Family therapy can help treat addiction and mental health conditions in a variety of ways.

Psychotherapy has become an important tool to address the dysfunction that mental health conditions and addiction can create. Family therapy is an important type of psychotherapy that helps address how dysfunction affects an entire family unit.  Family therapy programs can help the family develop a new framework for productive communication.

What Is Family Therapy?

Mental health conditions and addiction affect not only the individual, but also their families and loved ones. For families to work through these issues, they may need to seek outside help through family counseling. So what is family therapy, and how can it provide such help?

One definition of family therapy describes it as a type of psychotherapy which helps family members resolve conflicts, improve communication and develop healthier habits. This type of therapy can be conducted in individual therapist practices or as part of family therapy programs in larger treatment settings. When it comes to family therapy, the word “family” refers to anyone who has an established and supportive role in another individual’s life, regardless of whether they are related by blood.

While therapists and clients can benefit from having multiple family members present for sessions, this is not the primary goal of the treatment. In family therapy, problems that arise in one or more family members are thought of as part of a larger system. By having family members present, the participants and the therapist can avoid placing blame with any one individual. This framework lets the therapist focus on helping families create healthier patterns to resolve conflicts and improve well-being.

Many difficult situations are ideally suited for family therapy work. Reasons for participation in  family therapy include:

  • Addiction in a family member
  • mental health condition in a family member (depression, panic attacks, eating disorders, etc.)
  • School-related problems (declining grades, truancy, etc.)
  • Unexpected loss (disaster, financial losses, etc.)
  • Major life changes (deaths, births, relocations, marriages, adoptions, etc.)
  • Generational conflict
  • Parenting discrepancies
  • Intimate partner violence (domestic violence)

What to Expect in Family Therapy

So how does family therapy work? Family therapy is usually conducted by a marriage and family therapist, a clinical psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker. Marriage and family therapists are required to train in family therapy. Clinical psychologists and social workers often pursue additional family therapy training during school or an internship.

Referrals to family therapy can come from a variety of sources:

  • Your primary care provider
  • Friend or family member
  • A treatment program
  • Employee assistance program
  • Insurance referral
  • Clergy

As with any therapy, it is important to establish what to expect in family therapy when treatment is conducted. This helps you determine whether or not your therapist will be a good match for your family. It is helpful to interview your therapist and ask questions about:

  • Background (expertise, experience, education)
  • Rates (fees per hour, insurance coverage)
  • Treatment frame (length of each session, total length of treatment)
  • Logistics (location of office, emergency availability)

Although multiple family members often attend family therapy, it is not a requirement. Many times, only one family member works with the family therapist. Sessions in family therapy can last from 50 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on the therapist and program. Family therapy can be short-term, lasting just a few weeks or it can be long-term in some instances, depending on your family’s needs, access and treatment goals.

Types of Family Therapy

There is no one correct way to conduct family therapy. Several psychotherapists have developed models which are effective in particular situations. These types of family therapy include:

  • Structural therapy helps identify and address family members’ power dynamics. In this type of therapy, the therapist must understand the family hierarchy and the roles family members take when they act. As these dynamics are identified, the therapist can help parents establish a healthy sense of authority with their children. They can also help adult members of a family create even power balances with each other.
  • Systemic family therapy focuses on the unconscious communication between family members. From an outside perspective, therapists can help a family point out specific patterns of behavior to better understand its origins. Systemic family therapy has some similarities to psychodynamic psychotherapy.
  • Strategic family therapy helps provide families with a brief and direct strategy for increasing healthy communication. This type of therapy works well if there is a person within the family with an identified disorder or condition. In strategic therapy, therapists help the other family members interact more productively with the family member who has the “problem.”
  • Bowenian therapy, named after psychiatrist Murray Bowen, is most helpful for those who wish to utilize family therapy without involving other family members. Clients learn how to become less emotionally reactive to other family members and how to speak up when they are asked to split loyalties within their families.

Benefits of Family Therapy

Family therapy can help improve relationships between parents and children, partners, siblings and other family roles. It is a versatile type of therapy that can address specific problems or generalized patterns. The many specific benefits of family therapy include:

  • Providing ways for family members to productively express their emotions
  • Deepening understanding of family dynamics and the internal motives of individuals
  • Increasing problem-solving skills
  • Reducing communication obstacles
  • Experiencing a deeper understanding of the needs of other family members
  • Constructively resolving family differences

Goals of Family Therapy

The central goal of family therapy is to increase honest and productive communication between family members. Specific goals of family therapy may include:

  • Strengthening bonds between family members and promoting family identity
  • Fostering an environment of mutual respect and cooperation between family members
  • Learning effective problem-solving strategies
  • Identifying and reducing power struggles
  • Creating and fostering healthier reactions and behavioral patterns in family members

Family Therapy in Addiction and Mental Health Treatment

Family therapy is particularly well suited to help address the dysfunction caused by addiction or a mental health condition. Even if the family member with the condition is not in treatment, family members can still seek therapy to cope with how these conditions impact them.

When the person with the condition is actively seeking treatment, family therapy is an important parallel treatment to individual therapy and can be done simultaneously. Family therapy for addiction and family therapy for mental health conditions may take place as part of a structured treatment program. They can also be done in conjunction with the program. In this instance, it is important that the therapist and program be informed about each other so that they can maximize communication and optimize their treatment plans.

Addiction, mental health conditions and family dynamics almost always have an impact on each other. In family therapy, the relationship between these factors must be understood so that the patterns they create do not cause unnecessary suffering. With family therapy, clients can better manage the stress, anger, grief or loss experienced from the presence of an addiction or mental health condition. As a result, they can experience happier and more productive relationships with their loved ones.

If addiction or a co-occurring mental health condition has created dysfunction in your family, The Recovery Village can connect you with helpful resources. Many of our highly experienced clinical staff members have specialized training in family therapy, and they are ready to help you improve communication and resolve conflicts with your loved ones. Contact us today to learn about our family program find help that works for your situation.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD
Kevin Wandler holds multiple positions at Advanced Recovery Systems. In addition to being the founding and chief medical director at Advanced Recovery Systems, he is also the medical director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield and at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake. Read more

Psychology Today. “Family Systems Therapy.” 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.

Kerr, Michael. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2000. Accessed May 18, 2019.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies […]rief Family Therapy.” 1999. Accessed May 18, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.