If you’re going with the family therapy route, all of the people involved should also create their own individual lists—with one major caveat. “If you’re concerned that a pre-therapy conversation may make any issues more challenging or upsetting, it’s wise to hold off on sharing any details about concerns,” Dr. Manly says. “If sensitive or challenging conversations tend to go off the rails, it’s important to wait for the support of a qualified clinician.”
5. Remind them a therapist isn’t there to be judgmental.
In family therapy, Dr. Zeiderman says everyone will have the chance to identify concerns from their own perspective. “In the session, you can identify family roles and rules, including cultural beliefs, current family strengths, and weaknesses, and review how the family currently solves problems,” she says.
Latimer-Snell made sure her family was aware of this before therapy. “The therapist is a third-party witness, will keep the peace, and helps you advocate for yourself positively and constructively,” she says.
If the idea of individual therapy seems like a better plan, though, it’s helpful to remind anyone who may feel reluctant that a therapist is there to be nonjudgmental of them and anything they may choose to discuss during their sessions.
6. Make it clear that progress will take some time.
Few issues, whether a person is seeking solo support or support as a family, can be resolved in one therapy session. It’s “a progressive process with improvement over time,” Dr. Zeiderman says. “The goal is to identify, understand, and make sustainable change when addressing problematic behaviors and communication patterns.”
After adopting two young daughters, Reed Carringer, a 34-year-old farmer in Tennessee, and his wife, Rachael, have attended family therapy for over five years. “We want to help them process their trauma and help them learn to develop healthy attachments,” he says. “We weren’t equipped to do that without the help of a professional. I attend hoping to learn how to best parent and love our girls and develop healthy coping mechanisms.”
7. Let them know they’ll have your support throughout therapy.
Tension may be high after a particularly emotional session. If a family member ends up doing counseling on their own, it’s important for them to practice the new behaviors they’ve discussed with a therapist between sessions. This can be really difficult for a person to do alone, so get a feel for their personal boundaries and remember to be kind while checking in during their journey. The same goes for families seeking support together. You’ll need to “work as a team” to hold each other accountable in the midst of healing, Dr. Manly says. Usually, a therapist will ask family members to agree on what this looks like so healthier communication, anger management, and boundary-setting can start to take place in day-to-day life.
For family therapy specifically, Dr. Manly suggests creating a “contract” that describes core family ethics, such as respect, honesty, cooperation, and kindness. “All members of the family contribute to the contract and work collaboratively to refine it,” she explains. “After it is signed, a copy is posted in a key place in the home such as the refrigerator.” Let your reluctant relative know that you’ll be there to support them when putting all of these learnings into practice becomes overwhelming, whether they’re expected to make personal changes or changes with your unit.
8. Explain how a therapist can break down harmful mental health stereotypes.
For some people, going to therapy feels taboo, but it’s possible to work through this. “Many cultures stigmatize seeking therapy. A skilled clinician can help alleviate—if not remove—these beliefs by creating a secure environment where cultural concerns are honored and addressed,” Dr. Manly says. In therapy, it’s possible to talk openly about deeply ingrained stereotypes—like the idea that therapy is only for women, weak men, or people who have mental health conditions—so either an individual person or the family as a whole is introduced to new, healthy ways of approaching counseling.
Sravya Attaluri, a 26-year-old artist and activist in Hong Kong, sought family therapy after she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Her South Asian family went along with her. “I was surprised my parents were willing to try therapy—something they were told was ‘shameful’—to help improve our family dynamics,” Attaluri tells SELF. Family therapy brought them closer than ever as they addressed intergenerational trauma. “We all understand each other’s boundaries and we work together through challenges.”
To dissolve the unfortunate and undeserved cloud of shame that can often hover over therapy, a therapist will lead a heartfelt conversation by asking the family member to talk about the root of those feelings. “The goal is not to change their beliefs,” Dr. Manly says, “but to offer another lens through which therapy can be seen as a viable, supportive option that can be stigma-free.”
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