Emotionally Focused Family Therapy is a powerful and effective intervention that helps families cope with distress, build stronger relationships and improve communication. It focuses on the emotional connections between family members and emphasizes the importance of understanding each other's feelings.
In this guide, we will explore the basics of Emotionally Focused Family Therapy and why it is so important. We'll also lay out several techniques used in this therapy that you can integrate into your practice.
What is Emotionally Focused Family Therapy?
Family members share a unique bond built over time through a range of experiences, from joyful celebrations to tough times that test the limits of that bond. Families are complex units, and the dynamics and emotions within them can be both rewarding and challenging.
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on the emotional connections between family members. It aims to help families better understand and manage their feelings while creating positive and secure relationships.
Based on Dr. Sue Johnson's Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) approach, this method helps families strengthen their bond by encouraging each member to express their true feelings, share meaningful experiences, and build trust. It also provides a unique opportunity for family members to gain greater insight into themselves and each other, increasing their understanding of their relationships.
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy can be effective for families struggling with various issues, including conflict, communication problems, parent-child relationship difficulties, and issues related to trauma or loss.
The Role of Emotions in Family Relationships
Emotions play a crucial role in family relationships. They influence how family members interact, how they perceive and respond to each other's behaviors, and, ultimately, the quality of the relationships they form.
They are crucial for building healthy relationships
Emotions are central to Attachment Theory, which suggests that strong emotional bonds between family members are essential for healthy relationships (Bowlby, 1969). Attachment theory posits that early experiences with caregivers shape our expectations and beliefs about relationships, and these internal working models guide our behavior in future relationships.
In family relationships, emotions such as love, trust, and intimacy are critical components of attachment bonds that promote secure relationships (Collins & Feeney, 2000). Emotional connections between family members can help them better understand and support each other and build a strong foundation of trust.
They significantly affect how we communicate
Emotions like anger, happiness, sadness, and fear can significantly impact communication, intimacy, and support within the family unit (Vangelisti, 2018).
Positive emotions, such as love and happiness, contribute to developing strong emotional bonds between family members. These emotions create a sense of warmth, connection, and belonging, leading to a more positive family atmosphere (Reis, Collins, & Berscheid, 2000).
On the other hand, negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, can lead to conflict and tension within family relationships. These emotions can be harmful if not managed effectively, leading to strained relationships and emotional distress (Vangelisti, 2018). Research has shown that how family members manage negative emotions can significantly impact the quality of their relationships (Papp, Cummings, & Goeke-Morey, 2009).
They affect how family members provide support
Emotions can also impact the level of support that family members provide to one another. When family members feel positive emotions towards one another, they are more likely to provide emotional and instrumental support during difficult times (Cutrona, 1996). However, negative emotions can lead to withdrawal and decreased supportiveness.
Positive emotions among family members increase the likelihood of emotional and instrumental support being provided during challenging times. Conversely, negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, may cause family members to withdraw and become less supportive.
When is Emotionally Focused Family Therapy Used?
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy is effective for families facing various issues, including conflict, communication problems, parent-child relationship difficulties, and issues related to trauma or loss. It can be used to:
Increase understanding and connection between family members
Through Emotionally Focused Family Therapy, family members are encouraged to understand and explore their emotions, as well as the emotions of others. It can help family members better understand each other’s feelings and improve their communication and connection.
Enhance communication and problem-solving skills
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy can help family members learn better ways to communicate and problem-solve, enabling them to find more effective and healthy ways to resolve conflicts. This can improve relationships and better overall family functioning.
Promote healthy attachment bonds
The goal of EFT for families is to help family members form secure and positive attachment bonds with one another, improving family relationships and fostering a more trusting, supportive environment.
Reduce conflict and emotional distress
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy can help reduce conflict and emotional distress within the family by improving communication and understanding between family members. This can lead to greater peace and harmony within the family unit.
Help family members process difficult emotions
Emotionally Focused Therapy for families creates a safe and supportive environment for family members to process and understand difficult emotions. Through this process, they learn to manage their feelings better, leading to improved relationships.
EFT is not limited to addressing domestic issues but also works for couples and individuals. Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy applies the same principles to help individuals explore their emotions, understand their behavior patterns, and create positive changes in their lives. Meanwhile, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy helps romantic partners understand their emotions and create more secure bonds.
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy Techniques and Examples
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy aims to improve family relationships by promoting emotional security and attachment. Here are five techniques with examples:
This Emotionally Focused Technique is used to help family members recognize and understand their attachment needs and behaviors. The therapist may help family members to identify how their actions can trigger or calm the attachment needs of others.
For example, the therapist may ask a parent to identify how their child's behavior may trigger feelings of rejection and how responding with anger may escalate the situation.
This technique aims to teach parents how to validate and respond to their children's emotions in a supportive and empathetic way. The therapist may help parents to identify and respond to their children's emotions by using active listening and reflective statements.
For example, the therapist may ask the parent to validate their child's sadness by saying, "I can see that you're feeling sad. It's okay to feel that way."
Family of Origin
In this Emotionally Focused Family Therapy Technique, the therapist helps family members explore how their family of origin experiences has influenced their current relationship dynamics. The therapist may encourage family members to share stories from their past and explore how those experiences have impacted their present relationships.
For example, a therapist may ask a parent to reflect on how their childhood experiences may have influenced their parenting style.
This helps family members externalize negative thoughts and emotions. The Externalization technique can also help family members develop a more compassionate and empathetic view toward themselves and others, leading to improved emotional well-being and healthier relationships.
For example, the therapist may encourage family members to give their negative thoughts and emotions a name and a physical form, such as a "monster" or a "cloud," which can help them view these emotions as separate from themselves and easier to manage.
Creating Shared Meaning
The Creating Shared Meaning technique helps family members identify and create shared values, goals, and traditions. Families can cultivate a sense of belonging, purpose, and connection by developing shared meaning and values.
For example, the therapist may encourage family members to discuss their values and create a family mission statement.
It's important to note that the Emotionally Focused Family Therapy techniques discussed above can also be adapted for couples or individuals; EFT techniques can improve emotional connection, foster secure attachment, and promote healthier relationships.
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Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Collins, N. L., & Feeney, B. C. (2000). A safe haven: An attachment theory perspective on support-seeking and caregiving in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1053–1073.
Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009). For richer, for poorer: Money as a topic of marital conflict in the home. Family Relations, 58(1), 91-103.
Reis, H. T., Collins, W. A., & Berscheid, E. (2000). The relationship context of human behavior and development. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 844–872.
Vangelisti, A. L. (2018). Handbook of Family Communication (2nd ed.). Routledge.