The Ultimate Guide to Get Started with Family Systems Therapy

At its basic foundation, family systems theory holds that clients with any mental health diagnosis, addiction, or substance abuse disorder, can be more effectively treated if we take their relationships with their families into consideration. The client’s family system, be it functional or dysfunctional, is an important component to address when treating someone in recovery. Without information on the family history and dynamics in which an individual is a part, treatment is incomplete. While the family work clinician’s focus is on the family unit or system, they do not de-emphasize the importance of dealing with the internal states of the individual. The family system’s approaches broaden the scope of assessment and interventions to provide best practice methods for their clients.

In assessing a client’s presenting problems, a family system’s oriented practitioner will be interested in a person’s current living situation, life experiences, and what the client sees as his/her problem. As an example, here’s how therapists may initially assess from a focus on the individual versus an assessment from a family systems perspective.

Maria has come to an agency that provides services for recovering alcoholics. A counselor in individual therapy may inquire about Maria’s perspective or cognition about her alcoholism. A therapist from a family or systemic orientation would not only examine Maria’s self-identification but her cultural and intergenerational family experiences around alcohol as well. The individual-focused therapist would begin therapy with Maria alone. A family systems counselor may include the client’s parents, siblings, or any other person(s) Maria may want to involve. Overall, the family-oriented therapist will want to explore how systems, from micro to macro level, maybe a part of Maria’s perception and hence the problem with alcoholism. This enables the practitioner to find explanations beyond the client’s personal identification with their substance misuse. The therapist will want to understand how Maria’s alcoholism affects the family and how it is or was integrated into and is being maintained by family relational patterns. This broad look into Maria’s life will enable the counselor to provide a more unified and effective intervention plan.

While there are many styles or schools of thought and practice in family systems therapeutic interventions, most experts will agree that although they may operate or approach “family work” differently, practitioners should use the approaches that best benefit the client. Clinicians should also consider their comfort level and expertise in choosing a method of family therapy. The psychodynamic, intergenerational, and family-of-origin approaches focus almost exclusively on the client’s past. Strategic, Structural, Cognitive-Behavioral, and Psychoeducational modalities deal with the present and its influences on the client with little thought to the past. One of the most familiar and focused on the here and now methods of family systems therapy is the Experiential-Humanistic approach.

Experiential therapeutic methods are implemented so that a client can explore actualization, choice, freedom, and growth. The focus is on the present interactions between the family and the therapist as opposed to exploring past experiences. The therapist’s characteristics and sense of self is an integral component in using this approach. Growth is assumed to be a natural process and that painful experiences are a part of life. Experiential family therapists (EFT) working with clients suffering from drug addictions or substance abuse believe that these dysfunctional behaviors are actually the failure of a person to realize their potential for personal growth.

Experiential therapy places a high value on the therapist being authentic and real. Since this approach relies heavily on the therapist’s personal self-awareness and rarely on a rigid technique, a clinician must be willing to participate in personal therapy sessions. The professional that has done their own work (so-to-speak) and has learned what they will eventually facilitate or teach to a family, can only make them more effective. I find it quite odd that many therapists or professional counselors do not agree with this. Academic training will never be enough to make us the most effective clinicians we can be.

The use of family systems therapy allows the professionals in guidance and counseling to gain a greater understanding of their client’s life or current problem. Individual therapy is effective and should never be discounted. It is in engaging the families in the therapeutic process that will help you gain a better insight into your client’s mental health or substance abuse disorder and guide you to employing the most effective interventions. The best we can provide for our clients is what being a professional mental health clinician is all about.

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