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"Our Family Doesn’t Need Therapy, You Do!"

How to navigate resistance to family therapy.

Key points

  • Family therapy can help families overcome hardships by exploring challenges and improving communication.
  • Reducing anxiety and uncertainty is key to decreasing resistance to family therapy.
  • When family members are opposed to therapy, individual therapy can prove beneficial in your recovery process.

It is not always possible for families to resolve differences on their own. There may come a time when support from a professional is needed. Family therapy has proved effective in helping families overcome hardships, but what happens when there is resistance by one or more family members?

What is family therapy?

Family therapy is a psychotherapy that focuses on the challenges experienced within the family. During therapy, each family member discusses the challenges that are faced, and the therapist helps family members understand and resolve hardships.

Family therapy can increase family union by improving communication and addressing problems. Despite its benefits, however, not all members may be immediately drawn to the idea of addressing family hardships with a therapist.

Do you need it?

You may need family therapy if, no matter how hard you try, you are feeling worn down or stuck in the same interaction patterns with family members. Another indication that family therapy is needed is if all family members are in individual therapy and still struggling, which often means the family unit is collectively struggling. That is usually a big indicator that something is happening in the family that needs to be addressed and healed as a family, rather than individually.

If you are feeling that what you and your family are doing is not working, you could propose family therapy. As with any therapy, the process requires collaboration. One way to begin the discussion is by saying, “Will you try family therapy with me? I want to understand and change what’s going on in our relationship.”

Such a conversation will take courage, strength, and a desire to be better. Action will take patience, exploration, vulnerability, and perseverance. Try it. In the process, you can build trust and share any questions, discomfort, or concerns about the process with the therapist. Therapists are trained to work with you through such issues.

Admittedly, despite assurances of the benefits of family therapy, family members may remain hesitant.

What can you do if your family won’t participate in family therapy?

It may seem like a lost battle; however, there are things you can do if you encounter resistance from family:

  1. Understand the resistance. People often resist when they experience being pushed into something they are unsure of doing. Reasons for the uncertainty abound; therefore, it is important to avoid pressuring someone or giving ultimatums. Rather, it is recommended to have an open discussion about how a professional can help all family members understand challenges and learn how to listen to each other.
  2. Agree on what will be addressed in therapy. A major source of anxiety for individuals attending counseling is the uncertainty about what will be addressed. It is recommended to come to an understanding and, most important, agree on the areas to be addressed in family therapy.
  3. Determine the timeframe. It is helpful to discuss the duration of therapy. Family therapy does not have to be for an indeterminate amount of time. The number of sessions could be addressed with the therapist early on. Discussing this before initiating family therapy can help quell nerves.

At times, even understanding the resistance, coming to an agreement on the areas to be addressed, and determining the timeline may not be enough to convince a resistant family member. When this happens, it’s crucial that you acknowledge your feelings.

Perhaps you feel resentment, sadness, anger, hopelessness, hurt, or a combination of all these emotions. Do not ignore these emotions, they are present for a reason. Perhaps you have been doing too much on behalf of others. Maybe you feel misunderstood or unappreciated. These experiences are important to recognize and work through, even when the other person or people refuse to show up.

Addressing family challenges during individual therapy

You can use therapy to focus on the recovery of your family without them being present. View yourself as a change agent, capable of creating a ripple effect. You can learn how to express yourself clearly to your loved ones, take care of yourself, model what seeking help looks like, and set boundaries. All of which can result in an overall improved way of functioning for the family. By partaking in your own therapy, you may inadvertently influence them to seek out their own therapeutic help.

Individual therapy can be offered in person or online based on your preference. Individual therapy can help you practice insight into your own patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your family’s situation. It can also help you regulate, or calm, your emotions.

During individual therapy, you can learn how to:

  • give yourself compassion and a break (taking five minutes to yourself)
  • identify hobbies that interest you, including allotting some alone time
  • ask for help before things feel unbearable
  • listen to your loved ones and learn to be supportive instead of trying to “fix” the problem

In summation, take care of yourself. The best way to help someone learn something new is to model it ourselves in daily practice. You can do so by participating authentically in healing, emotional vulnerability, and courage without an expectation that others will join you. In the end, family members may or may not participate with you, but by you engaging in therapy, you will likely feel better than when you started.

Aloura Alcantar, LCSW, is a staff clinician on Menninger's Adolescent Treatment Program. She has a special interest in using emotion-focused and attachment-based interventions while providing family therapy.

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