Family therapy

It can be tempting to yell ‘I hate you’ and slam the door in your mum’s face, but it could also wind up with you in therapy. Individual therapy isn't the only form available. Having a mediator can actually really help you to understand your family and vice versa. Not sold yet? Just keep reading.

A family is sitting on a sofa. They are in family therapy. This is a full-body image.

Why would I need to go to family therapy anyway?  

All families have their ups and downs, and it’s usual to make a dramatic exit and scream, “I NEVER ASKED TO BE BORN.” But if the downs in your family relationship are massively outweighing the ups then you should probably consider getting professional help. Family therapy is one way to get the balance right again.

Common reasons young people go to family therapy include:

  • If you hate your parent’s new boyfriend or girlfriend,
  • When you can’t stop arguing with your parents,
  • If you or one of your family members is struggling with your mental health problems, including eating disorders, self harm or depression,
  • You’ve come out to your parents and it’s not gone well,
  • Your parents decided to divorce each other.
  • Your parents kept a family secret from you.

Caroline Dalal, is a ‘systemic’ family therapist. She explains: “Sometimes problems and rows can dominate a family relationship so much that you can’t think about, or even acknowledge, each other’s strengths. People can get stuck in certain patterns, like rowing and shouting at each other. Systemic family therapy aims to get people to break out of those patterns.”

What’s a session like? 

Family therapy can conjure images of you all sitting around in a circle like the Brady Bunch, passing a ‘talking stick’. But, we promise, it’s mildly better than that. 

Often family therapy is just about creating a comfortable space, outside the home, which allows everyone to talk a bit differently about what’s going on. “Just having someone sitting in a room with them immediately affects the pattern of a family’s communication,” says Caroline. Of course it will be a bit awkward and tense at first, but eventually you’ll be able to have an open dialogue. 

Sessions usually last between 50-90 minutes, with everyone there getting a chance to have their say if they want to. The therapist is there to ensure no-one feels victimised or upset.

Can I go to family therapy by myself? 

Your therapist will happily chat to you alone for the first few sessions, if that’s what you want. It gives you both a chance to work out who’d be best to come along to the group sessions. So, for example, if you hate your mum’s new boyfriend, talking this through with a therapist beforehand may mean it’s only you and your mum in group sessions.

Keep in mind, if you’re scared to go by yourself, you can always bring a mate.

Won’t the therapist just gang up on me? 

If you’ve been told off and yelled at continuously for months, it’s no surprise you’re worried the therapist will just be yet another grown-up telling you that you’re being an arse. But that isn’t what’s going to happen. This doesn’t mean that they’re going to be all rainbows and sunshine either. Their job is to tell you what they notice and how to progress. Simple as that.

“It’s a very common concern that family therapy gives parents more of a stage to yell at them,” says Caroline. “But this process isn’t about anything being wrong with anybody. It’s never about blame.”

On the flipside though, if you’re hoping to go so the therapist can point a big waggly finger at your dad and say: “You are a shite parent, it’s all your fault,” then, we’re sorry to burst your bubble but

I hate my parents, so why would I want to learn to get on with them? 

You may have a list (or two) of extremely valid reasons why your family is completely toxic. But, healing things with people who literally have the same DNA as you can help you make peace with who you are. Learning about the way your family works can provide a lot of insight into how you work. The reason for this is that, like it or not, they’re a part of you ‘til the very end.

“Obviously you can never force someone to go to family therapy,” says Caroline. “But I’ll always say it’s worth giving it a try to see what happens. I’m not saying every awful situation can be fixed, but relationships can become happier and more productive.”

I think my family needs therapy, but how do I get them to go? 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re the one pushing for therapy – give it some time. It’s a big step, deciding you need help, and it can be tough if your family doesn’t agree with the idea. But Caroline says, usually, if you calm your parents’ fears, they’ll be more open to going.

“Sometimes parents are reluctant to go as they’re scared there’s something wrong with them as a parent,” she says. “But nobody is going to be blamed or bullied.”

As a side-note, if you try to find a time in your house when everyone’s calm, and explain how much you think therapy would help all of you, that may be more persuasive than bringing it up mid-row.

“Usually parents want the best for their children, no matter how difficult it’ll be for them.” says Caroline.

How do I get family therapy?

Going to your GP is a good place to start, especially if you feel all that family rowing is hurting your mental health. Or, if you’re already in touch with a social worker or housing officer, you can try asking them. Sadly, it’s not easy getting family therapy on the NHS but it’s always worth a try.

Relate also offers family counselling and can even provide cheaper counselling than private therapists, under certain circumstances.

If your family has enough money to get help privately, you can find a list of fully-qualified and registered therapists on the AFT (Association of Family and Systemic Therapy) website and search for local ones using your postcode.

Next Steps

  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 28-Sep-2021