When Do I Need a Family Counselor?

Family Counseling with Therapist
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There is not much question that when a family is healthy and happy, all seems right in the world. Fathers experience their greatest joys within the confines of a stable and healthy family relationship.

But not all families are stable, healthy and happy all the time. The stresses of modern life, the need for better work-life balance, a family crisis of one kind or another or mental health challenges for one or more family members can bring a family to its knees at any time.

 Children with disabilities, financial stresses, behavioral challenges, and just the ages and stages of different children can create challenges that may require some help to resolve.  

Many families have some built-in resiliency to many of these problems. But even the best families can feel a need for help beyond the family's own resources. Even our family, which by all outward appearances, is happy and stable, has seen its share of difficulties and crises.

Deciding if marriage and family therapy is right for a family can be a big decision. While it may feel initially like admitting defeat or failure, in reality choosing family counseling can be a big step forward. Think of family counseling as adding some tools to your family's relationship toolbox. You can learn new ways to communicate, to work through problems, to discipline and to relate to one another.

If you family is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it may be time to consider engaging the services of a qualified professional marriage and family therapist.

  • Family members have difficulty functioning in their normal capacity. Do you feel an "energy drain" in your family? Things that used to be routine and normal are now burdensome?
     
  • Family members tend to have extreme emotional reactions. Do members of your family exhibit excessive anger, fear, sadness, depression or other emotional reactions?
     
  • There is a significant breakdown in communication between family members. Do you find it harder to communicate than usual? Are you experiencing the "silent treatment" more often than usual?
     
  • Family members are withdrawing from family life. Is there a new pattern of one or more family members going into seclusion?
     
  • There are symptoms of violence or the threat of violence to oneself or other family members. Beyond normal "horseplay," do you feel that violence is a problem? Is there behavior that would be considered "assault" if it weren't between family members?
     
  • Family members express feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. Do you feel that you have reached the end of your rope? Is coping with the stresses just too much to bear? Do you wonder if your family will ever recover?
     
  • There have been changes in the children's behavior at home or school. Are grades taking a nosedive? What about attendance problems or disruptive behavior at school? Is one of the children out of control at home?
     
  • The family has had a traumatic experience and members are having a hard time coping. Has there been a death in the family? A divorce or separation? An affair discovered? IS the family having difficulty adjusting to the new reality?
     
  • Family members have substance abuse problems. Are there challenges with alcohol or drug use?  Is there a family member with an eating disorder?  

Finding and Choosing a Family Therapist

Once you decide the time is right for family counseling, families have the daunting task of finding and selecting the right therapist for them.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a family counselor.

How well does your insurance cover family therapy? Mental health services are now covered by health insurance due to the Affordable Care Act, but family therapy is not always considered mental health care. Check with your employer to see if some local marriage and family therapists are covered under your health insurance benefit.  Identifying those therapists that participate on your health insurance plan can take a big part of the financial stress out of making a decision to seek professional help.

What about an Employee Assistance Program? Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for their employees. The EAP can be a good place to start finding therapy options. Most EAP's follow an "assess and refer" model that will connect you with a therapist that will work for your family. And the service is usually free or has a very small co-payment. Your employer's human resources department can let you know if an EAP is an option for you and how to access the EAP.

Ask Your doctor. Family doctors can often refer patients to a qualified marriage and family counseling service. Having worked with other families with similar problems, family doctors often have insight into which family therapists in the area might offer the best help for a family.  Consider asking your doctor for recommendations.

Pastoral care. If you are affiliated with a religious community, you can ask your minister, pastor, rabbi or the like for suggestions. Often families with a strong religious background will choose a counselor of their own faith.

Online referrals. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy offers an online therapist locator service that will let you search by geographic area for association members.

Personal recommendations. One of the best sources for therapist referrals are people who have benefited from a therapist's services. If a family you know has been to counseling, ask them about their experience with their therapist.  Learn about how the therapist communicates and what specific actions he or she recommended to your friend.  

Questions to ask. When interviewing a therapist for possibly working with your family, you should ask the following questions:

  • Where did you get your professional degrees?
  • Is your degree is in family therapy or a related discipline?
  • Who supervised your first clinical years?
  • How long have you been in practice?
  • What is your experience treating my specific problem?
  • What is your philosophical approach to family counseling? There are different schools of thought within family therapy, and you want to know how the therapist you are choosing looks at families, and what sorts of strategies he or she uses.

Deciding to turn to marriage and family counseling for dealing with family problems is a big step. But it is a necessary and helpful step when the family's own resources for solving problems is insufficient, or when problems seem insurmountable. Trying family counseling is not admitting defeat - it is an important step to helping build a family's toolbox and resources.