Family Therapy For Mental Health


The word family brings up a lot of emotions in people. For some, the word brings on the “good” feelings while for others the feelings could be “sad” or “anger” or a combination of different feelings. Families and the feelings we have about them influence everything about our lives.

Some babies are born into loving healthy homes while others are raised in dysfunctional homes or taken from their families altogether. Some people become estranged from their family so their friends become their family. But no family is perfect and ALL families can find benefits in therapy.

Some babies are born into families that battle mental illness and some babies are born with mental illnesses. In these cases, it is extremely important for families to get into therapy.  The unknowns and the instant changes that occur with mental illnesses can be scary and overwhelming and can take a toll on a family.

Whether you are born into a “healthy” family or a “dysfunctional” family, everyone has things that happen in life that can cause a strain on the relationship. Some problems can be resolved with a little communication and time but others will need the help of a therapist to play mediator. But for most people, even the biggest family struggles can be fixed.

What is Family Therapy?

Family therapy, also known as family counseling, is a form of psychotherapy. It focuses on building and maintaining healthy family relationships. Family therapy promotes understanding and working together to problem-solve. It does not view an issue as an individual’s problem but as an issue within the whole family unit. Family members will learn how to communicate their needs and how to support each other and overcome anything life throws at them.

Some people feel like seeking help from a therapist is a sign of weakness. But really it is the total opposite. It takes strength to admit that the problem is bigger than you can handle without help. If you are that prideful person who likes to look perfect to the outside world, just remember, your family is more important than your pride. 

Family Therapy helps with the following:

  • Behavioral issues in children and teens
  • Sibling conflicts
  • Parent/child conflict
  • School issues
  • Divorce
  • Cheating
  • Death in the family
  • Chronic health problems within the family
  • Caring for special needs family members
  • Mental Health Issues

When To Seek Out Family Therapy

When you have reached the end of your rope or are just ready to give up on having a happy family, take one last step and reach out for help. If members of your family are experiencing any of the following symptoms then it is time to reach for help today.

  • Normal family routines have become very difficult: The family “energy” is not as it has been.
  • Communication is a challenge: Is the “silent” treatment the new normal? Is there a disconnect in understanding each other?
  • Emotional outbursts: Is there more screaming than talking? Is every reaction excessive?  
  • Traumatic Event: Has there been a death in the family? Are the parents separated or divorced?
  • Behavioral Issues: Are the kids out of control? Are they continuously getting in trouble at school?
  • Feeling Hopeless: Do you feel like it will ever get better? Is the stress too much to handle?
  • Mental Health Issues: All mental health problems take their toll on the family unit.
  • Threats or acts of violence: Has playing around or roughhousing gone too far?  Has the “playing” turned to angry outbursts?
  • Withdrawing from life: Is someone spending more time alone or out of the family circle?

What is a Family Therapist Trained to Do?

A family therapist is trained to play many roles when treating a family. Because of the many roles they play, formal education and hands-on training are extremely intense. From starting the bachelor’s program to the master’s degree to internship and supervised experience, it will take almost 10 years to complete their training.

Family therapists will develop their own treatment plans and techniques, they must all be proficient in the following areas.

  • Marital Issues
  • Infertility
  • Domestic Violence
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Grief counseling
  • Behavioral Issues
  • LGBTQ issues

Therapists must be able to:

  • Observe the family unit
  • Diagnose and treat mental disorders
  • Evaluate and treat relationship issues
  • Guide a family through a crisis such as a divorce or death
  • Treat problematic patterns
  • Find alternative positive behaviors for negative ones
  • Take a holistic approach to treatment and not always a clinical one

The Goal of Family Therapy

The general goal of family therapy is to work together to heal emotional, mental and behavioral issues within the family. And the goal of the family therapist is to guide the family in problem-solving, communication, and building a happy healthy home.

The ultimate goal of family therapy really depends on the issues within the family unit.

If the family is a blended family, the goal would be to build communication and healthy interactions. But if a family member had a severe mental or health issue the goal of family therapy would be education, empathy and setting healthy boundaries. While a “non-traditional” family may need family therapy to obtain tools to handle the external pressures and to solidify the support of the family unit.

Benefits of Family Therapy

Family therapy is a “holistic” approach to healing all aspects of the family dynamic. With the guidance of a therapist, family members can feel safe to express themselves in a controlled environment.

Benefits include:

  • Better conflict resolution
  • Improved problem-solving skills
  • Increased healthy communication
  • Setting healthy boundaries
  • Learning healthy patterns
  • Empathy for others
  • Forgiveness
  • Listening skills
  • Creating a solid support system
  • Building trust
  • Helping a family through a crisis
  • Define individual roles within the family
  • Asking and receiving help

Life is constantly throwing challenges at us. Having a strong family support system to help you through those challenges is important. So before little problems in the family become big problems seek out family therapy.

What Happens in Family Therapy?

A licensed therapist will take the lead and will make sure that each family member feels safe to express themselves.

The therapist will:

  • Get each member’s view on the family dynamic.
  • Identify each person’s expectations of therapy.
  • Identify each member’s influence on the issues.
  • Develop unique treatment plans for the family.
  • Teach the tools needed to continue strengthening the family bond.
  • Stay impartial and non-judgmental.

Common Techniques in Family Therapy

Every therapist has their favorite techniques and exercises they like to use. Some are more popular than others while some therapists find these obscure little gems that can break through the most stubborn of families.

The Miracle Question

“Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?”

This question helps the therapist and the patient understand what kind of future they would like to have. Pondering this question allows the families and individuals to realize that there is a positive happy future ahead.

Problems can seem larger and heavier when we forget to look ahead. If we do not have set goals to work toward then we can get sucked down the hole of helplessness.

A follow-up question to explore could be,

“How would that make a difference?”

Colored Candy Go Round

This is a great “ice-breaker” especially if there are younger children in the family. All you need is a package of colored candy such as M&Ms or Skittles. Divide the contents of the package to each member of the family.

The first member will pick a color and how many they have of that color. Whatever the quantity is, is how many answers they have to give to the following questions.

  • Green- Words that describe the family
  • Yellow- Memories
  • Red- Worries
  • Purple- Fun times
  • Orange- Ways to Improve the family

Once the family member answers the question they will call on the next family member to answer the same prompt. Plus once you answer you can eat that color!

Once all the family members have gone through all their colors the therapist will initiate thought-provoking questions based on the answers given in the “game”.

  • What did you learn?
  • What surprised you most?
  • How will you make changes?

This is a good game to play before the young kids go play since the candies can put them into sugar overload.

Feelings Ball

For this exercise, all you need is a ball and a marker. On the ball write multiple emotions. You can even purchase balls with prewritten emotions on them.

Gather the family into a circle and toss the ball around. The person who catches it will either describe or act out a time they felt the emotion facing toward them.

This exercise is extremely beneficial in treating issues surrounding mental illnesses. Some children and even some adults have a hard time finding the right words, and that’s when acting out the emotion works well.

The goal of this exercise is to initiate communication and listening skills.

Mirroring Activity

Just like it sounds, two people face each other and try to make the same movements as the other.

  • Stand two feet apart and face each other
  • Do not touch each other
  • Copy the other by predicting their move

This exercise is fun for all ages while teaching the art of giving someone your complete attention.

Box of Compliments

Since you and your family are in therapy then it is a good bet that things are not all roses. And because of that, some people can feel like all the negative is just too much of a downer. So this game draws attention to only the positives!

All you need is a box with a slotted lid. If a family member witnesses another family member doing something nice or something positive, they write it down and put it in the box.

At the end of the evening before bed, everyone gathers around and the notes are read. Reading these notes out loud in front of everyone draws attention to even the little things and shows even they have a great impact.

The goal of this exercise is to practice focusing on the people around you. And to point out ONLY the positives within the family.

Types of Family Therapy

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

One of the most common types of therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy is a hands-on approach to problem-solving. The focus of CBT is if you change your way of thinking then you change your feelings and behavior. The common goals of CBT are:

  • Identify specific issues
  • Raise awareness of unhealthy thoughts and feelings
  • Identify negative thoughts and develop tools to make them positive
  • Learn new behaviors

Strategic Therapy

Strategic therapy is just as it sounds, it is a form of therapy that helps develop a plan to solve the problems in a family. Strategic therapy is unique for the fact that the therapist becomes so involved it is as if they are a member of the family. There are five initial stages of strategic therapy that a therapist will help you through on the initial visit.

  • The Brief Social Stage- therapist observes the family and encourages all members to participate
  • The Problem Stage– the therapist asks questions that reveal problems within the family
  • The Interactional Stage– the family is encouraged to discuss their issues in more depth
  • The Goal Setting Stage– the issues are identified and goals are set to fix the issues
  • The Final Stage– this stage is when the therapist gives tasks and “homework” for the family to take steps toward meeting their goals

While most forms of therapy encourage the family to come up with ways to fix the issues, in strategic therapy the therapist has more of a say in how it goes.

Systemic Therapy

The belief of systemic therapy is that if the family is in homeostasis or internal balance, then the family is good. But in life, things are thrown into the mix that can break the strongest of families.

In systemic therapy, the therapist will focus on the emotions and feelings of each member of the family and the influence it has. The therapist will help rebuild the family dynamic while still making sure that each individual feels heard and his or her needs are met.

Structural Therapy

Along the same line as systemic therapy, structural therapy focuses on the following objectives:

  • Family Interactions
  • Family Structure
  • Family Response to Needs
  • The Role of the Therapist

When a member of the family is suffering from mental illness, it changes the family dynamic. It changes the way things are done in the house, the amount of time given to different members of the family and even the role that certain members play in the house.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy believes that the way we interpret our problems is revealed in the way we tell our life stories. Every person feels like the way they see the issue or recall the moment is the only and the correct way it happened. But the benefit of every member of a family telling his or her story to the family is that by working together the truth of the situation can be shared.

Transgenerational Therapy

This type of therapy is used with multiple generations living in the same house. It can be a very stressful environment when the older generation doesn’t understand the younger generation and the middle generation is caught in the middle.

Older generations have a hard time understanding mental illness as when they were growing up little was known about it. Sometimes they think that it is just a behavioral issue and that “tough love” is the answer. They do not understand the disease and need family therapy to understand how to live in the house.

It is only fair that everyone feels safe and heard in their homes. The therapist will help find common ground and equal understanding between the generations.

Family Therapy: Temporary or Long Term

Whether you and your family use family therapy as a quick fix or a continued therapy is a personal decision. Some families are only interested in fixing the issues at hand. But other families believe that the benefits of family therapy have made such a difference in the family dynamic that they want to continue.

For families that are trying to find a daily balance in the battle with mental illness, it is highly recommended that family therapy is a long-term treatment. Even when mental illness is controlled with therapy and medication it is important that the whole family feels happy and healthy.

Continued family therapy can allow for a busy family to have that designated together time. As families grow and grow up it becomes harder to find time together and it becomes easy for someone to feel unimportant. During this time, it’s important to talk about and fix any issues before they become big problems.

In a strong, balanced family, every member feels heard and loved. Family therapy can help keep a family happy and healthy.

Where to Turn for Family Therapy

Individual therapy is important for people who suffer from mental illnesses. But mental illness is not just an individual’s disease, it is a family disease. The caring staff at Montare Behavioral Health is waiting to help you and your family. Don’t let mental illness keep destroying your family. Click here to get help.