How to Become a Family Therapist

What is a Family Therapist?

Family therapists work with families as well as individuals on the issues that may be impacting their family. These professionals take a family centered approach to any assessment, diagnosis or treatment that is given. A family therapist is trained to help both individuals and families in a therapeutic setting. Their underlying philosophy is that many individual and relationship problems can be solved by providing a safe space for family members to discuss issues.

It should be noted that ‘family’ is a loose term that includes married couples, children, and anyone who an individual considers a family member (for example, a godparent). The clients they work with may have direct family conflicts or they may be in need of support from their family. A family therapist is often highly trained, and receives their license only after acquiring a graduate degree and two years of clinical experience. The license they receive is a Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) license, meaning they are qualified to help individuals in a family setting, families, and married couples.

What Does a Family Therapist Do?

A family therapist may deal with a wide range of family-related issues. These problems could be at an individual level or may include multiple family members. For example, a teen could be experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a car wreck. This may be causing stress for the other family members, such as anxiety and stress for the mother and an alcohol abuse problem for the father. A family therapist will likely recommend individual treatment for the affected teen, but they will also advise the whole family to seek treatment together. In this way, the parents have an opportunity to discuss their concerns with their son and vice versa in a safe setting.

Because many family therapists have an MFT license, they are also trained at helping both married couples and families experiencing divorce or marital strain. The therapist will likely meet with both the married couple as well as other affected family members like children, or even in-laws if desired. Who the therapist meets with is often up to the client, however the family therapist will make recommendations dependent on the situation.

The therapy setting providing by the family therapist is often positive in nature, and focuses on the strengths of the relationships. A family therapist will usually spend most of their time listening to family members talk with one another and evaluate what they hear. A family therapist will encourage members to both listen and be calm with another when discussing issues.

Even when a family therapist is working one on one with an individual family member, they may guide the individual to think about issues within the context of their family. For instance, a single mother experiencing depression may be asked about her relationship with her parents as well as how her mental health may be affected by or be affecting her children. A child with parents who are undergoing a divorce may be asked about his or her relationship with the parents both with and without the parents physically present. By providing individual and family care, a family therapist can gain a better understanding of family dynamics, which ensures they will be able to help guide the family towards better mental health.

What are the Types of Family Therapy?  

There is not a one size fits all model on how therapists approach treatment with a family. Family therapists are often taught multiple methods of therapy, which they may apply dependent on the situation or their therapeutic style.

There are commonly thought to be four different types of family therapy that guide how a therapist will work with a family unit. These include the Bowenian, Structural, Systemic, and Strategic approaches.

Bowenian: Bowenian therapy is based on the underlying assumption that individuality and togetherness need to be balanced in a family, and discords between the two create issues in the family unit. A core of this approach is the idea of “triangles”. Oftentimes therapists practicing a Bowenian approach become the third side of the triangle in a dyad, and act as an important outlet for family members that wish to seek therapy without the presence of other family members.

Structural: A structural approach is often taken to address issues of hierarchy in a family. A family unit may benefit from making roles in a home clearer, or ensuring that family members agree upon a hierarchy. For instance, tension will likely be created when an adolescent feels like the dominant individual in a household at the disapproval of the parents.

Systemic: Therapists utilizing a systemic approach assume that many issues are unconscious. They often observe and listen rather than utilizing an active approach with the members. The idea of power is not found within individual members but the ties between family members.

Strategic: A strategic approach puts much of the work onto the family members, and is used for families that want quick results. The therapist often assesses communication and hierarchies within the family to make recommendations. They will give family members actionable tasks to complete at home, which extends the progress made in a therapeutic setting.

Why Do We Need Family Therapists?

While some families handle internal conflict well, many others do not. It is difficult for families to handle unforeseen stressors like a daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder or a grandparent’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease without some type of external assistance. Numerous studies on family therapy have shown that clients of these types of therapists are highly satisfied after receiving care, and report better relationships with individuals both inside and outside of their family unit. Studies have also found that benefits acquired for individuals and family members often last several years after therapy has concluded. After receiving care, the majority of individuals report both improved mental health as well as physical health. Parents often report improved behaviors in their children following family therapy. With the numerous benefits found, it is clear that family therapists are important for individuals and families.

Related Reading: How to Become a Mental Health Therapist

Additionally, family therapy is highly flexible, which makes it a good option for many families. Because Family Therapists can utilize a variety of different techniques within the therapy setting, there are a wide number of options for families to choose from in order for the family members to find a method that works for them. Not every family member has to be present for each therapy session, and the family can decide what they want to discuss.

Where Do Family Therapists Work? 

Family therapists work in a variety of settings, giving family therapists of range of options of where to practice. The majority of family therapists work in individual and family services, which includes schools and hospitals. Family therapists with a PhD may be found at universities, where they can offer their services to students and faculty members. Family therapists also commonly work in outpatient services to offer therapy to family units with one or more member who has been recently discharged from a psychiatric facility or hospital.

Although more rare, some family therapists open their own practice. While this gives more freedom in their practice, it comes with the additional requirement of having to run a business. Therapists wanting the freedom but not wanting to run a business in addition to practicing can find work in an office of practitioners. Several practicing therapists can share offices while being able to offer different therapy styles to families.

What are the Requirements to Become a Family Therapist?

Educational Requirements

The educational and licensure requirements to become a family therapist are fulfilled through a series of steps that is generally completed in a little over eight years. All practicing family therapists must meet the minimum level of education that is the required Master’s Degree in Counseling. However, preparation for this degree should begin at the undergraduate level. It is recommended that a four-year bachelor’s degree is earned in either social work, psychology, or sociology. During the individual’s education they will be learning about how the family impacts someone’s mental health. Students are also going to be learning how families work.

Certain master’s programs may require rather high GRE scores before they will even consider a student’s application for acceptance. A graduate program that is usually completed in two-years’ time, occasionally a little more but never less, students will take a variety of courses to earn their Master’s in Counseling. Such courses may include, Abnormal Psychology, Marital and Couples Therapy, Substance Abuse Counseling, Sexuality, Gender, & Ethnicity Issues, and Ethical Standards in Counseling.

Most of the time, the student will be required to go through some type of an internship. This is necessary to give the student some hands on experience. Students will be supervised as they work with clients and implement what they have learned during their schooling. Their supervisor will be able to observe them while they work with their clients and give feedback related to what tools they should be implementing. This is also necessary to help the student worth through any ethical issues that may develop.

Licensure/Certification Requirement

After securing a Master’s Degree in Counseling, family therapists must then fulfill two years of clinical experience before applying for licensure. Generally, a minimum of 3,000 hours is required, but as each state is different, these requirements can vary anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 hours. Nevertheless, all hours of clinical work must be performed under the supervision of a licensed marriage and family therapist who is confirmed to have at least five years of professional clinical experience.

Each prospective family therapist is required to have every hour of their post-graduate clinical work verified by an approved supervisor with whom they must meet formally for a minimum of 100 hours. After earning their Master’s degree and meeting the minimum hours of clinical experience, family therapists must then pass the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board’s exam. However, each state requires family therapists to renew this license every year. Furthermore, every two years they must complete a minimum of 36 hours of continued education and training, dedicating six of these hours to the study of law and ethics.

Individuals can look at the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards to learn more about the licensing exam and continuing education hours.

What Skills are Needed for a Family Therapist?  

Family therapists need to have a number of skills, some of which they should possess prior to considering practicing in the field, and others that they can develop in training.

  • Patience: The clients a family therapist works with will vary in the amount of effort they are willing to put in. Because the format of a therapy session may involve at least one unwilling member, a therapist will need to exhibit patience and understanding to encourage them to get involved. Additionally, families will vary in the amount of progress they make outside of the session. Patience and understanding can help therapists calmly support the family in making progress.
  • Problem Solving: The clients a therapist works with expect the therapist to be able to solve their problems. While problem solving is often more complicated than the clients perceive, it requires the therapist to be able to come up with a plan for the family. Problem solving may be more complicated than just handing the family to-dos at home, which requires the therapist to think on their feet.
  • Active Listening: Listening to what is being said as well as being able to observe what is not being said is crucial to all forms of therapy. Therapists need to be able to listen to each member and the family as a whole while quickly comprehending meaning and family dynamics. It is important to for the therapist to have input, but not to speak too soon or cut off a speaking member.
  • Empathy and Neutrality: Helping multiple individuals simultaneously can be tricky for many therapists. Being able to give every member an equal amount of attention and empathy is crucial. A client who experiences an unfair lack of attention (whether real or imagined) will likely curb their willingness to engage in therapy.

How Much Does a Family Therapist Earn?

The salary earned by a family therapist depends on their training and where they choose to work. As a general rule, family therapists who choose to open their own private practice will earn more than those working for an external organization. However, this depends greatly on education and years of practice.

The majority of family therapists, however, work for organizations like family services or outpatient care. The average salary for those working for state governments is about $72,000, whereas the salary for those working for other organizations ranges from $42,000 to $49,000.

Additionally, salaries differ dependent on location. Family therapists in New Jersey earn on average $75,000 whereas those in Hawaii earn about $61,500.

What is the Job Outlook for Family Therapists?

It has been estimated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that the job field related to family therapist is expected to grow by 23% between 2016 and 2026. This is a lot faster than job growth related to other professions. More and more people are willing to see these providers compared to the other types of professionals that are out there. Insurance companies are also a lot more willing to pay for these types of services compared to psychiatric services or inpatient hospitalization. Maybe this career is on the rise because so individuals are more likely to enter this type of treatment in today’s society than they were years ago.

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