Family Therapy ~ What it is and how it works

Our Family

Our modern-day families are very different from the traditional expectations of the ‘Nuclear Family’, usually consisting of mum, dad and children. In today’s society the family structure includes single/divorced parents, stepparents and siblings, multi-generational living, same sex parents, foster and adoptive families and so on and living within each of these structures comes with its own challenges. However our family is formed, it affects who we are and who we become; we learn how to love, how to behave, how to communicate and interrelate along with our cultural rituals from our family. Our family affects and helps shape us, warts and all!

One of the biggest challenges faced by families today is communication; with the introduction of modern technology such as smart phones, tablets, video games – all of which takes a lot of focus within the family home – we are often caught up in a world of responding to emails, text messages, looking at social media or gaming, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. Whereas before we would have time to start the day together, now breakfast is often had on the go. Or absentmindedly with the phone in one hand, checking messages or sending ‘streaks’. The same goes for dinner time, which traditionally would be a time for the family to sit together and talk about their day. Now those times can come with a lot of stress and anxiety, as we all struggle to switch off from the busyness of the day and the digital world. We find it hard to be together without the distractions of our devices in whatever shape they come in.

However, the digital world is not the only challenge impacting the modern-day family; an increase in mental health issues, stress, job and financial worries are also contributing to the difficulties families face on a day to day basis, and none more so than this year with the Coronavirus pandemic, which has seen family life and it’s challenges thrown under the microscope. This year, many of us have felt the pressure of home working, schooling, living and socialising, while all being under the same roof without being able to see our usual support network, being that other family members, friends or co-workers. On top of that we are living with the threat of the virus, which we can’t see but we can fear, and many of us do. It is no wonder that more and more people are reporting a spike in their stress and anxiety levels due to health worries, as well as worries about their jobs and financial stability. Once a person is feeling this anxious or stressed, they can often feel overwhelmed or angry, and where they before had the resilience to deal with whatever life or family dynamics may throw at them, they are no longer able to and this can feel scary and isolating.

Once communication breakdowns in the family, this can lead to misunderstandings, anger and frustration and it can be hard to get back on track. This is where family therapy can be beneficial.

Family Therapy

Family therapy can support intercommunication skills and links between the family members to be re-established, through helping family members to gain a deeper understanding and empathy of each other, as the therapy setting encourages the family to listen with the intent to understand, not to defend to respond, and to do so without judgement of each other.

Family therapy is typically not long term; it is often used to help a family through a difficult period or coming to terms with a big change in their lives, such as illness, bereavement, divorce or a job loss. However, it can also be used to support families where there are mental health or behaviours issues affecting them.

While each member of the family may be experiencing their own individual issues or behavioural problems (i.e. anger), family therapy looks at how this affects the wider dynamics of the family, and in turn how the other members of the family respond.

The role of the therapist is to facilitate and help guide the family through their difficulties, this is done by:

  • Observing the interactions between the family members, noticing tone of voice, body language and so on.
  • Encouraging each member to have their time to speak.
  • Encouraging respect and non-judgemental listening.
  • Help guide the family through their crisis / or change to their living situation.
  • Encourage introspective reflection on the family members role within the family and how this affects the dynamics.
  • Look at ways to enhance communication within the family.
  • Notice and highlight problematic and behavioural problems and look at ways in which the family can make changes.

In the first session, the therapist will facilitate the making of a working agreement/contract within which the family will work during the therapy sessions, all agreed by the family members. The therapist will also explore the goals for therapy from each member of the family, and it is on this basis that the therapy will take shape from. Both of these documents are but in writing and shared with the family.

Throughout the sessions, and where appropriate, creative work will be encouraged. This can be in the form of the use of play therapy, the use of photographs, creating a family tree to include the wider structure of the family, creating a lifeline for the family to explore the highs and lows of their experience together, and what meaning/affect that experience had, or still has, on each of the family members.

Depending on the need and size of the family, each session typically lasts 90 minutes, this is to ensure there is plenty of time and space for everyone to talk and be heard. Each member will be encouraged to contribute; however, it is also recognised that this can be difficult for some people, therefore the therapist will work safely with each individual assessing their needs and comfort as the sessions progress.

As with individual therapy, the family therapist will regularly encourage feedback and reflection on the work being done, to ensure the therapy is meeting the family’s need and we are working towards reaching the goals being set in the first session. At the end of therapy, even if not all goals can be/or were met, if the family comes through their situation with a deeper understanding and empathy towards each other, then that is a very good restart to the family life!


Ian Stockbridge
Owner and lead counsellor of Hope Therapy and draws upon various approaches including CBT and Mindfulness.
Mobile: 07379-538411

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