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What is Brief Family Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Brief family therapy describes a number of time-limited therapy programs that are suited for couples or family members. In advance of sessions, the family and therapist typically agree on a number of sessions, with possible modification if needed. These sessions usually don’t exceed 20 in number, and many brief therapy models use as little as half that amount. A session involving family members is usually an hour to two in length and part of the goal is to address the family’s issues sufficiently over a few months, so that it is able to recover and continue on its own to function more effectively. Sometimes the brief model is followed by a six month or one year review so families can evaluate if interventions were effective or if more help is required.

There are many different theories than undergird brief family therapy practice. Some of the most famous come from family systems therapy concepts, which the therapeutic world is principally indebted to social workers for developing. In a family systems approach, the family is viewed as a whole unit and the target of the therapy is to heal the system. This is done by paying attention to how each member of the system interacts with each other, and by noting in what ways these interactions contribute positively or negatively in a systemic way. As is common in social work ideology, the therapist takes a position that each person and the whole family has strengths, and given time to observe their own structure, the family can commit to positive change and evoke healing.

Other methods of brief family therapy focus on cognitive behavioral strategies or have a psychoeducational purpose. For instance, family focused therapy (FFT) often works with families where one member may have a chronic illness like bipolar disorder. It enlists family members of the person with illness by teaching them about the illness and it may partly work with other family members to help them provide better care. It also recognizes the stress and strain of being related to someone with a significant illness and it can restore normal relationships such as parent/child that have been disrupted by an ongoing condition. FFT brief family therapy typically lasts about 16-20 sessions.

Due to the brevity of the work, brief family therapy doesn’t usually involve a great deal of psychoanalytic inquiry. People do not spend time delving into the past, but instead are encouraged to look at the problems and strengths in the present. Therapy tends to be focused on solutions to easy to identify problems.

Brief therapy can be very effective for people who have an issue or who are dealing with some kind of traumatic event in the present that can be named easily. Sometimes brevity is not desirable. Brief family therapy may less appropriate for a family with a history of problems, with multiple issues, or with concerns that warrant a more psychodynamic exploration that includes accounting for difficulties in the distant past.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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