The Do’s and Dont’s of Family Counseling​

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Frustrated young man with curly brown hair holding his head with his wife in the background

Family counseling can be a unique challenge. Counseling one individual with a strong personality can be demanding enough; add one or more people to the session, and the situation can easily become hard to manage. Such is the case with family units who seek mental health services, whether as couples, new parents or families with sibling conflict. Consider the emotional and mental complexities one person may present, and then consider those issues multiplied by as many other family members who attend the session. Even though counselors will want to get as honest a picture of family life as possible, they may find themselves grasping to assert control and professional structures when bickering or personal attacks threaten to envelop the session.

Families come with their own existing dynamics and ways of interacting and communicating, none of which may be conducive or helpful to productive sessions. The counselor’s job is to diffuse the potential powder keg of emotions that is family counseling by using strategies that will help the family achieve some measure of closure, understanding or relief.

Even with tools and techniques to deploy during especially challenging family sessions, counselors must always be ready to adapt and learn as interpersonal dynamics emerge. The celebrated 19th-century Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The opening words to his novel “Anna Karenina” lay out the basic principle counselors must approach in sessions: Each family will have its own unique issues and tendencies that may seem to multiply in intensity across fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and other family members. Following are some do’s and don’ts of family counseling that professionals can use to direct their sessions and help families achieve healthy results:

Do let family dynamics come out on their own

It is particularly important during a first session to let family structures and relationships emerge naturally. Appearances can be deceiving, and the intricate issues any one family experiences can hardly be surmised on an introduction. Try to put aside family socioeconomics or demographics (which is not to say totally ignore these qualities, as they are indicators of their own worth to understanding the family) that may lead to assumptions or generalizations. Asking questions that guide the conversation in a general sense is a good way to maintain control, but counselors should avoid trying to provoke reactions that fit their own agendas.

Instead, allow family members to interact with one another. Observing the family as it would be at the dinner table or elsewhere is critical to getting the truest picture of what dynamics and issues are at the heart of disagreements or fights. Troubled adolescents may not actually be mad at their parents but with themselves, for instance. It may take time for such insights or behaviors to arrive through the course of counseling, but allowing family dynamics to reveal themselves on their own time makes it easier for counselors to make their best assessment of the factors and personalities families deal with.

Don’t take sides

Counselors know they need to be the leader in the room. With family sessions, this ideal can come under assault from all angles. Even an ethical action can be construed in one family member’s eyes as made to target, expose or hurt him or her. Counselors have to walk a very fine line when dealing with families, as counselors are very often the ones who act as conduits to the interactions. Consider if one family member complains about another (also present in the room) and the counselor follows up with a question that can be taken as being supportive of an attack or assertion the subject of the complaint feels is unfair and not understood. An aggrieved family member could seize upon the faintest hint of taking sides and draw the counselor into dysfunction.

How does a counselor avoid taking sides? By tactfully avoiding situations that could be seen as being manipulative. Above all, practice caution if acting on behalf of a family member. Again, ask the right questions, but let events unfold through the family itself. Counselors can also build rapport by reminding others in the session to do the same (not speaking for others or letting others speak for them). Being selective with feedback helps avoid these pitfalls. Counselor discipline underscores a point at where family counseling diverges from individual sessions. Helping encourage a recalcitrant client to talk more with encouragement may work in a one-on-one setting, but doing the same in a family setting may be counter-productive.

Father comforts sad son

Do get the family to say why they’re seeking counseling

Some families see counseling as a last resort because they don’t want to admit to marital or family faults. However, for any progress to be made once counseling is started, families will need to name the problem that pushed them to seek treatment. Vocalizing problems is difficult; being honest is not easy, but counselors must get the family to say why they have chosen counseling sessions to help their home, personal and working lives. Owning up to a problem could take time and can’t be rushed in any type of counseling, but it can be especially challenging to draw out in family counseling, where consensus and total participation are needed.

Many family issues fester because they go unaddressed or are not tackled with the proper interventions. Counselors can help empower family members to identify their stresses, their thoughts and their emotions in a manner that in another setting could be seen as vindictive or going behind another’s back. This type of honest communication is valuable in getting a family to coalesce around fundamental faults and start to build upon strengths. Establishing (and ensuring) group respect for the opinions and feelings of all the individuals involved creates a counseling environment that will help treatment progress and for families to come to terms with their issues.

Don’t forget to consider emotions in the context of dynamics

A lot of the time, it’s not hard to pick up on how one client may feel in relation to another family member. Anger and distrust (among other emotions) manifest in clear ways. Even when family members attempt to conceal their emotions, they often give themselves up in the act. It’s important to remember that how clients feel on the inside is not the full story of what affects their families. Interactions between son and father, mother and daughter, husband and wife can act as more accurate barometers of the issues that need fixing. People know when they’ve made a mistake if they are told. It’s harder to understand what the root issue is when being subject to the silent treatment. Behavior is often what needs to be addressed for families to improve functioning, not the feelings these actions result in.

Do allow interruptions and arguments to take place

It may appear counterproductive to healthy expression, but arguments can be the most open and honest form of communication families engage in. A counselor’s first reaction to a disruption or interruption may be to tamp it down immediately to maintain control over the room, but allowing these interactions to take their own course can result in enlightening glimpses into family dynamics. Pretenses and shields are usually thrown aside when unrehearsed disruptions in conversation are made, and observing how each family member reacts to the interruption can help counselors better understand the situation.

Counselors must be ready to step in if the tangent stops being helpful and starts being hurtful. One instance where counselors may be forced to take sides is in stopping one family member from berating another. Arguments and interruptions in a controlled setting where counselors can view dynamics clearly are helpful tools to treatment, but threads of conversation that drift into personal attacks or even violence need to be stopped by counselors.

Don’t ignore the need for appropriate training

Counseling families, as evidenced, requires professionals to take nuanced approaches. It also means counselors who seek to counsel families should look into certification as a family counselor. Achieving such status usually entails specialized training, as well as undergoing supervised sessions. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy maintains that after graduation from an accredited program, counselors must participate in a period (often two years) of supervised clinical work before being licensed or certified.

However, even when counselors obtain such credentialing and education, some family experiences may take counseling beyond their professional capacity. This often occurs when a counselor sees a family dealing with abuse (sexual, physical, mental, etc.). Such situations mandate highly specific preparation and parameters, like court-overseen appointments. Though counselors undoubtedly want to help every client and family, they must sometimes take the difficult step in recognizing that particular types of families needs unique help and could benefit from a referral.

Do consider Bradley University for a master’s degree

Effective family counseling means addressing the root issues of interpersonal relationships and interactions, often obscured by fluid family dynamics. To have productive sessions that help families achieve collective and individual progress, a counselor must have an extensive base of knowledge and experience to draw on. The most important factor to keep in mind is that families will always have their own ways of working and communicating, and it’s up to the counselor to ensure those methods and means are pursued in healthy ways that contribute to a group’s happiness.

Families are among the most challenging clients counselors can expect to encounter. They will need to call into service all their education, evidenced-based interventions, empathy and analytical skills to help clients — the kinds of tools that students can gain with a graduate degree. Individuals interested in gaining more education to better serve family clients may want to consider Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program.


Recommended Reading

Marriage and Family Counseling or Mental Health Counseling? A Guide

How to Convince Your Partner to Attend Marriage Counseling

Bradley University Online Counseling Programs