Setting ground rules for a family therapy session

Ashleigh Knowles
Ashleigh Knowles
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Family counseling: A unique challenge

Family counseling is immensely rewarding, however, it can also be challenging at times. Family units tend to bring multiple complex issues to the table, which can be exacerbated depending on the number and type of people present. Family counseling can bring many tensions and anxiety to sessions, and unusual dynamics that can make therapy more challenging to navigate. It's not uncommon for arguments and bickering to occur within family counseling sessions, and it is the therapist's responsibility to find ways to manage and balance dynamics for effective sessions. The therapist must work to bring the family together, and promote ways to help family members overcome their differences and produce positive and healthy behaviors. As a result, setting ground rules is a great place to start and can pave the way for a successful and productive family counseling session.

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Family conflict examples

Family conflict and discord can be a result of many reasons and can manifest in several different ways. To better understand family conflict and learn how to appropriately deal with stressful situations, take note of the following conflict types and examples.

  • Parental conflict - Parental conflict arises when parents of a family hold differing views around major and minor occurrences such as finances, infidelity, life decisions, and child upbringing. Parental conflict can result in tense environments that produce high stress, with their actions often having significant impacts on children. Children may be more inclined to negative habits and behaviors amongst peers and within themselves.
  • Poor communication - Some families find difficulty in communicating honestly and with clarity. In fact, many families view open and honest communication as a sign of weakness, with vulnerability repressed and internalized. Many children and family members feel that they have no opportunity to discuss important topics weighing on their minds, which can result in jumping to conclusions and escalated interactions.
  • Personality and belief clashes - Families, of course, are prone to arguments from time to time. Parents grow up in different generations and can sometimes have difficulty understanding differing beliefs and expectations. This is especially the case for children who follow a different direction from their parents and what they had envisioned. Many arguments may simply be chalked up to personalities that do not always mix well.
  • Parent-Child power dynamics - Many frustrations can also arise from dominating parents, or children who want greater control. Power struggles are also very common in specific developmental stages, and can sometimes carry through to adulthood, where special attention is needed.

Ground rules for a family therapy session

To prevent arguments, miscommunication, and unhealthy family dynamics, consider the following ground rules for therapy sessions and telehealth appointments. Incorporating these ground rules are likely to result in more productive appointments and greater gains when it comes to family relationships.

Prepare an agenda

To get the most out of your sessions, make sure that you prepare an agenda before meeting with the family. It is quite common for family therapy to divert off track, especially when interruptions and arguments occur. While you should let these unfold naturally, it is important to have an agenda with relevant activities to ensure that you remain productive and are making progress with each session.

Begin and end on time

It's important that you start and end sessions on time, as it provides an incentive for family members to make the most of their time with you and listen to what you have to say. Ensures that you are managing your time effectively and that your sessions don't drift off on tangents and leave family members feeling unsatisfied with their progress. You may also have clients scheduled one after the other, but it is important to treat all family members equally, regardless of the severity of their situation.

Create an action plan

As part of your agenda, it is also important that you create an action plan. This should outline specific definitive steps for clients to take before your next session, and it ensures that they are held accountable. An action plan is essential for continual progress and can lead to much-improved family dynamics.

Let family dynamics come out on their own

Observing family dynamics as they naturally present is the best way to understand family members and how they behave and operate. Appearances can be deceiving, so it is important to let things unfold without any interference. Simply guide the conversation towards the dimensions that you wish to evaluate, but avoid provoking arguments or responses that align with your beliefs. If the family is comfortable, one of the best places to do this is by observing the family within their home or at the dinner table.

Avoid taking sides

It is important that family members realize that your purpose is not to serve as a judge. It is not your job to decide who is right or wrong in situations. Instead, you should avoid taking sides at all times and work towards asking the right questions, letting interactions unfold naturally. Be selective with your feedback to avoid supporting a particular family member, and try to understand all angles and perspectives of the situation.

Ask the reason for seeking counseling

While this may seem obvious, it is recommended that you ask the family why they are seeking counseling. For many families, it is a last resort option to avoid the steps such as divorce. However, requesting that they take the initiative is a great way for clients to identify their problems honestly. It highlights their motivation to improve, and what goals they have going into your sessions. 

Consider emotions in the context of dynamics

As mentioned, you should never take sides within your sessions. However, this doesn't mean that you should disregard emotions entirely. Emotions are an integral part of family dynamics, and picking up on how one client may be feeling in relation to another family member is a great way to uncover important issues and address root causes.

Factor in the possibility of interruptions and arguments

There tends to be a stigma around family counseling appointments that arguments are bad and should be avoided at all times. After all, your clients are coming to see you to prevent further bickering, so why should you withstand it within your sessions? Actually, from time to time, arguments are an excellent way to pinpoint issues and examine open and honest communication. This is part of allowing family dynamics to come out on their own, and examining individual family responses can be immensely helpful. Remember that arguments should be within a controlled setting, and should never escalate to cause further harm.

Consider the need for appropriate training

Hopefully, you are reading this article as an experienced and trained mental healthcare professional. If not, consider receiving further support and training for family therapy specifically. There are many accredited programs available that allow you to complete clinical supervised work, to ensure that you are qualified and capable of leading family therapy sessions. Sometimes, topic matters may be out of your depth, such as sexual abuse, and in these cases, feel free to refer these patients to those who do have the appropriate training.

Strategic family therapy techniques

Once you have set ground rules in place, consider the following family therapy techniques to incorporate within your session. This can significantly boost the quality of care you provide, and result in higher engagement.

Solve problems together

While family members may be coming to you for help, it is not solely up to you to dictate therapy treatment options. All family conflicts should be resolved in agreement together, with both you and your clients reaching the same conclusion. Everyone should leave their session feeling satisfied with the future steps and goals established.

Plan and Collaborate

Collaboration is key when it comes to family therapy, as it ensures that all perspectives are considered and evaluated. Together, you and your clients should come up with plans that addressed their key concerns, and all members should contribute. This ensures that plans and outcomes are balanced and are respective to the individual needs, wants, and preferences of each family member.

Play-based group activities

Play-based group activities are a great way to see how natural family dynamics unfold and can raise some interesting points for you to discuss. While these activities may result in arguments or bickering, it is an effective way to highlight areas of concern and impart helpful skills such as teamwork and fairness.

Question and answer session

Sometimes, talking is the best form of therapy, and a simple question-answer session can help clients feel more comfortable and satisfied. During their sessions, family members can ask you questions, or vice versa, you spend some time asking your client sessions to better gauge their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This paints a broader picture when it comes to family dynamics and treatment options.

Take home message

Setting ground rules within your family therapy sessions are a great way to ensure that you stay on track, and work towards effective treatment in a shorter amount of time. Manage expectations, and prevent arguments from escalating unhealthily. Additionally, you can facilitate positive habits and behaviors, and ensure all perspectives are heard and recognized, which is super important for younger clients who may experience parental domination. Prevent miscommunication, observe family dynamics to overcome challenges, and develop positive relations.

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