Why go to family counselling?

We’re all familiar with the idea of counselling. An individual (maybe a couple) goes to see a counsellor and gets some help. Or a parent/carer takes their child to a counsellor.

Everyone has also heard of family counselling, but what is it? How is it different from individual counselling, apart from the obvious fact that more people are in the room? And when would family counselling be the better choice?

If a young person isn’t managing well or is causing trouble at home or school, it’s tempting to think that both the problem and the solution are internal to that young person – they just need some special help, a bit of straightening out, and then everything will be fine. No one else needs to change!

Family therapy steps back from focusing just on the individual to look at how that individual is part of a family system, and it notices that, for example, how people in the family react to “the trouble” has an impact that could either help things, or worsen them, or just keep them bubbling along indefinitely.

But where did “the trouble” come from? Suppose the parents/carers are arguing a lot. Suddenly one of the kids starts to get into serious trouble at school, and to deal with it the parents/carers have to present a united front to the school or to the child. What’s happening in “the system” here? The young person’s misbehaviour has had the effect of reuniting the adults, which might be just what the young person wants.

This is not to say that the bad behaviour was consciously chosen by the child in a carefully planned strategy to solve a problem in the family. So much of what happens between us is just out of our sight, just out of conscious awareness. It’s these kinds of patterns that family therapy can alert us to, so we can then find better ways to deal with situations.

The family system can change due to many things: deaths, illnesses, separations, financial pressure, other losses, births, re-partnering, the arrival of step-siblings, moving, transitions (such as becoming a teenager) and so on.

Disagreements about rules, increasing conflict, and hostile communications can all place family members under pressure. Relationships are changing all the time, but it might appear on the surface that only one person has the problem.

Family therapy enables people who care about each other to express and explore difficult thoughts and emotions safely, to understand each other’s experiences and views, appreciate each other’s needs, build on strengths, and make useful changes in their relationships and their lives (UK Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice).

So one of the ways family therapy differs from individual counselling is that everyone involved can become part of the solution that the family works out for itself.

Explore family therapy with RAPS in Parramatta, or Unifam’s Options program, also in Parramatta, or Interrelate in Castle Hill, or CatholicCare at Blacktown, as examples.