ABCs of Mental Health Care

Treatment Types

print Family Counseling: Who It Can Help and How

Jenna recalls her family’s initial reluctance to seek family counseling. “My husband was worried about the cost. My children feared their friends and our neighbors would find out. And I felt ashamed. I thought, ‘Are we really so bad off that we cannot work things out on our own?’”

Your family, too, may be reluctant to obtain professional help for problems at home. Yet doing so can help your family identify and change dysfunctional communication and behavior patterns as well as improve your overall family relationship.

When to seek help

Sometimes, a family has trouble working through an unexpected crisis or stressful event. Or, perhaps constant family squabbling is making home life unpleasant. Often, when a family “troublemaker” acts out, it indicates larger family issues. Other possible reasons for seeking counseling include:

  • when a child or teen is troubled, has behavioral problems or performs poorly in school
  • when a family member is abusing a substance
  • when words or actions are physically or emotionally hurtful or abusive
  • when a physical struggle is used to settle disagreements
  • during times of family transition (for example, birth of child, child leaving home, separation, divorce, etc.)
  • when problems are recurring and never adequately solved
  • when one family member has a mental illness

Finding the right therapist

You should shop around for a good therapist who specializes in working with families. Your physician, school, friends, clergy and local mental health association are good referral resources. If you are uninsured or concerned about cost, your local family service agency and mental health association can help you obtain affordable counseling. Make sure your chosen therapist is licensed by the state or accredited by a professional organization.

Your first meeting

During your first meeting, the therapist will:

  • get to know each family member
  • try to obtain a basic understanding of your family dynamic
  • identify the underlying problem that brought you to therapy
  • try to identify alliances, as well as communication and behavior patterns
  • ask about family values and beliefs as well as unspoken “rules”
  • review the therapeutic process, treatment termination, confidentiality and cost

Once your family has become acquainted with the therapist, make sure everyone feels comfortable with her.

How therapy works

Your family can expect to see the family counselor one or two times a week. The duration of therapy varies. Sometimes, the session will include all family members. But the therapist also may request to see just one or a few family members together. The therapist will use many techniques to learn more about your family’s problem. She may listen, ask questions, reflect back and interpret what is said during the session, give advice, and make recommendations. She may ask you to role-play or assign “homework,” such as keeping a journal or changing a behavior.

What to expect

As therapy progresses, the counselor will help your family uncover feelings and conflicts that underlie the problems appearing on the surface. Doing so may be painful or troubling, often resulting in a short-term worsening of how the family functions. Ultimately, however, working through tough family issues will result in better communication and improved family functioning.

by Christine P. Martin
© 2000 Lifescape


American Psychological Association

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

Family Therapy: An Overview by Irene Goldenberg and Herbert Goldenberg. Brooks/Cole, 1996.

Solving Your Problems Together: Family Therapy for the Whole Family by Jane Annunziata and Phyllis Jacobson-Kram. American Psychological Association, 1994.

The Heart of Psychotherapy: A Journey Into the Mind and Office of the Therapist at Work by George Weinberg. St. Martin’s Press, 1984.

The Troubled People Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting Help by Paul G. Quinnett. Continuum, 1982.


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