Treatment Overview

Family therapy is based on the belief that the family is a unique
social system with its own structure and patterns of communication. These
patterns are determined by many things, including the parents’ beliefs and
values, the personalities of all family members, and the influence of the
extended family (grandparents, aunts, and uncles). As a result of these
variables, each family develops its own unique personality, which is powerful
and affects all of its members.

Family therapy is based on the following concepts as well.

  • Illness in one family member may be a symptom
    of a larger family problem. To treat only the member who is identified as ill
    is like treating the symptom of a disease but not the disease itself. It is
    possible that if the person with the illness is treated but the family is not,
    another member of the family will become ill. This cycle will continue until
    the problems are examined and treated.
  • Any change in one member of
    the family affects both the family structure and each member

Health professionals who use the family systems model in caring for
people always consider the whole family. They view any problem in one member as
a symptom of change or conflict in the group.

A family therapist:

  • Teaches family members about how families
    function in general and, in particular, how their own functions.
  • Helps the family focus less on the member who has been identified
    as ill and focus more on the family as a whole.
  • Helps to identify conflicts and anxieties and helps the family develop strategies to
    resolve them.
  • Strengthens all family members so they can work on
    their problems together.
  • Teaches ways to handle conflicts and
    changes within the family differently. Sometimes the way family members handle
    problems makes them more likely to develop symptoms.

During therapy sessions, the family’s strengths are used to help
them handle their problems. All members take responsibility for problems. Some
family members may need to change their behavior more than others.

Family therapy is a very active type of therapy, and family members
are often given assignments. For example, parents may be asked to delegate more
responsibilities to their children.

The number of sessions required varies, depending on the severity
of the problems and the willingness of the members to participate in therapy.
The family and the therapist set mutual goals and discuss the length of time
expected to achieve the goals. Not all members of the family attend each

What To Expect After Treatment

People who participate in family therapy sessions learn more about
themselves and about how their family functions.

Why It Is Done

Anyone who has a condition that interferes with his or her life and
the lives of family members may benefit from family therapy. Usually, the
better the family functions, the lower the stress level for the person with the
health problem.

Family therapy has been used successfully to treat many different
types of families in many different situations, including those in

  • The parents have conflict within their
  • A child has behavior or school
  • Children or teens have problems getting along with each
  • One family member has a long-term (chronic) mental illness or substance abuse problem,
    such as severe depression or an alcohol use problem.

Family therapy can also be useful before problems begin. Some
families seek this type of therapy when they anticipate a major change in their
lives. For example, a man and woman who both have children from previous
marriages may go to family therapy when they marry to help all family members
learn how to live together.

The concepts of family therapy can also be used in individual
therapy sessions and are very helpful for people who come from families
in which there is illness and/or other problems. Adults who lived in poorly
functioning families as children may benefit from individual therapy using
family therapy concepts.

How Well It Works

Family therapy is useful in dealing with relationship problems
within the family and may help reduce symptoms such as
eating disorders or alcohol use problems. But
more specific types of therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or
medicines, may be needed too.


  • Family therapy can make some problems worse if
    it is not guided appropriately by a well-trained counselor.
  • Therapy may not sufficiently resolve issues if it is stopped too
  • Family therapy may be less effective if one family member refuses
    to participate.

What To Think About

For the best results, all family members need to work together with the
therapist toward common goals. But if one member refuses to attend
sessions, other family members can still benefit by attending.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christine R. Maldonado, PhD – Behavioral Health

Current as ofMay 3, 2017