How To Plan For Your First Family Therapy Session

Going to therapy can be hard, but not going to therapy is often harder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of all Americans will experience a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. Among children, one in five have struggled with a serious mental illness.

Though mental health issues aren't always rooted in the family, familial trauma is a common trigger for stress, depression, and other mental health conditions. From persistent arguments to grieving a lost loved one, many of life's lowest points aren't experienced in isolation — they affect multiple members of a family unit.

A therapist can help you and your family overcome these struggles. Therapy can serve as a safe space for you and your loved ones to clear the air, create new coping strategies, and even boost brain health. Here's how to prepare for your first family therapy session.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Decide when and where your family therapy session will take place

Unlike one-on-one therapy, family therapy typically involves multiple members of a family. While it's not always necessary for the entire family to be present at every session, Margaret Nichols, Ph.D., told GoodTherapy that many therapists will want all members together for at least part of the first session. This is to hear everyone's perspectives, as well as to see how different family members interact with one another.

Make sure to check each person's availability before booking your first therapy session. Choose a location that is convenient for everyone to access — even if that location is your own home, using an online therapy app.

Timing is also key when it comes to having a successful therapy session. Choosing Therapy notes that attending a therapy session can already be stressful, and rushing to make it on time can leave you feeling on edge. Leaving plenty of time before and after the appointment can reduce stress hormones and help you and your family remain centered on a therapy day.

Know what to expect during your first session

Starting therapy as a family is a big step, and the first session is only the beginning. According to Mayo Clinic, family therapy usually lasts around 12 sessions, and each session lasts around one hour.

The first session often focuses less on resolving conflicts and more on getting set up with your therapist. Expect to spend time filling out forms and learning the rules of therapy, including confidentiality and privacy agreements (per GoodTherapy). Your therapist will then ask questions to better understand your family's concerns and goals. Choosing Therapy recommends making a list of any specific issues, topics, or symptoms you want to discuss with your therapist. Collaborate with your family when making the list, or encourage each member to create their own list to share later.

Even though your first family therapy session may not yet dive deep into your toughest issues, PsychCentral warns that it can still be emotionally draining. You or other family members may need extra quiet time to process after the first session is over.

Explain therapy to your children

Family therapy may involve all members of the family, including children who are new to the concept of therapy. LuAnn Pierce, LCSW told GoodTherapy that it's best for children impacted by the family dynamic to participate unless the issues being discussed are incomprehensible or inappropriate for their age.

If you decide to invite children to your first therapy session, explain the purpose of therapy and some ground rules. For example, explain that each person will share their thoughts and feelings and that it's okay to disagree with one another. However, it's best to follow what the Family Trauma Institute calls "rules of engagement" to address interruptions, distractions, and combative behavior.

If you're not used to discussing emotions with young children, you may want to begin before your first session. That way, your child will be able to identify their feelings confidently with the therapist. Verywell Therapy suggests naming fictional characters' feelings, expressing your own emotions with your child, and praising your child when they tell others how they feel.

Attack the problem, not each other

Approach your first family therapy session with an us-against-the-problem mentality — not a me-versus-them mindset. Plan to work together in therapy, even if you're struggling to see eye to eye right now.

Similarly, your therapist should never take sides. According to YourTango, a marriage therapist who takes sides can erode the trust required in therapy. The same can often be said for family therapists working with multiple family members. If you find that your therapist takes sides, or if you and your family feel that their support isn't helpful, it's okay to part ways and find a new therapist. Self recommends offering feedback to your therapist first to see if the issue can be resolved. If not, it's okay to break up with your therapist via email if you've only seen them once or twice.

And if you decide during your first session that your therapist was a bad fit, don't get discouraged. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts nearly 55,000 family therapists in the U.S. Ask for recommendations and research therapists in your area until you find the right match for your family.