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3 min read

What is functional family therapy, and how can it help?

a woman in family therapy

If you work with at-risk youth, know someone with a troubled child, or have one yourself, you may have heard of functional family therapy. This evidence-based therapy model is one that is designed for addressing family functioning and healing family relationships for older children and teens who have been through child welfare facilities, the juvenile justice system, or have been recommended by school or a mental health community practice setting.

Functional Family Therapy (FFT)

Functional family therapy (FFT) is a short term family intervention used generally for kids and teens ages 11-18 who have shown signs of engaging in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, criminal activity, violence, or frequently missing school. Sessions are usually hour long sessions that continue for 12-14 weeks. Functional family therapy is provided in a wide variety of settings, including schools, mental health facilities, and in the home.

A therapist who specializes in functional family therapy (FFT) will often start with a focus on family relationships, and then complete clinical training in FFT specifically.

Who is a good candidate for functional family therapy?

Functional family therapy is typically recommended by a community juvenile justice setting as part of usual probation services, child welfare systems, youth case management programs, or by a school that notices behavioral or emotional problems in a teen. Sometimes multiple community systems will come together to make this recommendation. Functional family therapy is often recommended for young people who show signs of the following:

  • Pre-adolescent substance abuse
  • Those with peer risk factors
  • Conduct disorder
  • Curfew violations
  • Disrespect for authority figures
  • Rule-breaking at home and school
  • Truancy
  • Theft and Vandalism
  • Violence

Benefits of Functional Family Therapy

Functional family therapy for Brooklyn teens has shown a statistically significant reduction in criminal recidivism for the recipients, but may also offer the following benefits:

  • Better relationships between family members and improvements in relevant family processes
  • Decreasing family hostility
  • Decreased relapses in substance abuse
  • Improved emotional regulation
  • Improved mood
  • Improving family functioning
  • Higher engagement in healthy activities
  • Lower risk of being placed outside the home

Functional family therapy also has some positive differences when compared to other types of family therapy.

  • A limited timeframe that offers a better idea of cost and time investment
  • Ongoing assessment of things like risk factors, protective factors, relevant family processes, mental health in family members, and individual family members behaviors allows for a more personalized experience
  • It is specifically designed for (and has evidence to show efficacy) of treating specifically teens with behavior problems.

How Does Functional Family Work?

There are three phases to functional family therapy, including the engagement phase, the behavior change phase, and the generalization phase. Ongoing assessment is completed throughout the entire process by the therapist, identifying how the family relationships relate to the presenting problem, considering risk and protective factors, and looking at different dimensions such as interaction patterns with individual family members, behaviors, the social environment, and the mental health of the teen.

The engagement phase is the period where the functional family therapist provides outreach to the family through understanding and empathy, in an attempt to motivate and engage participation while decreasing family hostility. They listen to family members perceptions, build rapport with as many family members as possible, avoid laying blame on family members or the individual, and focus mainly on the presenting issue.

The behavior change phase is when the therapist will use tools (often cognitive behavioral therapy) to help eliminate negative behaviors, and promote positive behavior change. This phase contains a lot of structure, and can include tasks, homework, modeling, and other educational skills.

The generalization phase encourages changes across the board, focusing on the wider community and school. The intention is to create relapse prevention plans through interaction patterns with the community, create connections with community resources, and work on strengthening family relationships.

Techniques used in functional family therapy may include the following:

  • Validating the feelings of the individual and family members
  • Identifying strengths in individual family members behaviors
  • Educating in conflict resolution, parenting, problem solving, and communication skills
  • Observing interaction patterns and interrupting negative behavior patterns while facilitating positive behavior change
  • Identifying risk and protective factors
  • Offering alternatives to blame, anger, and negativity
  • Anticipating future challenges
  • Connecting families to community systems and resources

Efficacy of Functional Family Therapy (FFT)

Functional family therapy is an evidence-based practice. Forty years of research have demonstrated that this form of family therapy has effective treatment outcomes, including decreasing teen behavior challenges and strengthening relationships between family members. A functional family therapy outcome study shows that is effective in various settings and across diverse cultural groups.

Families relational functions improved through functional family therapy (FFT) can also become one of the protective factors that can help decrease the behavior that necessitated therapy in the first place.

One thing to note when it comes to efficacy of functional family therapy is that success in reducing youth behavioral problems can depend on the level of participation. Statistically significant improvements are observed when family members are engaged in the process, which can become challenging if there is difficulty getting them to participate in sessions (timing and motivation can be limiting factors for many)

Functional Family Therapy (FFT) in Brooklyn

Teen behavioral or emotional problems can be a challenge, especially for those with high family risk factors. Developing creative programs to address and change the behaviors, offer positive motivational context, and offer relational assessment for as many family members as possible can be a way to foster behavior change in these kids.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our team of doctoral-level Brooklyn psychotherapists offers family sessions that can focus on offering tools to help teens, while addressing family functioning and relevant family processes. We also offer online therapy sessions for families who cannot travel, or would prefer not to travel.

Give us a call today and our patient coordinator will help you find the right Brooklyn family therapist to help manage adolescent behavior problems through therapist adherence to family psychology, cooperation with community systems, and promoting positive behavior through healing and positive change.

Book a Therapy Session in Brooklyn Today

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