The 5 Phases of Family Therapy: What You Need to Know

The 5 Phases of Family Therapy: What You Need to Know

The bonds created within family units can be an incredible blend of love, hate, understanding and sometimes downright painful emotions. The relationships formed between family members can be complex and will likely change over time to build us up or break us down in both minor or drastic ways. 

Those who have studied psychology or a Bachelor’s in Social work online are already likely to understand what family therapy is and how it can benefit a family unit. For those who have not heard of family therapy, we delve into the five stages and how each can help families reconnect, communicate more effectively and ultimately heal broken relationships.

What is family therapy?

Family therapy or counseling is a form of talk therapy that aims to help family units improve their communication, resolve conflict and strengthen their relationships. A typical session will involve all relevant family members all the way from parents, children, and grandparents to aunts, uncles, stepfamilies, in-laws or even family friends. 

The therapist overseeing the session is likely to create a unique profile for every family member present that will include an individual's issues and goals, and then develop effective treatment plans. Some sessions may be straightforward talk therapy, while others may involve everyone taking turns to speak. Trust-building games and exercises may also be included.

Family therapy can be used to:

  • Educate a family on issues such as mental health (what it is and how it may be affecting members of a family), trauma (both how it can occur, its effect on a person and coping mechanisms) or how to form healthy attachments, boundaries, and communication channels.
  • Counsel families through many different approaches or interventions to help them validate or support one another, to heal and to reconcile.
  • Strengthen family bonds by developing better communication skills, coping strategies and resilience to deal with family issues or stressors.

Family therapy can also be used to solve immediate problems or resolve a specific hurdle, for those seeking forgiveness, to manage anger or to work on spending more time together.

When should you attend family therapy?

Families who may benefit from family therapy include those with:

  • Communication difficulties that generate significant conflict with a family unit.
  • Specific family conflicts or shared trauma that require resolution to promote a more harmonious environment.
  • Substance abuse or alcohol addiction issues that are causing conflict, with the aim to help provide support to both the individual struggling with the addiction and the family unit who are trying to support them.
  • Mental health issues which affect the family as a whole by providing coping mechanisms for those suffering from mental illness and family members who are helping to manage it. 
  • Life transitions such as divorce, separation, remarriage or the introduction of new siblings. 
  • Behavioral problems in children or adolescents to help both parent and child cope with the issues.

Family therapy can help address communication difficulties, substance abuse, and life transitions among other things. 

The five stages of family therapy

Once attending therapy, there are five key stages of family therapy that a therapist will work through. 

  • Engagement and rapport-building

Engagement and rapport-building is the first stage that builds the foundation of the recovery journey. A safe environment is established to ensure family members attending therapy are able to open up and talk freely about their concerns or issues. Rapport between family members and the therapist is also a crucial aspect for effective therapy. The therapist will work towards building this trust by assessing the individual needs and personalities of each family member and building a relationship with them in the most appropriate way. 

  • Assessment and understanding

During assessment and understanding a therapist will delve into the family’s history, roles within the family unit and the pre-existing communication patterns to help determine potential root causes of what conflict is afflicting the family. The main goal is to have family members see beyond the surface-level disagreements and instead recognize the deeper triggers that are more likely the cause. This understanding will pave the way to addressing the underlying issues.

  • Restructuring and communication enhancement

In the restructuring and communication enhancement stage, the therapist will work with the family to build new, healthier ways to communicate and interact. This may be achieved by teaching how to actively listen, provide validation or via respectful expression. By replacing old, negative communication methods with positive ones and continuing to build their level of understanding, family members can begin to feel more empathy and reduce overall conflict.

  • Resolution and healing

As trust, understanding and communication improve, the therapist can then start to work toward resolution and healing. The focus will move toward resolving actual conflicts and fostering ways of healing. Pent-up emotions can be addressed, and ideally, family members can now do this in a constructive way that results in forgiveness and letting go.

  • Integration and maintenance

The final stage of family therapy is all about the integration and maintenance of the skills the family has acquired to ensure lasting change. Families are urged to continue to practice effective communication, conflict resolution and empathy beyond the boundaries of a therapy session, with potential setbacks addressed early on to ensure the incredible progress they have made to date is maintained. 

Family therapy revolves around complex relationships, so the best type of therapy is one that is responsive to the family unit’s needs. No single intervention can be applied when going through therapy, as every family situation, structure or issues will be wildly varied. 

While it may not resolve every conflict within the family unit, family therapy is an effective method of developing better coping skills and more productive ways of communicating to reduce the level of conflict and when possible, come to a faster resolution. 

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