Understanding family counselling

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This page was clinically reviewed by Dayton Steelman (BA, MA, MSc, UKCP), Senior Systemic and Family Psychotherapist at Priory Hospital Bristol, in March 2024.

Navigating conflict, communication breakdowns and other problems in the family can be daunting. Family counselling provides a structured environment for people and their loved ones to address these issues together.

Here, we explore how family counselling can help families during challenging times. We’ll look at what a family counselling session may look like, effective techniques that can help families to become closer and stronger, and the many benefits that family counselling can offer.

What is family counselling?

Family counselling, which is also referred to as family therapy, is a specialist type of therapy that’s designed to address and resolve issues within family relationships. Unlike individual therapy, which just focuses on one person, counselling for families considers the family as a whole system, recognising that each member’s behaviour and emotions are interconnected and influence one another.

Through structured sessions led by a trained therapist, family counselling aims to improve communication, enhance understanding and produce healthier dynamics within the family unit. Family counselling can take place with any combination of family members. These might include parents/caregivers, children, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents. It will be completely tailored to you and your needs.

This approach is based on the understanding that problems within a family are usually the result of a combination of factors. Family counselling can help with things like:

  • Interpersonal conflicts – these can arise from disagreements between family members over things like parenting styles, financial decisions or sibling rivalry. For example, siblings may argue constantly or compete for their parents’ attention, leading to tension and conflict within the family
  • Behavioural patterns – the behaviours of some family members may be contributing to dysfunction within the family unit. For example, if a member of the family is violent or passive-aggressive, this can lead to conflict and unresolved issues
  • Environmental stressors – there are external factors that can impact the family’s wellbeing. They can include things such as financial difficulties, grief, stress or major life changes, like relocation or illness. For example, financial strain can cause tension and anxiety within the family, leading to conflict and emotional distress amongst family members
  • Mental health – if a member of the family has a mental health condition, this can also contribute to conflict and distress within the family unit. Issues such as anger, depression, anxiety, eating disorders or addiction can strain relationships and create extra stress for family members. Family counselling can also help families to deal with any childhood behavioural issues such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or members of the family that are autistic or neurodivergent

Family therapy is also widely used as part of addiction treatment and eating disorder treatment, specifically when treating anorexia nervosa in young people. It can help families to understand things from different perspectives and learn how they can support each other better.

By providing a safe and supportive space, family therapy sessions can help families to navigate tough times and create stronger, more resilient relationships.

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Types of family counselling

There are a number of different family counselling techniques, which can be tailored according to the unique needs of your family. The most common types of family therapy include:

  • Strategic family therapy – focuses on identifying and changing problematic family dynamics and communication patterns, through structured interventions
  • Structural family therapy – emphasises restructuring the family system to create clearer boundaries and roles among members
  • Narrative therapy – explores and rewrites family narratives to help members reframe their experiences
  • Systemic family therapy – views the family as a complex system, interconnected with other influences from society. It aims to understand and address things that are having a negative impact on family dynamics
  • Functional family therapy – focuses on improving family communication and problem-solving skills. Often used for families with adolescents who are showing behavioural issues
  • Emotion focused therapy (EFT) – emphasises creating secure emotional bonds between family members to improve intimacy and connection
  • Couples therapy – also known as marriage counselling, couples therapy focuses on improving communication and resolving conflicts within romantic partnerships. This can then have a positive impact on the family as a whole

These approaches offer families a range of tools and techniques to address their challenges and promote healing and growth.

The type of family counselling that best fits you and your family will be recommended based on your unique needs. Each approach is evidence-based and a qualified therapist will assess your situation to advise on the most suitable method for your family. It’s also likely that family therapists will combine elements from different therapy types, to suit your circumstances.

Benefits of family counselling

Family counselling has a range of benefits that can contribute to the overall happiness and wellbeing of each family member, and the family unit as a whole. Benefits can include:

  • Improved communication – family counselling provides a safe space for family members to have open conversations with each other
  • Effective conflict resolution – through guided sessions, families learn how to resolve conflict, reduce tension and create healthier relationships
  • Greater insight into family dynamics – people can gain more insight into family dynamics, helping them to understand one another better and identify underlying triggers and patterns that can cause conflict
  • Better coping skills – people can learn coping skills to navigate challenges in the future, increasing resilience and helping them to become more adaptive when responding to stress within the family
  • Preventing conflicts – by teaching people how to address issues early on, family counselling can prevent conflicts from escalating, promoting long-term stability within the family unit
  • Strengthening family bonds – improving relationships between family members creates a supportive environment, where everyone can grow and develop

Family counselling doesn’t just address immediate concerns. It also gives families the tools to thrive and flourish in the long-term.

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