Family therapy can make you feel ‘validated.’ Here’s what to expect

We all have assumptions about what a session of family therapy can look like: screaming matches, gaps of silence or just not being able to face the person in front of you.

Family therapy comes in all shapes and forms. It can be an intimate session for a couple or a larger session with parents and siblings in the room. A session can be done with a therapist, a psychologist, a counsellor or a social worker.

Michelle Baer, a registered psychotherapist and Canadian certified counsellor, focuses on child and family therapy. She told Global News that family therapy sessions are meant to be safe spaces.

“You can expect to take away feeling witnessed and validated in a safe space where each family member is able to share their story, learn new skills to facilitate more positive interactions with family members, practise techniques for individual emotional regulation and gain new perspectives,” she explained.

“Family therapy can help your overall problems and concerns by expressing, exploring and resolving the underlying thoughts, feelings and experiences that are contributing to dysfunctions in relationship patterns and individual functioning.”

Family therapy can vary in price depending on where you live in the country and the limitations of your health insurance. For example, in Toronto, princes can range from $100 to $250 per session. Liz Ryckman, an office intake co-ordinator with Kells Counselling in Edmonton, said the typical price for a session in the city is $200.

Some common misconceptions

That being said, there are still misconceptions about going to family therapy.

Ryckman says a common one is the belief that family therapy has to last a lifetime.

“In reality, the goal is to equip clients to be strong on their own,” she explained.

Credit: Laura Whelan

Baer added that with teens in particular, there is often concern about opening up.

“They are worried they will have to sit in a circle talking about all of their feelings, that it will end up in yelling and that they will be expected to change,” she said. “People fear they will have to admit all of their faults or be forced to address their deepest wounds with a stranger and in front of those they love.”

The purpose of family therapy is creating a safe space where all family members feel heard, she added.

What family therapy can address

Baer said family therapy can help people break down “complex family dynamics.”

“[This is] where relationship patterns are strained and members are experiencing challenges in their life and/or family transitions such as separation and divorce, grief and bereavement, trauma, medical or mental health diagnosis, attachment issues and parenting struggles,” she continued.

According to the Mayo Clinic, sessions can last about 50 minutes to an hour and family therapy is often short-term. Within the sessions, families (or couples) are guided on how to express their thoughts and emotions and solve problems in a productive manner.

“[In family therapy, you can also] explore family roles, rules and behaviour patterns to identify issues that contribute to conflict — and ways to work through these issues,” the clinic added.

Family therapy will also help you understand your family’s strengths and weaknesses and provide tips on how to confide in each other.

But it may not be a fit for everyone, Baer noted.

“It may not be of benefit for someone currently experiencing a severe mental health issue, such as psychosis, that limits participation in relational therapy or involving family members that perpetrated abuse against another member(s),” she explained.

Another limitation is when a family member is hesitant to attend the session.

“I find in my practice, especially with teens or an absent parent, presenting family therapy as an invitation to all feel better and work better together is often more readily accepted than demanding someone attend to change or to ‘fix’ something about themselves,” she continued.

“Family members willing to attend can also participate in some sessions on their own, and using creative arts therapies techniques such as role play, we might explore how best to address the family member who currently does not want to attend with the goal of having them participate down the road.”

How to find a family therapist

Often, family therapists, counsellors and social workers can be found through word of mouth, but online searches can also be a good starting point.

“Choosing the right one for your needs can best be done by speaking to a few therapists, having a consult or knowing what specific issues or ways of working would be most important to your family,” Baer said.

“Finding the best fit is important for the success of the therapy process, and sometimes, personalities just clash even though someone’s credentials and practice might sound perfect. You have to meet a therapist to get a sense of if this person is someone you trust and would feel comfortable supporting you and your family.”

Also, find out what kind of technique the professional uses, Baer says. This can include games, art, puppets and other forms of creative therapy.

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