The Do’s and Don’ts of Family Therapy for Counselors

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Family counseling can be challenging. After all, every family has different ways of getting along and other struggles, which may or may not be conducive to constructive counseling sessions. You can think of family struggles as a ticking timebomb that can explode at any time. Family counseling aims to bring resolution, understanding, and comfort to everyone involved.

Family counseling: what’s so hard about it?

Counseling a single person is already emotionally taxing and demanding, much less a group. When counseling two or more individuals, be it family members, couples, kids, or parents, it’s essential to take things slow as the situation can quickly get out of hand and turn chaotic.

As a family counselor, your goal is to get a clear picture of family dynamics before developing an effective coping plan. However, you may struggle to maintain professional boundaries and even fail to control the situation when arguments and personal assaults threaten to derail the session.

Counselors must be prepared with strategies for dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics during sessions while being open and flexible to learning and adjusting when new dynamics arise.

For aspiring counselors, the best way to prepare yourself for the battlefield known as family counseling is by enrolling in COAMFTE accredited programs, as they equip you with the knowledge to excel in the field.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Family Therapy for Counselors

Today we’ll be looking at the dos and don’ts of family therapy that every counselor must know to guide their session in the right direction and achieve better outcomes.

Do: get a clear picture of family dynamics.

At the outset of any counseling session, it is crucial to explore family dynamics, especially the many ways in which families express their identities. Unfortunately, many new counselors fail to grasp the bigger picture as they tend to focus solely on the living situation of the family and their quality of life.

Being proactive about any question you might have and approaching them directly is the most effective way to get the answers you seek. Simply ask them to define how they see their relationship. Whether they describe it as close or distant, their responses will provide valuable insight into how to best approach therapy.

Don’t: forget to take feelings into account.

Often, it is easy to understand how one family member feels about another. After all, if people don’t get along well, it won’t take long before negative emotions such as anger manifest themselves. 

Even when family members try to keep their feelings under wraps, their thoughts and body language usually give them away. Remember that a patient’s one-sided perspective doesn’t give you a complete picture of the problem and its source.

Interactions and relationship dynamics between parents and children or partners are a telling indicator of what needs healing. It is frequently necessary to address behavior rather than emotions to enhance family functioning.

Do: ask them why they seek counseling.

Because of the stigma associated with seeking help for marital or family problems, several families see therapy as a last choice. Nonetheless, once therapy has begun, the family must identify the issue that prompted them to do so to make any headway.

Although it may be challenging, counselors should encourage family members to discuss why they have decided to participate in therapy and how they hope it will improve their home, personal, and professional life.

Too often, problems in the family don’t get resolved because they are ignored, or the right steps aren’t taken to address them. Families need to have open conversations like this so that they may come together to fix their core problems and build on their strengths.

So to facilitate therapy, it is essential to establish (and maintain) a counseling atmosphere that respects the thoughts and emotions of all those involved.

Don’t: Judge

It is common for counselors working with families to look back and identify the behaviors and tendencies that have contributed to the family’s present dysfunctional dynamics. Counselors should know how to identify the factors contributing to a family’s difficulties and help them get back on track.

However, there’s a fine line between looking at family dynamics from an outsider’s perspective and guiding the family to healthy behaviors. It all starts with creating a judgment-free space and respecting their opinions.

Your job as a counselor is to engage with the family and help them try new ways of functioning instead of judging them for their actions. You’ll see the family start to adopt new habits because of your efforts together. 

Do: let the arguments flow.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, family arguments are often the most candid and open way of communication in a household. It’s natural for a counselor to want to restore order as soon as an argument causes chaos. However, letting these situations unfold naturally can provide surprising insights into the family’s dynamics.

Unplanned interruptions in discussion tend to drive people to drop their guard, and counselors may learn a lot by watching how different family members respond to the change in topic. Counselors should be prepared to intervene if a client’s tangent no longer serves a constructive purpose.

Don’t: get caught up in arguments.

One of the many challenges of dealing with families is that they always find a reason to pull you into their arguments, which disrupts the session and takes control away from you.  When performing home visits, it may be especially challenging to ignore the noise and chaos within the household.

The best way to handle such disturbances and calm your nerves is to make a clear, concise treatment plan that outlines everyone’s responsibilities and the steps they should take to achieve their treatment objectives.

When a family starts to feel the effects of stress, it’s easy to bring their focus back to the treatment and help them see the connection between their problems and the progress they’ve made with you.

The bottom line

Perhaps those who aren’t part of the family can’t fully appreciate what these discussions mean to everyone involved. A counseling or therapy session helps make strong connections, communicate more effectively, and use strategies that help rather than hurt.

Use your time with the family effectively by giving one hundred percent effort to ensure healthy outcomes. Getting your client moving in the right direction might be challenging; however, keeping these do’s and don’ts in mind can make it much more manageable.