Family counselling (sometimes called family therapy or systemic therapy) is a structured approach to help families to improve their relationships and manage change as a team. It is conducted by a professional counsellor over a series of sessions to address specific issues that are causing the family concern.
Systemic therapy is based on systems theory - the study of complex systems in science, nature and society which considers how groups of objects work together to achieve a result. Family counsellors often use a systemic framework alongside other therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy and individual counselling depending on the needs of each family. The approach focuses on the whole family unit rather than any individual.
Families can encounter strain for many reasons. Sometimes there may be unforeseen events such as a death in the family or one member could have chronic health issues so they may need extra support and understanding from the others. Other factors that may place family relationships under stress include:
In some cases, the trigger issue can be easily identified and managed, however, sometimes there can be multiple triggers that have a domino effect. Often, family members can be so focused on their own daily life that they don’t notice the problems others may be having around them. Or, they may notice them but have no idea how to handle them.
The aim of family counselling is to help all members understand each other’s needs, emphasise with the others and make useful changes that will help make the family a stronger, happier unit.
Sessions are adapted to suit the needs of each family. They often involve a combination of individual and group sessions. For example, some members may ask for individual sessions first to help them clarify their own thoughts and feelings before discussing the issues as a group. Parents may ask for sessions apart from their children to help them learn new parenting strategies or to discuss personal issues away from the children.
Children can also have sessions without their parents. This can be very beneficial to adolescents who are dealing with unfamiliar emotions and changing hormones. Young children can express themselves through approaches like creative play or art therapy.
Family counsellors can also liaise with relevant people such as the family GP or school staff, and provide advocacy services if needed. Most counsellors work individually, but some choose to work in teams – either working with different family members or with one counsellor observing group sessions and providing constructive feedback.
The number of sessions will vary depending on the complexity of the situation. As family counselling tends to be a short-term, solution-focused approach, many families find that they have the strength and skills to move forward on their own after 6 to 20 sessions. The number of sessions, the interval between them and the setting and techniques used can all be negotiated between the counsellor and the family.
In Australia, anyone can define their profession as ‘counsellor’. However, a professional counsellor must complete a minimum of 3 years of combined person-to-person and supervised contact, leading to a Certificate in Counselling or higher qualification. They must also comply with appropriate standards, procedures and codes of practice.
When selecting a family counsellor, be sure to find out how much experience they have had in your areas of concern and what their qualifications are. Find a counsellor in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth or Sydney.