Family therapy is a unique type of therapy—it is not merely individual therapy with a room full of relatives! Family therapy is an evidence-based approach to Counselling that includes all of the involved people (who choose to be involved). Family therapy can help in a wide variety of situations and is not restricted to certain types of problems. However, there are some common reasons that families will decide to engage in therapy of this type with a Registered Clinical Counsellor. Some reasons you might consider engaging in family therapy include:
● Dealing with a “problem” child, or “problem” member of the family
● Dealing with life transitions such as moving, death, divorce, or children “launching”
● Deepening support systems for each other
● Resolving acute conflicts or recurring patterns of fighting
● Navigating challenging realities such as disability, illness, pain, or neurodiversity
It’s also really important to recognize that a family can be defined any way you want.
Although we might picture this kind of counselling being offered to a typical nuclear family, it is not at all restricted to these configurations. Any family with willing members is welcome to participate in family therapy at Nightingale Counselling:
● Multigenerational families including grand and great grandparents and children
● Extended family including uncles, aunties, cousines, etc.
● In-law families connected by bonds and commitments other than blood
● Chosen families
How does family therapy work?
Family therapy relies on what is called “family systems theory,” and a brief introduction is useful in understanding why family therapy is so different from individual therapy. Family systems theory argues that the family is a complex social system in which the action of any one member affects the others. This might seem obvious and simple, but it has powerful implications for therapy. Consider the common “problem child:” many well meaning parents might send this young person off to individual counselling to deal with their rebelliousness or poor grades or whatever the problem may be.
However, if we recognize what family systems theory tells us, then we can choose instead to view this as a problem of the whole family and not just the member who is most obviously at the center of it.
Healing the “Whole”
By working with “the whole” rather than “the particular,” powerful avenues for healing are created. Think of it ilke the difference between tending to the whole health of the forest and not just an injured tree. This “ecosystem” approach can be surprisingly powerful and effective, and, just as importantly, the changes that happen in family therapy are durable.
Understanding the Problem
When we send a family member off to individual therapy, we are making a declaration that the problem is “just them” or maybe “inside” them. It’s up to them to figure it out, and when they do, the problems will all go away. This makes sense for some situations, but there are other times when the problem is better understood a little differently. In family therapy, Counsellors will invite everyone’s experiences to be voiced.
This is helpful for many reasons:
● Everyone gets a chance to speak and be heard
● Previously unheard viewpoints and perspectives become known
● New understandings of what the cause of the problem arise
● New solutions to the problem arise
● New connections between the problem and other parts of the family which influence the problem are made
When we look at the problem differently, and when the family takes the problem on as a whole, a very different message is sent to the person who may have felt at the “center” of the issue. Instead of being sequestered and potentially blamed, they are brought closer, and they witness the strength and care that their family has for them. Often, in this way, the very act of choosing family therapy and showing up as a group is a profound demonstration of family resiliency, which can instigate change right away!
How does the whole family become involved?
Often, what brings an entire family to therapy will, on the surface, appear to be an “issue” with a single individual. However, family therapy allows each member of the family to speak and listen on a variety of levels.
How is the “problem” affecting each person, in unique ways?
How might different members of the family be upholding the “problem” in some way?
How are individuals being supportive of shifts or changes in the “problem”?
By investigating the impact on everybody as well as the different social and psychological factors that might be upholding the problem, a clearer picture begins to emerge.
What does family therapy look like?
As with most therapeutic encounters, it’s not quite like in the movies. At Nightingale Counselling, family therapy involves one Counsellor and as many of the family members as are interested in joining. For bigger families, we suggest a longer session—75 minutes instead of 50 minutes. This gives more room for voices to be heard.
The Clinical Counsellor will first work with the group to discover and distill what exactly is the problem that brings the family in. And the therapy begins even at this early stage. Rather than taking for granted what one person might identify as the issue—perhaps the person who initiated the counselling in the first place—the therapist will look for the voices of each individual to gather perspectives on the problem. Uncovering details can make a big difference:
● What is the problem?
● How did this problem come to be?
● Why does it persist?
● What will things look like for the family when the problem is solved?
It can be very illuminating for all members when dialogue is opened up in this way.
Who gets to speak?
Part of what makes family therapy so effective is that everyone gets to speak. In normal family dialogue, there is good reason to have hierarchy. For example, parents with young children know that they must be leaders, decision makers, and information gatherers. The responsibility falls to them. As families grow, all kinds of different communication patterns can emerge from this fundamental position. Ages, genders, personalities, family roles and identities: all these things and more can inform who gets to speak in everyday family life.
The Role of Children
In family counselling, extra effort is made to facilitate dialogue that truly includes everyone. One of the amazing insights of family counselling is that young members of our families have a startling capacity to understand and intuit the inner workings, mechanics, and causes of what is going on. Family therapy allows your family to build a body of knowledge about what is going on that takes into account the perceptions and interpretations of everyone.
Sharing Reality and Sharing Solutions
The impact of this can be a profound sense of building a consensus within the group and of empathizing between individuals. What can emerge, even in the first hour of family therapy, is a completely new perspective on just what it is that the family is going through together.
By seeing with new eyes just what might be happening, new solutions tend to emerge spontaneously. For an example, consider a family who comes to therapy because their 11 year old child’s grades have begun to decline in school. Framed in this way, the problem suggests certain solutions: perhaps tutoring or teaching more discipline in their studies.
However, what happens when we ask that child why this is happening and ensure that the listening environment is safe, warm, and open? What might they say when given the floor, and given an opportunity to give an account of what they think is going on?
We might see that rebelliousness and anger and apathy fades away, as defensive communications are less necessary. We might get a chance to learn what’s going on for them that’s led to their academic performance, and what it feels like for them to be disappointing parents, teachers, or themselves. Knowing what’s going on for the child, we can then ask what they need: from the therapy, from the family, or from themselves. And because the family and its members have made themselves available to hear these words, the healing has already begun: both in the speaking and in the listening.