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The ABCs of Creative Family Therapy Techniques

Traditional therapy—client talks, therapist listens—is completely upended when it comes to family therapy. For one, family therapy usually involves children—and this can make children anxious. But they’re not the only ones; some therapists also experience discomfort in working with children; they may be worried that children are non-communicative or disruptive.

But the involvement of the whole family in therapy can be incredibly productive, because the participation of the whole family—whether that means children or, in a two-person relationship, both partners—provides the therapist with more visibility into the dynamics, patterns, and roles of each member and the system as a whole. In fact, family therapists see the family system itself as an entity separate from the individuals who constitute it, and this system can have its own disorders even if the individuals themselves do not have disorders. A therapist who operates with this systems mindset therefore believes the system itself is not functioning properly and the dynamics between (not within) individuals are what need to change.

So, it follows, effective family therapy techniques are those that create change at the system level. I spoke with a marital and family therapist (MFT) to get the scoop on how she structures her approach to client sessions.

Always start with the individual.

No matter what creative twist you throw in later, most therapists begin with the most direct route to solving issues: changing the dynamics between the people themselves before exploring individual issues. Sessions usually begin with teaching the clients strategies for how to communicate with one another effectively, based on the most current research. “Then, if they aren’t able to use these strategies without continuing to get angry and defensive with one another,” the therapist said, “we have to move into the individuals’ internal experiences that are preventing them from using these strategies effectively.”

This tactic applies to families with more than two members as well: “If a parent is not able to utilize effective parenting techniques, based on the research, or if the child is not responding to these techniques, we need to explore individual issues that are preventing these techniques from being used/responded to as expected.”

In short, a family therapist’s first job is to shift each individual’s conceptualization of the problem from “my partner/child/parent is sick” to “there is something about the way our family is interacting that is not working,” and then develop a treatment plan based on that new systems conceptualization.

Break the pattern.

Once a therapist identifies what family/couple dynamic needs to change, then it’s time to get creative—but it must always be strategic. Says the therapist, “If the problem is that the parent can’t stay calm enough to enforce consistent consequences with his/her child, you can develop a creative intervention that enables them to do so. Perhaps you suggest that, before they interact with the child, they leave the room, walk a circle around an adjacent room three times while singing their favorite song to calm down, and then return to the kid to enforce consequences.”

What matters here isn’t so much what you’re asking them to do, but the way you force them to shake off an old, disordered pattern. The therapist explains: “In the end, asking a parent to leave the room and walk three circles while singing is no different than asking them to stay in the room and count down from ten, but the weird, ritualistic nature of the three circles may be strange enough that they actually do it, which is why you might choose the more creative intervention of the two.

Coloring.

With both kids and adults who aren’t adept at articulating their feelings verbally, the use of visualizations is often helpful. One suggestion from a private practitioner in Toronto involves cutting out circles with statements in them, like “It is hard for me to talk about my problems, “I get along well with my family,” and “I feel am I am a good person.” She then provides the client with a pencil and directs them to color in the circle according to how they feel; if they totally agree with the statement, they should color in the whole circle; if they agree in part, they should color in part of circle; if they don’t agree at all, they can leave it blank.

Digs.

As described by the therapist, a common problem among couples is that “they are quick to automatic, negative interpretations of each other’s behaviors and statements—so you can get creative as a therapist and make it into a game.” The therapist makes an ambiguous statement and asks each individual to come up with the most negative interpretation possible, then the most positive interpretation possible. The therapist then leads a discussion of how, in the moment, they would know which interpretation is right. ” “This gets them to slow down the process and get critical of the interpretations they make in real life by practicing this strategy in a game format,” she said.

Empty chair.

The empty chair technique is a well-known device of gestalt therapy—a word that means “the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” As designed by Fritz Perls, one of the founders of gestault therapy, an empty chair is placed in front of the client(s) that they can then imagine someone sitting in; they speak to that person, then stand up and switch chairs—switching roles—and speak back to themselves. In addition to bringing abstract or non-existent conversations into reality, the technique allows the client to experience new perspectives on their own issues.

Frank discussion.

During our interview, the therapist admitted that her method relies less on “creative” techniques and more on a direct approach with clients: “[I just lay] out the problematic dynamic for them that I see and asking them how they want to change it.” The foundation for change is understanding why it needs to happen—and no amount of games will change that.

Featured MFT Degrees

Liberty University
Marriage & Family Therapy (MA)
Human Services - Marriage & Family (MA)
Prof Counseling (PhD)
Liberty University has an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy as well as a Human Services programs available for students seeking the ability to practice in this field. Both degrees prepare students for several career options, including counseling, casework, case management, and child or family social services. Subjects include theory, techniques and practice, and clinical environments.
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Northcentral University
Marriage & Family Therapy (MA)
Marriage & Family Therapy - General (PhD)
Marriage & Family Therapy - Couple Therapy (PhD)
Marriage and Family Therapy - Child and Adolescent Therapy (PhD)
Psychology - Marriage and Family Therapy (PhD)
Northcentral University offers a wide range of Marriage and Family Therapy programs. Students wanting to practice in the field should pursue that MA degree while the doctorate programs prepare students for research in various fields like Couple Therapy or Child and Adolescent Therapy. No residency is required to obtain the degree.
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Walden University
Marriage, Couple & Family Counseling - Forensic Counseling (MS)
Child Dev - Family Health & Wellness (BS)
Human Services - Child & Adolescent Dev (BS)
Walden University’s MS in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling prepares students wanting to practice in a variety of different environments and situations. Students learn how to analyze and advise in several tough situations like divorce, mediation, domestic violence, and family crises. The program is designed to qualify students for many states’ licensing exams.
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Kaplan University
Psych - Child Dev (BS)
The BS in Psychology of Child Development from Kaplan University is a great choice for students not yet ready to obtain their master’s degree. Students are introduced to family environments and are prepared for potential careers in child care work or casework. This program only serves as a pathway to advanced degrees and state licensure.
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Ashford University
Social Science - Child & Family Dev (BA)
Students interested in marriage and family counseling and have not obtained an undergraduate degree should consider the BA of Social Science in Child and Family Development. This degree explores various elements of the family environment including social and cultural relationships, developmental psychology, theory, and the impact of research in the field.
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Southern New Hampshire University
Child & Adolescent Dev Psych (MS)
If you want to focus more on child social services and counseling, the Southern New Hampshire University offers an MS of Psychology in Child and Adolescent Development. Courses cover many child- related subjects like emotional assessment, behavioral disorders, traumatic experiences, cultural and societal influences, and family engagement.
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