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We don’t choose our families; they’re given to us.
When we’re young, we rely on our family for all of our needs and learn essential life skills and behaviours from them. This goes on until we’re old enough to go out into the world and live independently.
With the influence that our families have over our lives, it stands to reason that family-based therapy holds untapped potential for the vast majority of people who are open to try it.
Since most of our habits, quirks and grievances are a result of our family circumstances and environment, attending family-based therapy is an excellent way to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and reframe any negative memories you have.
In this article, we’ll be sharing ten proven family therapy techniques as well as family therapy activities that work.
What is family therapy?
Family therapy is a structured form of psychotherapy that seeks to reduce distress and conflict by improving interactions between family members.
The main difference between family therapy and a family having a discussion is the presence of a mental health professional. This ensures the conversation will not be centred around blame and provides a safe, controlled environment to have productive discussions.
Family therapists are relational therapists – they are more focused on what goes on between individuals than what is going on within an individual. This is because issues within the family usually start due to an action or something that another family member said.
An example of this would be children with emotional or behavioural problems.
Due to their young age and the limited areas of influence they have outside of their families, these children are likely to have picked this up from home, and thus their problems are best addressed in the context of the family.
What are the benefits of family therapy?
The benefits of family therapy include:
- Improving existing communication skills.
- Providing better coping skills for difficult situations.
- Offering deeper insight into the workings of the family.
- Strengthening relationships with other family members.
- Developing healthy boundaries.
- Addressing dysfunctional interactions.
Applications of family therapy
It is a well accepted fact that family therapies can effectively resolve various communication and behavioral issues within the family members. This leads some to wonder if it can handle the more trying aspects of life, like mental illnesses in the form of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia or even the end of a marriage.
We’re here to tell you that it can. Here’s how:
For someone who has schizophrenia, the severity of their symptoms is primarily dependent on their environment. A high level of surrounding hostility in shouting and fighting may make the illness more potent, leading to the person suffering more frequent psychotic episodes.
Family therapy for schizophrenia often involves education, stress reduction, emotional processing and regulating. Most people, even close family members, might not understand the full impacts of the illness. Changing the trigger conditions can make family members more empathetic and effective in supporting the person who suffers from these episodes.
The family member who suffers from this condition will also learn how to manage his symptoms better.
In therapy, he will be assigned a few basic tasks that will help him gradually resume his responsibilities. The difficulty of the assignments will be increased as the sessions go by.
Often, in the case of adolescents, parents disagree on how to deal with their child, with one thinking the other is being “too strict” while the other might feel they’re “too permissive”.
Additional strife from these arguments will only make the depressed person feel worse about themselves. In extreme cases, they might begin to view themselves as a burden to their family.
Family therapy can reduce tensions that arise when dealing with a loved one who suffers from depression. With the help of a professional, families are forced to sit down and discuss the issues they’re facing.
Conversations are productive and free of any unhelpful comments and blame since family members know there is a third party listening. This will help families get to the root cause of the issue their child/other member is facing.
Those suffering from bipolar disorder know the plethora of treatments available to them, from group therapy to cognitive-behavioural therapy. However, family therapy often proves to be more effective than traditional approaches in managing symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Family therapy teaches people to:
- Identify bipolar symptoms and recognise signs of upcoming episodes.
- Better communication skills to effectively engage and resolve conflicts.
- Management strategies designed to help your loved one with bipolar disorder.
- Constructive plan of action when a loved one exhibits significant difficulties with illness.
Going through a divorce is one of the most painful ordeals for a married couple, but few stop to realise its effect on children. While the relationship between the two parents might be over, their relationship with their children remains.
During a divorce, children are rarely in the loop of what’s happening, leading them to draw their own conclusions. li. Worse situations arise when children are forced to take sides in a divorce, driving a wedge between the child and one of his parents.
Family therapy can solve most of the issues children face during a divorce.
Both parents, the child and a therapist will sit down to discuss the exact terms of the divorce and explain it simply to the child. Clear, open communication helps the child understand that his parents will always be his parents, even though they might be together anymore.
Family therapy can also help the parents understand what life will be like post-divorce. It can be a helpful tool to navigate co-parenting the child and managing the new routine that comes with being single again.
Working with challenging families
No one said the family was easy. Families consist of a group of people, each with their own set of ideas, perceptions, and goals. At times, tensions arise, and people get upset.
This is perfectly normal, and it happens in the healthiest of families. However, when problems don’t get resolved during a reasonable period of time, it might be time to look for help outside your family.
Family therapy can bring to your attention dysfunctional patterns and behaviours you’ve grown used to. It can provide you with a safe environment to discuss your emotions and arguments you’ve had with your family. It works as an excellent tool enabling you to have a clearer idea of why the disagreement happened and how to avoid it in future.
It’s not a magic pill that will change everything overnight, but it’s guaranteed to make changes in your life if you stay consistent with it.
Types and techniques of family therapy
There are hundreds of different variations of therapy techniques out there, so it can feel overwhelming to narrow down one that works for you.
We’ve made a list of effective family therapy techniques that will strengthen your bonds and help you work out any issues you may have with them.
Systemic family therapy
This approach considers the entire family as a unit, where the actions of each member affect the other people in the family and affect the family unit as a whole. The therapist might pose problems to the family for them to solve together instead of perceiving the issue solely as an individual’s responsibility. The purpose of this is to analyse the family’s belief systems and their perception of the world.
This type of therapy aims to understand various processes in the family, like how they influence other people and how they change over time. Of course, the end goal is to improve the family’s interactions.
There are five main areas of systemic therapy:
- Deconstructing the problem.
- Identifying patterns.
- Beliefs and explanations.
- Emotions and attachments.
- Contextual factors.
Structural family therapy
Structural therapy is based on the idea that emotional and behavioural concerns in children and teens are due to dysfunctional family structures. This is why structural therapy focuses on adjusting and strengthening the family system to ensure that both children and parents have healthy boundaries.
In this form of therapy, the aim is to understand how individuals within the family interact with other family members.
It allows the therapist to understand the deeper relationships and hierarchies within a family. From here, the therapist can help put in place boundaries that would support the existing hierarchies of the family, strengthening the family unit as a whole.
To do so, the therapist might pretend as though they are part of the family in order to enhance their ability to help the family strengthen their relationship.
Bowenian family therapy
This form of treatment is suitable for individuals who do not want other family members in the treatment. It has two foundational principles, triangulation, which is the natural tendency to vent to a third party, and differentiation, which refers to the ability to separate feelings from logical thoughts and the feelings of others.
- Triangulation is based on the idea that triangles are the basic unit of family systems. For example, if a son rejects his father’s opinion and his sister accepts it, his father might become closer to this daughter than his son. This is known as a “dyad”. The individual who strays is known as the “triangulated individual”. In this case, the son might feel left out of the family and might turn to substance abuse to cope with his feelings of loss.
- A differentiated person will be able to define themselves and navigate life without leaning on their family’s perspective. They will also be able to have different opinions and values while remaining emotionally connected to them.
Bowenian therapy helps the triangulated member of the family resist unhealthy coping mechanisms while teaching members of dyads to manage closeness and anxiety in healthy ways.
Strategic therapy differs from other forms of treatment as the therapist is not concerned with the history of the issue within the family unit. Instead, the therapist helps individuals think strategically and act on solutions that can help them.
It’s a solution-based approach to therapy that focuses on identifying solvable problems, setting achievable goals and creating strategies to achieve them.
In order to maximise the development of each individual, the therapist might assign “homework”, which will help family members assess and adjust the way they communicate and make decisions.
Narrative therapy helps family members separate themselves from the problem and instead view themselves as a storyteller with a unique perspective on how the world is. They view the situation objectively instead of through the false narrative they’ve told themselves and use their own skills to address it.
The core principle of narrative therapy is that each person has the ability to rewrite their story. Since they narrate their own stories, they have all the tools they need to change the plot.
By making room for other stories and viewing them in context, they will be able to objectify their problems and overcome them in time.
Transgenerational therapy involves a therapist examining the reactions between individuals across several generations.
For example, by observing how a child and a parent react to the same incident, the therapist can pick up on patterns and predict future dysfunction.
In the long term, the therapist can gain a deeper understanding of core issues in the family and put in place measures to avoid future issues.
One of the most common reasons for disagreements is the lack of proper communication. Improper communication can stem from ego, past trauma, mental health issues and ignorance.
A trained professional can listen to the conversations of two parties and take note of their posture, body language and tone.
The professional can then advise them on how to improve, whether they need to change the way they approach conversations in general or more specific aspects like their tone and volume.
Active listening, opening lines of communication and actively mediating the conversation are effective ways therapists can help families with communication issues.
Psychotherapy is better suited to a family that is struggling with chronic mental or behavioural issues like depression and schizophrenia. Families with members who suffer from such conditions need to understand their condition and require a robust support system to do so.
In this form of therapy, a therapist equips these individuals and their families with the tools they need to mitigate their symptoms and help them function better as a family.
The four main goals of psychoeducation include:
- Creating open exchange of information within the family.
- Medication and treatment support.
- Providing training, support and making self-help available.
- Creating a safe environment for discussion and even venting if necessary.
This area of counselling is generally reserved for couples. Couples face unique problems that others in a family unit don’t, like issues with sexual intimacy, infidelity and cultural differences.
Relationships are no walk in the park, but they’re made even harder with issues like these piled on top of the struggles of daily life.
Most couples find themselves considering relationship counselling when they are working through their issues or deciding if they should remain together.
Like any other form of therapy, the first step is admitting that there is an issue, which can be intimidating for most couples. With a mental health professional present, couples can air out all of their problems and come to a proper resolution, one that is beneficial to both parties.
A therapist can offer an objective opinion as well as a listening ear to both parties, enabling them to get a better idea of what they need to do to get their relationship back on track.
Family therapy activities that work
If you’re ready to commit to your journey of personal growth and healing, here is a list of activities you can do with your family. Though most of these activities require the presence of a mental health professional, some can be done outside the doors of therapy.
1. Mirroring activity
Essentially, family members will pair up and mirror each other. The goal of the game is to emulate every move the other person is making without touching them.
This helps members become more in tune with the gestures the other person makes and their emotional reactions. It requires each member to give the other their fullest attention and cooperate with the other in words and body language.
Enactment is an excellent way for families to confront difficult family situations in a practical manner. The therapist will ask a family to role-play a particular family conflict instead of just talking about it.
This will allow the therapist to observe how a family currently handles a certain kind of conflict and provide them with a new way to communicate.
An example of this is a therapist observing a member who doesn’t respond well to aggression. The therapist can provide him with a number of ways he can respond in a more helpful manner which can deescalate the situation.
3. Family gift
During a therapy session, members of a family are provided with art supplies and a gift bag. They are then tasked to come up with an idea for a gift that would appeal to the entire family and are given 30 minutes to make the gift under the guidance of a family therapist.
This activity will allow the therapist to see how each member takes on their part of the work and how they discuss and make decisions as a family unit. Additionally, it instigates the family members to think about each other’s preferences, likes and dislikes.
A genogram is a schematic of your family tree. Your family therapist might require you to map out your blood and medical relations first before proceeding to let you draw out your family’s emotional relationships.
This is an effective way to discover patterns between family generations.
For example, you could see a pattern of abuse in your family over the years. You’ll then be able to see how this history affects your current emotions and behaviours. If you like, you can mark relationships on the family tree as “dysfunctional” or “normal” as a good starting place.
Unlike the other activities in this list, drawing up a genogram usually only requires yourself and a mental health professional, though doing it in a group setting might appeal to you as well.
5. Coloured Candy Go Around
This game is best used as an introduction to family therapy.
First, you’ll need coloured candy like M&M’s and Skittles. Give each member of your family seven pieces of candy and allow them to sort it out by colour. Depending on how many colours each person has, instruct them to respond to the following prompts:
Green – use words to describe the family.
Orange – what are the areas for improvement for the family?
Red – what worries them?
Yellow – describe their favourite memories.
Purple – describe fun activities the family does.
After each answered prompt, the candy can be eaten. This provides the family with answers to some of the issues they’re facing and allows them to start working on areas of improvement.
6. Emotion balls
Gather your family in a circle. Begin to toss a beach ball (or one that’s big enough to write more than one emotion) between yourselves. When one member catches the ball, ask them about a time when they felt the emotion facing them. If you have many young children present, it might be better to have the catcher act out a feeling.
The point of the exercise is to discuss your feelings with your family and practice listening to one another.
All in all, we hope this guide has shed more light on family therapy and how it can benefit you.
Remember: Your problems are valid, no matter how small they might seem to you.
Therapy isn’t reserved for people with “serious” mental issues. It holds innumerable benefits for everyone and can help you resolve deep-seated issues you never even knew you had.
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