What is family therapy – and could you benefit from it?

rte.ie Updated / Sunday, 24 Jul 2022 06:01

As Jessica Alba talks about her experiences with family therapy, Prudence Wade finds out more about it.
As Jessica Alba talks about her experiences with family therapy, Prudence Wade finds out more about it.

Jessica Alba has opened up about going to therapy with her daughters, Honor, 14, and Haven, 10.

The 41-year-old told Glamour that around puberty, “They started to sort of shut down and get really like, ‘I don’t want to talk any more.’ And I’m like, ‘We’re not doing this. We’ve got to keep a line of communication here. How can I be a better parent to you? How do you want me to talk to you? Don’t shut me out.’”

Alba, who also has a 4-year-old son, Hayes, with husband Cash Warren, only has good things to say about the experience of family therapy. “First of all, this person [the therapist] has studied human behaviour and they’re good at it. And they have no relation to you so they can be really objective and you create a safe space for your kid to really candidly tell you what’s not working about your parenting,” the actor told the magazine.

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“I was like, ‘Look, I’m not perfect. I’m not going to know all the answers, but I want to be a great parent to you. And what you like and don’t is different from what your sister likes and doesn’t like. And I’m going to make mistakes. Here’s a safe space, you can’t get in trouble – let me know what I’m doing wrong, or what you would like me to do differently.”

Family therapy comes under the umbrella of ‘systemic therapy’ – where you focus on a group of people and their thoughts and feelings, rather than just the individual. Here’s everything you need to know about it…

What is family therapy?

You don't necessarily need to be going through a specific trauma to benefit from family therapy (Alamy/PA)
You don’t necessarily need to be going through a specific trauma to benefit from family therapy (Alamy/PA)

Family therapy looks at “the way families are put together”, explains Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist with Good Thinking Psychological Services and author of The Grief Collective.

“We carry with us our own stories of being parents, and our own thoughts towards trauma and chaos and catastrophe. And sometimes we can raise our children, or interact with our parents in ways that are not necessarily about stuff that’s happening right now” – which is where Trent suggests group therapy can come in, to help give everyone a deeper understanding of how they’re responding to situations.

She mentions a couple of ways you can do it – you can have a “systemic therapist” – where the family talks to each other and the therapist in a safe space, and there’s also a one-way mirror approach, where the professional watches from one side and gives the family room to talk, occasionally giving them ideas of questions to ask, and feedback on how they’re talking to each other.

What are the potential benefits?

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“One of the benefits of family therapy is for us to think about whether – when we lose our temper, are we losing our temper because of what’s happening right now, or could it be about something we’ve experienced in the past, and can we help identify patterns of interaction?” says Trent.

It’s not just about focusing on the negatives, but she also says it can be about the things that are going well, and your strengths as a family. But alongside this, you can identify, “What are the things that we could do with a bit of help with?”

She explains it’s about being present and aware that we’re not perfect people – “None of us are, and raising children is really difficult. We have to live our own life, but we’ve got to slot our own lives around the lives of people around us.”

It’s an opportunity to emphasise that “everybody gets to shine, everybody gets to thrive, and everybody is important”, she says. “It’s important that everyone in the family feels that way, and family therapy can be a really useful way of making sure everybody has an impartial opportunity to speak.”

Psychologists can identify if someone maybe isn’t being given the space to speak as much as they might like to, helping the family “live more harmoniously, and really thrive as a unit”, she says. “There isn’t a manual that comes with being human, there certainly isn’t a manual that comes with being a child or a parent. None of us are experts at it. So any help that we can get that might help us be less blinkered, more aware, more in tune with what’s happening can be really useful.”

Who might benefit from family therapy?

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“Therapy doesn’t always need to be for when there’s some sort of big problem,” suggests Trent, who says anyone can benefit from it as “ongoing support with life”.

However, she does mention there are a few scenarios where family therapy is often used. “Family therapy is really commonly used in eating disorders – not just for children and young people, but for eating disorders later in life as well. That’s because of the concept of eating disorders is often the behaviour you can see, but you’re not necessarily seeing what’s contributed to that eating disorder.”

Talking things through with a professional “can be helpful, because it takes the pressure off the person who’s having the difficulties. Because it’s saying, we’ve all got a role to play in this.”

Another situation she mentions are families with separated parents. She says: “Having the opportunity to think, how is your experience of parenting our children? How is your experience of being parented by mummy, how is your experience of being parented by daddy? Could we do that more holistically, or in a way that’s more attuned to your needs?”

Ultimately, Trent suggests you are most likely to benefit from family therapy if you try to use the tools in your day-to-day life. “Make sure what you’re doing in the therapy room is also mapping outside into wider life,” she advises. “With any therapy, you don’t want it to be just about the therapy hour, it needs to be translating into people’s normal lives.”

For more information on counselling services in Ireland, visit HSE.ie.

If you have been affected by issues raised in this story, please visit: www.rte.ie/helplines.

FTAI Statement on Ukraine

The Family Therapy Association of Ireland Executive committee wishes to stand with our European Family Therapy Association colleagues in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 21st of February 2022.

The suffering of innocent people on both sides, the displacement of millions and the catastrophic  loss of life, is an appalling violation of human rights and cannot be condoned by us.   We must stand  together as human citizens of this planet and act to assist those caught up in this devastating war. The  emotional and mental impact on all involved cannot be underestimated and it is imperative that we  oppose tyranny and support democracy at every opportunity, with a fervent wish for a speedy resolution to this awful conflict.

FTAI & AFT Joint Conference 28th January 2022

Booking is now open for the FTAI and AFT joint online conference to be held on the 28th January 2022.

Book early to avoid disappointment!

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·   A celebration of the collaborative working initiative between the Family Therapy Association of Ireland and the Association for Family Therapy & Systemic Practice in the UK

·      Personal Professional Development in Systemic Family Psychotherapy training and beyond

The event will be delivered via Zoom and the conference will also count towards CPD. Details of timetable and booking information can be accessed by clicking link below.

Code of Professional Conduct and Practice

Family therapists are subject to the Code of Professional Conduct and Practice of their professional body. They receive on-going supervision and development as part of their accreditation and a comprehensive complaints procedure is in place should any person wish to avail of it.  If you wish to obtain a copy of the FTAI Complaints Procedure and relevant complaints documentation, please contact the FTAI office at ftaioffice@gmail.com

Please click on link below to see Code of Professional Conduct.

Code of Professional Conduct and Practice 2017

To be read in conjunction with


Standards, Registration, Accreditation

The FTAI is registered with the European Association of Psychotherapy and is affiliated with the Irish Council for Psychotherapy (ICP). We set the standards for training, accredit training programmes and register those family therapists whose submissions meet our criteria

Criteria for Registration as Family Therapist 2019

– FTAI Application for Full Registered Member 2019

– STUDENT Application for Student Membership 2019

– Application Form for Registration as a Supervisor

– Final Supervisors Criteria ratified 20th May 2010

What is Family Therapy & Counselling?

Family Therapy looks at the individual in the context of their relationships and social milieu rather than in isolation.

The Context of Relationships and Family

Systemic Family Therapy, also known as Couple or Family Therapy, is a means of intervention that attempts to understand and address human beings’ pain and distress within the context in which it occurs i.e. the family or relationship environment.

This therapeutic approach does not isolate an individual patient, but rather it takes account of the family as an organic whole, whatever form that family group might take.

Clients are facilitated to make sense of their lives and difficulties in the context of their family formation and functioning.

Enhance Communications

Family therapy aims to enhance communication between family members and to cultivate the independence of the individual within the family. It avoids apportioning blame.

Focus on the Here and Now

The primary focus is on the present rather than the past and the objective is to promote action towards change so that the distress of the family can be alleviated.

Family therapy may involve entire families with parents and their young or adult children. It may involve some members of a family or couples.

How we make sense of our Life

This form of psychotherapy understands that emotional, psychological and interpersonal problems arise within the context of how people experience their life – how they make sense of reality and in their patterns of social engagement and exchange.

The therapist and client together seek to understand both how these patterns arise and how they are maintained; they do this through discussion, reflection and exploration in session and between sessions.

There may be more than one client involved in this process. This usually provides other options in making sense of one’s situation and generates greater choice in how to respond and relate.

Young People

In focusing on the wider system, Family Therapy is well placed to work with families in difficulty, particularly young children and adolescents.

Systemic processes point to the fact that children’s difficulties are, whenever possible, best addressed in the context of the family.

Systemic Family Therapy also facilitates the family’s understanding of any local factors that may impact on their difficulties, for example, issues associated with areas of deprivation such as poverty and drugs.