Healing Together: The Role of Family Therapy in Chronic Illness

| Hallie Barnhill, LMFTA

Family therapy works to target change within the system that is often the closest to us. While it is helpful across a multitude of presenting concerns, one in particular is families navigating chronic or significant illness. Oftentimes following a life changing diagnosis for one family member, the others find themselves in crisis mode and are unsure of how to wrap their head around it – much less handle it in healthy ways. This can result in family systems pulling apart, individuals feeling alone in their own process of dealing with it, no one talking about the hard topics now presented in their lives, acting out, depending on others to the point of them feeling burnt out with the responsibility, resentment building up, conflicts increasing in nature and frequency, and damaged relationships within the family unit. Family therapy can be especially helpful in these trying times and necessary to help navigate this new way of life. 

Here are the ways in which therapy can help these families heal together: 

  • Providing Psycho-education: A lot of times after receiving a diagnosis, people struggle with the fear and uncertainty that comes along with it. Family therapists can work with medical teams in order to provide a deeper level of understanding when it comes to the diagnosis, its impact on daily life, progression, treatment options, and how it may impact each individual in the room as well as the family as a whole. Fostering understanding can help to reduce initial feelings of anxiety and support the family in having these conversations together in a productive way. 
  • Fostering Emotional Support: Chronic illnesses can bring about an emotional roller coaster that rides differently for each person in the room. The safe, supportive space of family therapy can assist in helping each of the members express their emotions, validate one another’s emotions, and find helpful ways to support each other. 
  • Improving Communication Skills: Oftentimes, we see families’ communication skills decline during these difficult times – leading to more arguments and misunderstandings between one another. With the help of a therapist, these ineffective patterns of communication can be targeted in order to foster better communication that serves to encourage members to communicate their needs, concerns, and feelings directly and clearly to one another. 
  • Developing Healthy Coping Strategies: Even those with the best coping strategies tend to turn towards maladaptive ways of coping in highly stressful situations. By learning and implementing the skills together, it can help members hold one another accountable and increase the family’s resilience in managing stress. 
  • Navigating Role Adjustments: When one family member becomes chronically ill, a shift in the roles of other family members can quickly ensue. When these adjustments are not explicitly talked about and just happen, resentment can build up. Having open and honest conversations to identify these changes in roles can ensure that everyone feels supported and valued while having a clear understanding of the underlying expectations.
  • Increasing Conflict Resolution: In times of increased stress, it is natural for conflict to increase as well. When people experience a sudden change, such as the diagnosis of a chronic illness, they often feel that they have less emotional and physical bandwidth to give to others. In order for conflict to not have the potential to continue to grow, it is important to address these issues head on and work to find ways to lessen the impact of them moving forward. The therapist’s job is to help members have these discussions in a constructive manner and resolve the ones that can be resolved and accept the ones that cannot be resolved. This process gives each person the space to share their perspective and have the opportunity for the other family members to actively listen and make sure each of them feel heard. 
  • Assist in Goal Setting: This is an important aspect of all therapy as goals help to structure the sessions, and guide the work, with the ability to be adapted and adjusted as necessary. With chronic illness, an important part of the process is maintaining realistic goals. The goals can focus on the treatment of the illness, care giving, and trying to maintain some sense of normalcy amidst all of the changing aspects of their lives. 
  • Address Issues Around Quality of Life: Losing sight of this is common during this time as people are more likely to be living in survival mode. These events can really put life into perspective and it’s important to encourage family members to not lose sight of the quality of life for each of them, including the member with the chronic illness. Therapy can be used to explore ways to enhance well-being, happiness, and comfort.
  • Explore End-of-Life Issues: In some cases, the illness can be terminal and this space can help families navigate end-of-life decisions, grief, and bereavement. These kinds of decisions can often bring up differing opinions among members that can lead to tension, conflict, and even result in relationships ending. Exploring these differences in the context of family therapy can provide each member with the opportunity to express their opinions and foster the process of trying to reach a decision. The therapist can assist the family in navigating the cycle of grief and loss throughout this time. 
  • Building Resilience: Lastly, all of this helps to build resilience. When families are able to look back on difficult times in their lives and reflect on how they got through it, they will be able to transfer what they have learned and experienced to other difficult situations. Relationships are so important to our lives and well-being, so it is even more important to build that resilience as a family to create better ways of relating through everyday life as well as times of increased stress. 

Family therapy is tailored to the specific needs and dynamics of each family but these are some general ways in which it can help. Family therapy for chronic illness is a beneficial, collaborative process that can assist in improving the family as a whole and each individual’s well-being in the face of stressful events and experiences. The support of a family therapist as well as medical professionals can be crucial during this time. The goal is to help families turn towards better ways of coping, relating, and communicating to be able to better navigate this already difficult time in their lives. 

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