Family therapy: How it can help restore harmony

Family members are often those we love the most, but sometimes even solid relationships can be tested. When conflict arises, therapy can help.

Sibling rivalry, financial issues, blended families, disputes over child discipline, none or all of the above – there are a host of reasons tensions can rise within family units.

In addition to common stresses, disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has put further pressure on many families as they adjust to working from home, home learning, restricted movement outside the house, reduced social connection and essentially living in one another’s pocket 24/7.

While friction between family members is considered normal, it’s not always easy to know how to get everyone back on the same page when emotions are running high, and this is where family therapy can help.

What is family therapy?

Sometimes called family and systemic psychotherapy, family therapy works with sets of interconnected relationships referred to as “systems”, Australian Association of Family Therapy clinical family therapist explains Max Fraser.

“Family therapists believe people’s problems don’t belong to individuals, but instead exist within people’s interactions in a system over time,” Max says.

“Therefore, we believe the best way to create change for individuals and families is to work with the people who exist in those relational systems.”

How family therapy works

Each family member is viewed as a “system”.

The goal of family therapy is to consider each person’s needs, improve communication, resolve problems and create a better environment, according to psychologist Archana Bhat, from Relationship Matters.

“It is also about improving the systems of interactions between family members,” Archana says.

Through therapy, families are given the tools to build stronger, more supportive relationships.

“When relationships are strengthened it can make dealing with highly distressing events or concerns a lot more tolerable,” Max says.

“We then help them use these reinforced relationships as a base to address difficulties in the rest of their lives – such as managing distress or symptoms and building greater connection outside of the family.”

Signs your family could need therapy

Indications you might benefit from meeting with a family therapist include struggles with feeling deep connection in intimate relationships, feeling overwhelmed by psychological distress, or a desire to find a new way to support and be supported by those closest to you.

Archana recommends seeking help if you notice any of the following:

  • When family members are struggling to function at a normal pace.
  • When there is a difficulty in communicating, more than usual.
  • When family members feel one or more of its members is withdrawing.
  • If violence is a problem – that is, if there is behaviour that would be considered violent if it weren’t between family members.
  • When one of more of the members feel they are at the “end of the rope” and are unable to cope with stress.

Family approach to helping individuals

In Max’s experience, systemic family therapy is often the most effective approach in treating an individual’s issues.

“For example, child or adolescent mental health problems, grief and loss, couple or marital discord, trauma and addiction,” he says.

“There is evidence that, in some cases, taking a family systems approach can contribute to a quicker, more enduring and more complete result.”

Common strategies used in family therapy

Considered an effective approach to couples and family problem solving, family therapy may employ a range of techniques including cognitive therapy, behaviour therapy, or interpersonal therapy.

“Most commonly used are structural (focusing on adjusting and strengthening the system to ensure appropriate boundaries are set), systemic (focuses on the unconscious communications behind behaviours), and strategic (aimed at adjusting and changing how members interact),” Archana says.

Max says therapy may typically start with an introduction and developing a shared understanding of the challenges bringing a family to treatment.

“This will often include the development of a genogram, a drawing of a family system that visually represents relationships across generations,” he says.

“Session content will vary depending on the particular approach used by the practitioner you are seeing but will typically include a focus on joining around our shared human desire to connect, as well as communicating more directly and effectively.

“A family therapist aims to connect with the people attending, to empower them to use their own strengths and drives to live the life they want to live.”

Written by Claire Burke.