Learn the Do’s and Dont’s of Family Counseling

Family counseling can be a difficult task.


Counseling one person with a strong personality is difficult enough; add one or more persons to the session, and the situation can quickly become difficult to handle. This is true for family units seeking mental health care, whether they are couples, new parents, or families experiencing sibling conflict. Consider the emotional and mental complications that one person may exhibit, and then multiply those issues by the number of family members who attend the session. Even though counselors try to acquire as accurate a picture of family life as possible, they may find themselves clutching for control and professional frameworks when arguing or personal assaults threaten to derail the session.

Families have their own set of dynamics and methods of interacting and communicating, which may or may not be conducive to fruitful sessions. The counselor’s goal is to defuse the potential emotional minefield that is family counseling by implementing tactics that will assist the family in achieving some sense of closure, understanding, or relief.

Counselors must always be ready to adapt and learn as interpersonal dynamics arise, even if they have tools and approaches to use during particularly difficult family sessions. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is miserable in its own manner,” observed the famed 19th-century Russian author Leo Tolstoy. The first sentences of his work “Anna Karenina” lay out the fundamental premise that counselors must address in sessions: Each family will have its own set of issues and tendencies, which may seem to expand in severity as dads, mothers, sisters, brothers, and other family members are added to the mix. 

The following are some family counseling dos and don’ts that professionals can use to guide their sessions and help families reach healthy outcomes:


Allow family dynamics to emerge naturally.

It is especially vital to allow family structures and relationships to emerge naturally during the first session. Appearances can be misleading, and the complex challenges that any one family faces cannot be deduced from an introduction. Try to set aside family socioeconomics or demographics that may lead to assumptions or generalizations (this is not to suggest completely dismiss these aspects, as they are markers of their own significance to understanding the family). Asking general-purpose questions to lead the dialogue is an useful method to keep control, but counselors should avoid trying to elicit reactions that match their own agendas.

Allow family members to interact with one another instead. 

Observing the family as it would be at the dinner table or elsewhere is crucial to obtaining the most accurate picture of the dynamics and issues at the root of conflicts or fights. Troubled adolescents, for example, may be angry with themselves rather than their parents. Such insights or behaviors may take time to emerge throughout the course of counseling, but allowing family dynamics to show themselves on their own time allows counselors to make the greatest assessment of the issues and personalities that families struggle with.