to make family life easier, and blaming or shaming a specific person cannot be part of that process.
MYTH: Family therapy is for every family member.
FACT: Family therapy is not recommended for every single family member in all cases. If one family member has engaged in violent behavior with other family members, such as incest, murder, or ongoing violence, the person who committed violence may not be a good fit for family therapy. Therapy should always feel like a safe place. Family members who have engaged in dangerous behavior will benefit from individual therapy first, and other family members could greatly benefit from their own family therapy in these circumstances.
MYTH: Family therapy is a long-term process.
FACT: Family therapy is not the same therapy you may have seen on television where a person lies on a couch discussing life over the course of years. Family therapy is designed to be a brief, solution-focused therapy. Each family is different, but most families find some very useful resolutions in just a few visits.
MYTH: Family therapy and addiction treatment are not related.
FACT: Substance use disorders impact the entire family. When one person in a family struggles with a substance use disorder or a mental illness, the ripple effects impact every family member. When that family member begins to improve, the entire family will need to shift their perceptions and behaviors as well.4 Family therapy will create the best possible environment for a healthier family overall.
Therapy for Your Family
Hartgrove Behavioral Health System has offered healing support for families for nearly 50 years. Hartgrove’s dedicated team of professionals is known for helping the community through dedicated therapy options, community outreach and individualized treatment. Find out how our experience can help your family, too. Call us today to schedule a free, confidential assessment. Your phone call can be the first step toward a closer family.
1 “Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among U.S. Adults.” National Institute of Mental Health, 2015, Accessed December 7, 2017.
2 Ahrnsbrak, Rebecca, et al. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, September 2017.
3 “Family Therapy.” Mayo Clinic, September 20, 2017.
4 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2004.