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The Business of Practice

Family Therapy Theories & Types

Family therapy uses a wide variety of tactics to treat mental health because every family is different. To better understand your clients’ needs, decide which family therapy theory fits your style and your client’s family the best.

Family therapists are unique because they treat individuals ranging in age from children and adolescents to adults. Potential conflicts, including developmental issues, are much more likely to vary in their practice.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy provides additional information according to each state’s license and practice requirements. Most marriage and family therapists offer short-term therapy targeting specific problems. According to the AAMFT, on average treatment is complete within 12 sessions and over 60% of cases finish within 20 sessions.

Family Therapy Theories & Types

1. What is Family Therapy?

Traditional therapy deals with the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of one individual who is usually an adult. Family therapy is the process of treating an individual directly within the context of their family and sometimes in a group setting. Family therapy addresses behavioral, cognitive, and/or substance use issues.

Family therapists look at patterns with a generational impact and see a diverse age range of clients. Couples, parents, guardians, and families with children are the typical demographics for a family therapist. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts higher than average growth with a job outlook of 16% within the next decade for marriage and family therapists.

There are many ways to specialize your skills in a popular branch like family therapy. For example, families dealing with situations like divorce or domestic violence may require a therapist with a specific subset of skills regarding legal evaluations of a parent or child. In another instance, a therapist may need to treat a family with a minor who is facing legal repercussions at a juvenile facility.

To stand apart from a typical marriage and family therapy practice, consider advancing your education to include highly sought-after forensic skills. CONCEPT, Continuing and Professional Studies at Palo Alto University offers certifications in child custody evaluation or juvenile forensic assessment to expand your knowledge in these related specialty assessment areas.

Family therapists need to understand how to deal with situations unique to their work with children and adolescents. Knowledge of these adjacent skills provide useful, practical tools that can be applied in family therapy, such as:

It helps for marriage and family therapists to understand the judicial implications behind professional evaluations in instances where a case requires additional legal action. To provide the best treatment for clients, there often comes a time where a licensed mental healthcare worker needs to provide a referral for a professional evaluation for the child or parent in a legal setting.

With the proper training and networking, it doesn’t need to feel like a daunting task. Earning those extra qualifications adds versatility to your skillset and ensures you are able to point clients in the right direction for additional services they request.

2. Family Therapy Activities

Most family therapy activities are an adaptation of regularly enjoyed moments in the home. Try to decipher which activities are best for your client’s family dynamic. Treatment plans are only as effective as the client’s willingness to participate and follow through with these activities. 

1) CHILD-FOCUSED ACTIVITIES | Certain activities center around captivating and maintaining the child’s attention. These work best with children of a young age or individuals with shorter attention spans. Often, adults enjoy reliving activities from their childhood too. Several options include play therapy, sandbox therapy, and art therapy. Many therapists use board games to coax traumatic information from children while helping regulate their emotions. Research also backs these anxiety and stress relief games

2) FAMILY-BASED ACTIVITIES | Other activities focus on working together to encourage the family to act as a unit. Family-based activities are helpful for understanding each individual’s role in the family, the initial diagnosis of family dysfunction, and act as a treatment for dysregulation. Therapists might explore how the family divides chores and responsibilities. Tasks like cooking dinner, doing laundry, or going to the park are opportunities to assess how the family operates.


One well-known group therapy tactic involves picking an object, like a ball or stick, and making sure only the person with the object is speaking. Liana Lowenstein is a highly-regarded clinical social worker and play therapist who provides a resource, Favorite Therapeutic Activities for Children, Adolescents, and Families: Practitioners Share Their Most Effective Interventions, to mental health practitioners that sign up for her newsletter. Her free eBook compiles intervention activities from professional therapists all over the world.

3. Family Therapy Theories & Types

The types of family therapy differ by what therapists see as the core problem and how they decide to treat the dysfunction in the family. Like the core branches of psychological thought, family therapy theories also separate into widely recognized subdivisions with the therapist free to mix and match based on the type of problem they are helping solve.

  • Structural therapy discusses the importance of established roles within the unit and strong boundaries in the family structure. This type of therapy is a dominant ideology in family therapy and suitable for traditional family hierarchies.

  • Strategic/systemic therapy emphasizes problem-solving after understanding family function. A majority of family therapy concentrates on a specific problem then works out a solution applicable to everyone in the family unit. 

  • Postmodern/narrative therapy focuses on normative stories within the family unit and stigmatization that arises because of these beliefs held on what normal is. Narrative therapy discusses and challenges what is normal, traditional, or acceptable in a family.

  • Behavioral/cognitive-behavioral therapy confronts the source of maladaptive behavior and examines the behavior through communication. This is a well-researched and highly-effective form of treatment to confront unhealthy behavioral patterns.

  • Transgenerational therapy handles the beliefs and ways of understanding for the multiple generations of lineage brought into treatment. Typically, a transgenerational therapist looks to address the family conflict patterns spanning over several generations.

4. Family Therapy Benefits

The benefits of family therapy include communication improvements, access to psychoeducation tools, behavioral changes, clear boundaries, and stronger relationships. Family therapy provides families with the ability to identify and address conflicts. 

  • Improve communication
  • Provide psychoeducational tools
  • Encourage behavioral changes 
  • Establish clear roles and boundaries
  • Strengthen relationships

A mental health professional serves as an official mediator when establishing the requests and boundaries of each individual in the family. A proactive family therapist plays an important role in speaking to family members who refuse or resist treatment. And, scientists are producing research demonstrating the effectiveness of family therapy as an intervention to treat a multitude of issues like substance abuseeating disorders, and perinatal depression.

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