Family Therapy (and Family Play Therapy)

Family Therapy Image


The field of family therapy has its roots in the social work movement, marriage counseling, and psychiatry.  By the end of the 1950’s, a distinct field emerged on how to work with several specific populations (including “juvenile delinquents”) that included treating family members in addition to the “identified patient.” 

The unifying principle in all theories of family therapy is the focus on the family as a system, in which the family as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts (i.e., the system at large is greater than its’ individual members).

Family therapy emphasizes family relationships, interactional patterns, and reciprocity among all family members. Systems theory considers the context in which problems emerge and are sustained as critical to the formulation of the problem and the solutions.

Many of the founders of family therapy believed it was critical to involve children in family treatment; however, family therapists tend to limit the inclusion of young children for a variety of reasons. In the 1960’s several important family therapy  approaches emerged and contemporary models include the following: Strategic, Experiential, Transgenerational, Structural, Post-Modern (including Solution-Focused and Narrative Therapies), and several attachment-based family therapies such as Emotion-Focused Family Therapy, and the Gottman Method. The two latter approaches are evidence-based and are widely touted as effective and desirable family therapy and couples therapy approaches.

Gil Institute therapists identify ways in which family members are affected by and affect one another. Problems are viewed within a strengths-based, systemic model. Family play therapy is also offered as a means to blend talk and expressive therapies, provide novelty, and ignite family energy. Several Gil Institute therapists are trained in a variety of integrated family therapy approaches, including attachment-based systemic approaches such as Theraplay, Circle of Security, and Filial Therapy.  In addition, several clinicians are trained in Emotion-Focused Therapy, and the Gottman Method.


As mentioned above, over time, young children became less visible in family therapy for several reasons:  Some therapists felt unprepared to manage the behaviors of young children in treatment and others felt that non-verbal children could contribute little to family treatment.  In addition, many family therapists believed that changes in parents would “trickle down” to children.  It’s important to note that preparation in family therapy often lacks in-depth focus on child development, child psychopathology, or child therapy.  Thus, some family therapists simply feel a lack of confidence about engaging children in family sessions. 

Carl Whitaker, one of the pioneers in family therapy, most verbally advocated for the inclusion of young children and in the value of play in therapy.  Other family therapists have highlighted innovative play suggestions for families, such as using make-believe play to act out family interactions, using family sculpting, role-playing, or creative arts.  Integrating play and family therapy approaches seems feasible and valuable.  Thus, the field of family play therapy is inclusive of children and utilizes a variety of expressive and creative arts to enhance family connection, provide unique opportunities for much-need enjoyment, and improve family interactions.  Family play therapy is gives all members a common base and gives children a voice and promotes family empathy.

Family Play

As stated by Dr. Eliana Gil, the expressive therapies allow children and adults to broaden their communication and show themselves more fully by externalizing worries and concerns through symbols, metaphor, or metaphor language. The use of expressive techniques and approaches in the context of therapy relationships ignite creative, resilient energy which can be a powerful agent for insight and change. When families in pain begin to play together, perceptions of each other are changed, communication is accomplished in less direct ways, and individuals experience a decrease in resistance. Through laughter and play, endorphins are released and feelings of well being emerge.