Key Advantages and Disadvantages of Family Therapy

Published August 4, 2020
Caring parents and misbehaving boy during therapy session

Family therapy can be a powerful tool for those who want to work towards a healthier family system. It's important to keep in mind that there are both positive and negative aspects of family therapy.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Family Therapy

Family therapy can be incredibly helpful for all members of a family if everyone is wiling to participate and examine their own actions and reactions to one another. Family therapy can become a little more challenging when some members won't participate, or if there are issues with self-reflection.

Why Is Family Therapy Important?

Your family is a microcosm for how you interact with others outside of your family system. Working on the health of your family system can positively impact your interactions with your family members, as well as with others. Issues within family systems are often multigenerational, meaning that the issues that show up in your family are likely patterns that were developed and passed down generations ago. Family therapy can assist families with:

  • Working through addiction (with one or more family members actively or previously using)
  • Improving communication and listening skills
  • Understanding each other's needs
  • Cultivating individual insight and emotional intelligence which positively impacts relationship health
  • Transitioning through a divorce and/or step-family situation
  • Co-parenting after a breakup or divorce
  • Multi-gernational issues if non-immediate family members live within the same household
  • Processing an individual and/or familial trauma
  • Strengthening parenting skills
A soldier and his family at a psychotherapist during a session

What Are the Disadvantages of Family Therapy?

Family therapy can cause issues if one or more members refuse to participate. Think of it this way- families seek homeostasis (balance), even if it's unhealthy. This means that every person within the family has a role to play to maintain the structure of the family. When some family members want to work towards healthier patterns, but others don't, the family structure will begin to shift, thus creating unconscious and/or conscious anxiety as a change within the family structure develops and the old "balance" is thrown off. Some challenges:

  • Expose you and/or other members of your family to hurtful and painful issues that you were previously unaware of- can be very intense, lead to feeling isolated, and emotionally drained if you don't have a supportive family structure (note that this may be temporary if your family is willing to stick with counseling)
  • Once family therapy begins, it can be difficult to see family situations as you used to and your perceptions may be altered- can lead to negative feelings, especially if others within your family are not willing to follow through with therapy or are in denial of unhealthy family patterns
  • Family issues can temporarily intensify as unhealthy patterns and behaviors become more apparent- in therapy, issues tend to get worse as they are uncovered and explored, before they get better
Mother and daughter talking to male therapist at reception while the father uses his phone

What Family Therapy Is Not

Family therapy is not a good choice if you are looking to place blame or isolate any one family member. It is common for a family to label an "identified patient", also known as the one individual who takes on or absorbs the dysfunction of the family. By doing so, they serve as a distraction and scapegoat for other family members to avoid dealing with the unhealthy family system's core issues. Family therapy also is not aimed to deal exclusively with couples.

Types of Family Therapy

If you are considering family therapy, and have a particular therapeutic intervention in mind, know that regardless of what type of theory your therapist practices, research indicates that the highest rates of therapeutic success are linked to the client (family) and therapist relationship and not the modality your therapist uses.

Advantages and Disadvantage of Family System Theory

Family system therapy was based on Murray Bowen's family systems research. Common family systems treatment modalities that are influenced by Bowen's family systems theory include strategic family therapy, as well as structural family therapy. In Bowen's family systems theory:

  • One family member's behavior impacts the other members of the family
  • A change in one family member's behavior will impact the entire family system
  • Highlights pervasive familial patterns through the use of a genogram where the family's relationship health, medical conditions, psychological wellbeing, and relationship history are charted up to several generations back
  • Requires deep self-reflection, insight, and emotional intelligence, or the willingness to work on these factors

Pros and Cons of Strategic Family Therapy

Strategic family therapy is a strength based method that is often the modality of choice for clinicians treating families who have substance and/or alcohol use related diagnoses. Strategic family therapy:

  • Focuses on changing unhealthy behaviors and patterns versus cultivating a deep understanding of the core issue
  • May be briefer than other therapeutic modalities, meaning treatment may not take as long in some circumstances compared to other therapeutic modalities
  • Conceptualizes family symptoms as the result of persistent patterns that have yet to be resolved
  • Therapist helps family come up with solutions and create new and healthier family rules
Couple and daughter lying on warm floor and drawing

Pros and Cons of Functional Family Therapy

Functional family therapy aims to assist clients in understanding that both healthy and unhealthy behaviors impact and are impacted by the family system. Functional family therapy:

  • Emphasizes each individual family member's strengths and builds upon them for change within the system
  • Helps each individual cultivate positive change
  • Is a flexible therapeutic structure that adapts to the family's needs during each session
  • Is often a brief therapeutic model
  • Doesn't deep dive into multi-generational issues and tends to focus on more immediate issues
  • Tends to be more therapist led versus client led

When Family Counseling Is Appropriate

If you and your family are committed to better understanding how your own behavior impacts others within your family system, without looking to place blame on any individual in the family, then family therapy may be a great option to try.

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Key Advantages and Disadvantages of Family Therapy