More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Family therapy: Healing family conflicts
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Nov 14, 2005

Families can be torn apart by illness, divorce or other problems that create conflict and stress. Family therapy can help families identify and resolve problems.

Your family can be your greatest source of support, comfort and love. But it can also be your greatest source of pain and grief. A health crisis, mental illness, work problems or teenage rebellion may threaten to tear your family apart.

Family therapy can help your family weather such storms. Family therapy can help patch strained relationships, teach new coping skills and improve how your family works together. Whether it's you, your partner, a child or even a sibling or parent who's in crisis, family therapy can help all of you communicate better and learn to get along.

What is family therapy?
Family therapy is a type of psychotherapy. It helps families or individuals within a family understand and improve the way family members interact with each other and resolve conflicts.

Family therapy is usually provided by therapists known as marriage and family therapists. These therapists provide the same mental health services as other therapists, simply with a specific focus ? family relationships.

Family therapy is often short term. You usually attend one session a week, typically for three to five months. In some cases, though, families may need more intensive treatment. The treatment plan will depend on your family's specific situation.

Who can benefit from family therapy?
In general, anyone who wants to improve troubled relationships can benefit from family therapy. Family therapy can help with such issues as:

  • Marital problems
  • Divorce
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression or bipolar disorder
  • Chronic health problems, such as asthma or cancer
  • Grief, loss and trauma
  • Work stress
  • Parenting skills
  • Emotional abuse or violence
  • Financial problems
Your family may do family therapy along with other types of mental health treatment, especially if one of you has a serious mental illness that also requires intense individual therapy. Family therapy isn't a substitute for other necessary treatments. For instance, family therapy can help family members cope if a relative has schizophrenia. But the person with schizophrenia should continue with his or her individualized treatment plan, such as medication and possibly hospitalization.

In some cases, family therapy may be ordered by the legal system. Adolescents in trouble with the law may be ordered into family therapy rather than serving jail time, for instance. Violent or abusive parents are sometimes spared jail if they enter family therapy. Divorcing couples may also be required to attend family therapy.

How does family therapy work?
Family therapy often brings entire families together in therapy sessions. However, family members may also see a family therapist individually. Family therapy can even include nonfamily members, such as teachers, other health care providers or representatives of social services agencies.

Working with a family therapist, you and your family will examine your family's ability to solve problems and express thoughts and emotions. You may explore family roles, rules and behavior patterns in order to spot issues that contribute to conflict. Family therapy may help you identify your family's strengths, such as caring for one another, and weaknesses, such as an inability to confide in one other.

For example, say that your adult son has depression. Your family may not understand the roots of his depression or how best to offer help. Although you're worried about your son's health, you have such deep-seated family conflicts that conversations ultimately erupt into arguments. You're left with hurt feelings, decisions go unmade, and the rift grows wider.

Family therapy can help you pinpoint your specific concerns and assess how your family is handling them. Guided by your therapist, you'll learn new ways to interact and overcome old problems. You'll set individual and family goals and work on ways to achieve them. In the end, your son may be better equipped to cope with his depression, you'll understand his needs better, and you, your partner and your son may all get along better.

How do you choose a family therapist?
Like other psychotherapists, family therapists are licensed mental health professionals. Although different states have different licensing or credentialing requirements, most states require advanced training, including a master's or doctoral degree, graduate training in marriage and family therapy, and training under the supervision of other experts. Many marriage and family therapists opt to become credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), which sets specific eligibility criteria.

Most family therapists work in private practice. But they may also work in clinics, mental health centers, hospitals and government agencies.

Ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a marriage or family therapist. Family and friends also may give you recommendations based on their experiences. Your health insurer, employee assistance program, clergy, or state or local agencies also may offer recommendations. You can also look in the phone book.
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