When family therapy is worth it: 5 myths about counseling, plus my 5 favorite things about it

When family therapy is worth it: 5 myths about counseling, plus my 5 favorite things about it

when family therapy is worth it

Will and I went back to family therapy a few months ago to talk about our kids and our parenting.

We talked about it for six months before we actually made the appointment–with a therapist we like, whom we’ve known for a long time. I’m a huge believer in counseling, but we waited too long to make the appointment: I was buying into some common myths about therapy, even though I should have known better.

A lot of people have told me they’ve delayed–or never used–therapy because they weren’t sure if it was for them. That’s a shame, so I wanted to debunk some common myths, and share my favorite parts of our experience.

5 myths about family counseling.

We’re not in crisis. Nothing about our situation was dire: we didn’t have an emergency, it wasn’t as bad as all that–we just had some nagging concerns, and wanted a professional’s opinion on whether or not we were handling them well.

It’s expensive. Okay: it’s expensive. But it cost about 75% less than I expected because–to my surprise–insurance covered a large chunk. I felt a lot better about making that first appointment once I knew it wasn’t costing me $150 an hour. We went for a total of 3 sessions, so the price tag wasn’t horrible.

It’s a sign of weakness. Yeah, whatever.

I can just talk to friends and family. I’ve heard Susan Wise Bauer address this point repeatedly: if you pay a counselor to listen to you, you have no obligation to them in return. That’s why you pay them. This is a beautiful thing for women–and definitely for homeschooling mothers–who are already carrying a heavy emotional load.

It’s touchy-feely. While the counselors I’ve seen have certainly said things like, “get in touch with your emotions,” our sessions have contained heavy doses of analysis and problem solving. Counselors want to see you succeed, and they’ll equip you with practical tools to do so.

My favorite things about family therapy

Reassurance. It was worth going just to hear a professional say, “You’re doing a good job with this parenting thing.”

Perspective: Therapy forced us to get our our unarticulated worries out of our heads. Once we got specific with our concerns–and said them out loud, to a third party–they didn’t sound like such a huge deal.

Strategies: Before we went to therapy, I had no idea how to address certain behaviors, and my attempts to do so were going badly. We talked through specific strategies in therapy: after 3 sessions, we had a new toolbox of responses to rely on.

Confidence: This is directly tied to the strategies above. Before therapy, I felt helpless to engage with certain behaviors or moods. Now I feel much better equipped to parent my kids.

Bibliotherapy. We focused on the paradigm set forth in John Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, which wasn’t exactly a page-turner but was very, very helpful. I’d highly recommend it to all parents.

We also left therapy with a handful of book recommendations to peruse at our leisure, like The Everything Parent’s Guide to Sensory Integration Disorder.

(I’ve also found The Highly Sensitive Child to be enormously helpful in parenting our kids. If we ever go back to family therapy, you can bet I’ll be discussing this one with our book-loving therapist.)

(I know that our recent experience with family therapy sounds pretty rosy, with our 3 visits and a happy resolution. Our previous round of counseling involved a much more dire situation, a whole lot of tears, and unanswered questions. Both experiences were extremely valuable.)

If you feel comfortable doing so, please share your thoughts about or experiences with counseling in comments.  

PS. Maybe what you really need is permission to relax, and coping with a kid hangover.

40 comments | Comment

40 comments

  1. Ana says:

    Definitely finding the right therapist is the most important thing. We made a brief foray into couples counseling and neither of us jived with the therapist and it actually made things worse for a while. It was SO MUCH WORK for me to find that person and it took so much out of me to take that first step and make the appointment that I still haven’t gotten around to looking for another person. You definitely need the right person to fit your personalities, and goals. I wanted, like you mentioned, a “toolbox” of tricks and strategies to help us communicate about the more difficult issues, and we were getting too much touchy feely “and how did that make YOU feel?” stuff. I can see where that would be valuable, but that really wasn’t what we were going for…

  2. Jennifer says:

    While I haven’t been to a counselor before my husband and I talk often about remaining humble enough to appreciate and admit a need for outside help and listening ears sometime. We will be celebrating our third anniversary this fall and will have two children by that time. We have always planned to go to a counselor for a marriage check-in though currently we have no state of crises. It just seems wise to meet with a professional and go over common disagreements, fights, points of tension as well as to plan ahead for the next few years. I hope it also teaches us, in real life not just philosophically, the hope and help counseling can bring in times of trouble or calm.

  3. You know I’m a big fan of therapy. I think my family would’ve benefited quite a bit from family therapy when I was young, but my dad never would’ve gone for it, sadly. You’re blessed to have a husband who is so open to it!

    As for “therapy is a sign of weakness” thing, I say: Duh. We are ALL weak and it’s OK! Anyone who thinks they aren’t is fooling him or herself, and probably putting waaaaaay too much pressure on him/herself. It’s so freeing to acknowledge that you’re just like every other human being who needs help from time to time. 🙂

  4. Get a recommendation! When my husband and I needed it in the early years we sought marriage counseling from a variety of sources just by paging through the yellow pages or a list provided by our insurance. Some of those “doctors” were seriously worse than not seeing one at all (there’s one we STILL joke about to this day) It wasn’t until we got a recommendation from someone we trusted that we found someone we really clicked with. I’m glad we kept trying, but I wish we had gotten a recommendation right off the bat instead.

    Also, I think it helps to know that others have needed to go through counseling for whatever reason as well and know that you’re not alone if they’re the ones giving you advice on whom to see.

    I know people who go to counseling just as a standard practice to work out issues and improve communication just in general. I would love to do that just as preventative maintenance.

    • Anne says:

      That’s a great point about getting a recommendation. We found our counselor through a personal recommendation from someone who was (at the time) going through a similar experience.

  5. Grace says:

    Very interesting that you posted this today as I am going to my first therapy appointment later this week. It’s individual counseling, and I should’ve probably done this years ago. I’m so very scared, but also sort of looking forward to some positive changes coming out of it. This post gave me some reassurance, thanks!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Picture me raising my hands from the back row and calling out “PREACH!”. Because yessssss.

    It’s an investment of time and money- both of which can be scarce. And there’s no guarantee of the outcome. And it might feel much worse before it (hopefully) gets better.

    In my book- it’s still worth all of those risks.

    (I say that as a counselor and as a client.)

    And- as a counselor- I want to strongly encourage anyone who is hitting a wall with their therapist, to consider talking to the therapist about what is and is not working for them. After meeting with someone for a year, I learned (in our closing session) that she wished I had assigned more homework for her from week to week. She had wanted that to happen for months. You know what? I could have done that! From that session, I learned to check in more frequently with clients about what is working for them and what is not, how things are going, etc etc. But- man- I wish she had said something earlier.

    Some therapeutic relationships just don’t suit, and there’s a time to move on and meet with someone else. But I always appreciate it when a client talks to me about this so we can try to work together more effectively before closing.

    I say all this as someone who did NOT do this, the first time I went to counseling. That guy never knew why I never came back. But now I wish I had told him, rather than just scrapping it and bailing.

    *Climbs off soapbox*.

    Yay counseling!

    • Anne says:

      Thanks so much about sharing your perspective as a counselor and as a client. Not too many of us enjoy both perspectives. Much appreciated.

    • Amy says:

      As a fellow therapist, I want to agree with everything you just said!

      And I also want those seeking therapy to know that its okay if you start working with a therapist, and then realize you don’t connect with them and want to move on. All of us therapist know how important the therapist/client relationship is, and if you are feeling that you really can’t work with us, it is our priority to encourage you to find a therapist that you will feel more comfortable with! We don’t get offended when you choose to end sessions with us, because your healing is our #1 concern 🙂

  7. Thank you for this post. I’m sure it’s very needed. It took years for me to go to counseling and if I and we went there earlier we might avoid many of our troubles. I truly recommend counseling. One thing we had a problem was to find a good one. I believe this is something we should talk about more openly and share and recommend good ones. 🙂

  8. Tim says:

    My thinking is that if someone is asking themselves “I wonder if I should look into therapy?” then they’ve answered their own question: Yes, look into it!

  9. I’ve had so many friends and family members benefit from counseling that tend to forget there can be a stigma attached to it. I’ve gone twice and am so thankful for the experience.

    And I totally hear you on the paying someone to listen thing. Sometimes, all you need is to verbally process (for a good long while) with an empathetic listener. Some of my biggest healing came just from someone else listening and validating the difficulty of a situation I’d been in/was currently in.

  10. Actually my husband and I were in a recent couple therapy session and were talking about one of our children… I left that session feeling sooooo much better because I felt like I had a better handle on understanding what my child might be going through. I needed someone else’s perspective and not from a friend or family member who would just say “Oh it’ll be okay” or judge me or my child. I needed someone’s thoughts that was not at all emotionally involved or even knew my child well so their opinion could be totally unbiased. It has totally changed how we are handling the particular issues at hand….all for the better!
    Therapy is good- Sometimes we are too wrapped up in our emotions to see the situation for what it is and an unbiased professional opinion can do wonders- provided you have a good counselor that is!

    • Anne says:

      “I needed someone else’s perspective and not from a friend or family member who would just say “Oh it’ll be okay” or judge me or my child.”

      YES. You’ve articulated my thoughts, exactly.

  11. Breanne says:

    I appreciate how you debunk the myths and I add my voice to those who say, it’s worth it!! I had to fight a big myth in my own head before I saw a counsellor this past fall and it was very worth it.

  12. This was just exactly the encouragement I needed today. We recently started counseling and the “only families in crisis need counseling” was a HUGE obstacle to overcome! Also, we feared the “touchy feely”, and I completely agree that it has been far more hands-on and analytical than I expected. Although I confess, I have cried 🙂 Thanks for this, Anne.

  13. Betsy says:

    Oh Anne, I so appreciate your transparency and honesty. I think a lot of us think of therapy as something for dire situations, but availing ourselves of it to improve a “not-so-bad-could-be-better” situation makes so much sense. You have me thinking on what kind of options would be available for our family overseas raising third culture kids.

    (Note: my only experience with family therapy was when my parents divorced, and mysteriously, I was the only family member who did not attend the sessions. Therapist’s decision, but I always felt left out and still remember it that way.)

  14. Colleen says:

    I couldn’t agree more! After struggling with one of our kids for about 2 years, we finally enlisted the help of a parent coach last year and it was the best money we ever spent. I can’t believe we waited so long to get help!

      • Colleen says:

        Yes, I love it. We all need a little help sometimes. If you’re looking for more resources, she is a great person to follow on FB – her posts are a good mix of her own stories from the trenches, humor, and links to really thoughtful articles. Her FB page is Meghan Leahy Parent Coach.

  15. I didn’t have a good counseling experience when I first went. In so many ways, I think that was because of the person I was going to. I’m hoping to go back again (to someone else) and have an experience that isn’t shaming, but life-giving.

  16. bethany says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Anne. I especially love your counterpoint to the “touchy feely” thing – therapy is so much more strategic and useful than I expected it to be. Far less about just ugly-crying it out and much more about finding the tools to live a healthy life.

    I’ve been in therapy consistently for about 5 years, and it’s been by far the best decision of my 20s – more so than graduating college, getting a full time job, or getting married. Therapy has given me the tools to cope with and process everything else in my life. I went right after I graduated college and before I got married, and like you, it wasn’t because I was in the middle of a crisis. I just needed to sift through a bunch of Big Feelings and Worries about starting a family and becoming an adult. And then, when I *did* hit a crisis (my mom’s death) I had someone to lean on that was not also neck-deep in the crisis (read: NOT a family member) to help me through my grief. Yes, family is for depending on one another, but that means they also have a stake in the game and they can’t always help you when they’re going through their own grieving/healing/dealing process, whatever the situation may be. When I was struggling with how my own family members were dealing with mom’s death and I felt alone, I could go to my counselor and she would be that nurturing and strategic presence that helped me deal.

    I’m the first person in my family (grandparents, parents, siblings) to go to therapy regularly. There’s a huge stigma around it in my family, and it kept us from working through our relationships when I was growing up. I hope that because I’ve made that choice to invest in therapy and admit that I don’t have my crap together, that it makes my family feel safe to make that choice, too.

  17. I have had lots of counseling myself, but we did go as a family for several sessions after I finished treatment for breast cancer. Our kids were little and we needed to figure out how to re-establish some sense of security in their world and address their fears. My daughter was barely out of kindergarten, so we called our counselor “the talking doctor.” It helped our kids understand why we were there. We had an amazing woman whose philosophy was to talk to our kids alone and then talk to us after–and every now and then talk to all of us at once. Her goal was to learn from our kids about their feelings and fears and then give us–the parents–the tools to help our kids cope better at home and school. She knew she couldn’t be the one to help them each day. I will forever appreciate her acknowledgment that we needed her to give us tools … not fix our kids for us. There is a fine line. And we were so grateful she knew the line. It was worth every penny, but we did have a few free sessions because my husband’s employers offered a certain number each year to those who needed therapy.

  18. Lesley says:

    We went to therapy when Jonathan had cancer, and it was transformational for our marriage. I have currently gone back to a counselor because our second baby has been really difficult and I started to see some anger patterns emerging. I’d rather nip anger now, when my children are young, than struggle with it for my entire life.

    • Anne says:

      I had to read that twice to process it because *our* cancer therapist’s name was Jonathan. (no h, too, and that’s not common.) I’m so glad you had someone helping you walk through that in that way, then, and that you have someone helping you nip things in the bud now. (Does that work? Serious question. I would love to know.)

  19. Cristina says:

    We have been taking my son to therapy for 6 years. I think people are not surprised when they know he is adopted. It has been a huge help. We have made progress because of the toolbox therapy has given us. Knowing we are doing the right thing helps us stay focused.

    • Anne says:

      “Knowing we are doing the right thing helps us stay focused.”

      Well put. So glad to hear that you’ve found that worthwhile for your family over the years.

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