Is your family life exactly as you would like it to be? If not, read on to learn more about family therapy activities, and to try out the 5 I suggest!
Family Therapy Activities: Their Origins
During my training to become a clinical psychologist in the early 2000s, I did a 6-month specialist placement in family therapy. I also learned all about “systemic interventions” – working with the whole system or network of people around a child, including their family.
Although family therapy is not my profession, as a clinical psychologist I am trained to work with whole families and consider the impact of family dynamics on each person’s wellbeing.
During my training I learned many practical family therapy exercises that I use regularly in my therapy sessions with young people and their families.
Many of these exercises can also be used by you at home! I have taken my five favourites and I would love for you to give them a try.
The 5 Family Therapy Exercises In This Article
To help you understand why these family therapy exercises can be so powerful, first of I will briefly explain what family therapy is.
Then I will outline five family therapy activities you can try at home.
After that we’ll talk through a case study to help you picture how family therapy activities can help you.
Finally, I’ll talk through how to find a family therapist (and what they do) if you need more formal support for your family.
Here are the five family therapy techniques I’m going to be talking about:
- The Spoon Game
- Miracle Question
- Family Crest
- Build You Up
- Online Scavenger Hunt
What is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy. It looks at the role of family dynamics and interpersonal relationships in family members’ wellbeing. The goal is to identify and gently shift unhelpful patterns of interaction.
Think of families as being like a group of dancers. Sometimes they get out of sync. Family therapy can help you get back in sync with one another.
Family therapists help families to improve communication skills and function better in everyday life.
A key principle behind family therapy is that we can’t understand or resolve an individual’s problems in isolation. We must look at their interactions in the group.
Many family therapists are also qualified in another mental health profession such as clinical psychology or psychiatry.
What are the Benefits of Family Therapy?
Family therapy is a form of therapy which removes the problem from the individual. In other words, it can take away a sense of blame or shame.
Family therapists look at a problem in the context of the whole family system. It also takes into account the systems around the family including school and extended family.
Even when the problem seems very individual – for example if a child is suffering from depression – the emphasis on not on their own role in maintaining the problem but on how systems around them are maintaining it.
The child is never considered to have caused their problems.
Before therapy, families may be caught in recurring patterns of conflict or unhelpful communication cycles. Or, communication may be much less than desired.
Family therapy leads to not only a better understanding of recurring patterns and sources of tension, but actual strategies to adapt these patterns or resolve the sources or negativity.
It can also help families create healthier boundaries, improve their “team” problem-solving skills, and develop a higher level of empathy for one another.
Where Do Family Therapy Activities at Home Come In?
Whether or not you are having formal family therapy, it will benefit your family to practise the family therapy games and activities that I recommend at home. They will build trust and positivity, and they will increase communication between family members.
Later in the article, I’ll tell you more about what to do if you think you need formal family therapy.
Trying Family Therapy Activities at Home
Not all families experiencing difficulties need family therapy. You may be able to explore your difficulties and make some effective changes by yourselves.
Sometimes, just a small shift can make a huge difference to family life.
For that reason I have gathered five different family therapy activities you can try at home.
Use these therapeutic activities for relationship building, increasing communication and reducing conflict.
Family Therapy Techniques to Try at Home:
Perhaps some relationships within the family unit have become strained recently, or more distant than you would wish for.
The following activities are suitable for children of all ages.
However, if you are looking for family therapy activities for teenagers, you are in luck, as I have specifically chosen these activities with teens or pre-teens in mind. These family therapy activities will build trust and closeness.
Family Therapy Activities to Improve Communication
1. “The Spoon” Family Therapy Game
The spoon game teaches active listening. When everyone feels heard, family relationships are generally much healthier.
Do you listen to your children?
I mean really listen?
Like when they are chattering away about something that you think isn’t important. Whatever it is, it’s important to them.
We are all guilty of not listening, especially in this digital age when we are so often distracted by our phones.
Equally, we may not feel heard by our children. We may feel we are talking to a brick wall sometimes, particularly if they are social media or gaming obsessed.
The spoon game is a fun activity with a serious aim. It’s vital for our self-esteem that we feel heard and listened to, especially in everyday family life.
When you are sitting around the dinner table, grab a wooden spoon.
That’s all you need!
As you eat – or afterwards – practise tuning in to just one person.
The person you should listen to is the one with the wooden spoon in their hand. They may want to tell you about their day, about an area of current affairs that interests them, or how they’re feeling about family life.
If someone else wants to respond or contribute, they raise their hand and wait for the spoon to be passed to them.
Encourage everyone to take turns regularly so that everyone gets to have their say.
Try it! What did you notice? What did you learn?
If you found it valuable, try to make it a regular thing. Perhaps once a week.
You can read about specific listening skills in my article: Listening Skills For Parents.
2. Miracle Question Family Therapy Exercise
The miracle question is one of my favourite family therapy exercises. I use it regularly. It helps families develop a shared vision of their ideal family life.
To have a go at the miracle question, you need to find a calm and relaxed time when everyone is feeling quite positive. The dinner table is a great opportunity for this sort of activity.
Together, imagine that a miracle has happened overnight. All your family problems have gone away, and you now have the ideal family life.
Ask yourself the following questions? What would you notice first? Who would notice first? What would each person feel like? Would it be different for everybody? What would you be able to do, that you can’t at the moment? How would you each spend your day, both together as a family and separately?
You may be surprised at the different views of the “miracle” each family member describes. Try to listen really carefully and understand the picture each person is painting.
Go into as much depth as you can. Describe the sounds, what you would see, and what you would do.
The goal of this family therapy activity is that just by developing a shared picture of a better family life, you will realise that a better life is possible. With this picture in your mind, you will each take unconscious or conscious steps towards this better future.
You can read more about the power of the miracle question in my article: Essential Steps To A Happier Family Life.
Family Therapy Activities for Relationship Building
3. Family Crest Family Therapy Activity
Creative activities are fantastic for bringing people together. The good news is that everyone can contribute creatively in producing your very own unique family crest.
First, you’ll need to find the right family time to get everyone together. (Not always easy, but it’ll be worth it I promise!)
Find the largest possible piece of paper, and some felt tip pens or paints. (You can also create your crest digitally if you prefer.)
Allow open communication at first and make some notes together. Which colours should represent your family on your family crest?
What shape will the crest be?
What symbols will be drawn on the crest.
This family therapy activity will help develop positive relationships by increasing your awareness of what brings you together and what you have in common.
Once complete, make sure you display your crest proudly in a prominent position.
4. “Build You Up” Family Therapy Technique
Once a week on a specific day – perhaps Saturday or Sunday – a member of the family will have a “Build You Up” day.
The objective of the Build You Up day is to make the person feel really good about themselves and above all, to feel loved.
On their Build You Up day, the other members of the family must be mindful to only say positive things to the chosen family member.
They must try to pay genuine compliments, show affection, and do nice things for that person.
Of course, it’s vital that every member of the family gets their day. Mums and dads must have their days too.
Build You Up days will help family members to feel valued and cherished. The result is that they will feel more safe and secure, and this will have a calming and positive effect on family life.
5. Online Scavenger Hunt Family Therapy Game
This is a little different from most scavenger hunts!
It’s online – to capture the interest of your kids – and it’s creative.
Family members work individually (if you have a device each) or in pairs.
Here’s how to play:
You have 30 minutes to create a collage or presentation about every other member of the family, trying to collect as many points as possible.
You must be kind and positive at all times.
- Find a song that represents this person: 10 points.
- Choose a colour that represents this person: 10 points.
- Select a funny meme that represents your chosen family member: 10 points.
- Find a video of a dance move to represent this member of the family: 10 points.
- Find a picture or recipe for this person’s “food heaven” (favourite food): 10 points.
- Locate a picture or recipe for this person’s “food hell” (least favourite food): 10 points.
- Choose a holiday destination to represent your family member: 10 points.
- If your family member was a drink, which drink would they be? Find a picture: 10 points.
- Find a picture or video of an animal which represents your chosen member of the family: 10 points.
- Choose a funny or inspirational quote which sums up this family member: 10 points.
Maximum available points: 100
At the end of the 30 minutes, each person or pair gives a presentation on each of their family members.
This could be a verbal presentation where everything is shared one by one, or even a powerpoint presentation.
Extra points are available for creativity and originality.
Goals: Increase understanding between family members, build self-esteem, increase positive communication, strengthen family bonds.
Case Study: The Marshall Family
The Marshall family consists of parents Charlie and Zoe, and children Josh (15), Sam (13) and Ellie (9).
In the last six months, what was once a happy and thriving family has become a tense household where everyone is treading on eggshells. Zoe has been diagnosed with a life limiting condition and she has had to give up her job.
Zoe has much less energy than she had before, and her mobility has been affected. Charlie has extended his work hours to cover the loss in earnings from Zoe’s job. This means Josh is now expected to collect Ellie from school and help make dinner. Sam has to do more around the home too. The family have had to cancel their summer holiday abroad and choose a UK holiday instead. Ellie is upset and angry about this.
Each family member is having a hard time in different ways.
Charlie feels exhausted and sad. His tiredness means he can be snappy and easily triggered into anger.
Zoe feels an overwhelming sense of guilt. She doesn’t have the energy to spend the quality time with the children she would like to, especially Ellie.
Josh feels angry for many reasons. Angry because his mum is ill and other people his age have healthy mums. Frustrated at Sam for not helping around the home as much as he should. Angry at his dad for not being around.
Sam‘s strategy is to withdraw to his room to deal with his overwhelming sadness privately.
Ellie has become demanding and clingy, especially with Zoe.
Family Therapy Activities With The Marshalls
Charlie and Zoe knew they needed things to change. They decided to try out some of the family therapy activities.
How the Marshall Family Used “The Spoon” Game
With Zoe’s health challenges and Charlie’s extended work hours, family dinners had become quiet and tense. They introduced “The Spoon” game to revive the warmth that their family mealtime used to have.
During the game, Ellie grabbed the spoon first and expressed how she missed the energy her mum used to have.
When Zoe took the spoon, she thanked Ellie for being brave enough to share and talked about her own feelings of guilt for not being as available. Josh and Sam also had their turns, sharing their frustrations and sadness.
The Spoon game had a noticeable impact. Everyone felt more heard and understood, especially Ellie, who had become clingy and demanding. The family agreed to play the game once a week.
How the Marshall Family Used the Miracle Question Family Therapy Exercise
One evening when Charlie wasn’t working late, they all sat around the dinner table for the Miracle Question exercise. Sam spoke first, imagining a day where they could all go out and enjoy activities without worrying about Zoe’s condition.
Zoe described a day filled with laughter, love, and no limitations. Josh focused on a world where they all had time for each other without the strain of illness and financial worries.
This family therapy exercise didn’t magically solve their problems, but it did give them a shared vision. It offered them hope and a bit of an emotional roadmap for the tough times ahead.
How the Marshall Family Used “Build You Up” Family Therapy Technique
The family decided to start this on Saturdays, beginning with Zoe as the focus.
From morning til night, Charlie, Josh, Sam, and Ellie showered Zoe with genuine compliments and affection, laughing a lot at first as it felt unnatural, but soon it became a positive habit.
They celebrated Zoe’s resilience and her ability to keep the family united despite her illness.
The impact was immediate. Zoe’s sense of guilt that had been weighing her down seemed to lighten. Each family member took turns in the following weeks, finding the experience deeply affirming.
Implementing “Build You Up” Saturdays became a tradition. It reminded each family member of their unique worth, even amidst the daily struggles they were facing.
How to Find Family Therapy If You Need It
If the difficulties in your family don’t shift despite working on them at home, you may wish to seek out formal family therapy.
A family therapy programme or course of treatment will help you unpick in more depth what is going on in your unique family system.
Accessing family therapy can be tricky and depends on where you live.
If you are in the UK, your doctor or your child’s school can make referrals to your local CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health service) or other local therapeutic services. Many – but not all – CAMHS teams have family therapists but your child must have a significant mental health need to access the service.
Some charitable organisations provide family therapy at low cost and your GP may be able to refer you.
Finally, you can pay privately or access therapy through your health insurance. You can find a Family Therapist through UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) Directory or your health insurance provider.
It takes several years to train as a family therapist. You should always check your therapist’s qualifications before starting family therapy. Check you are working with a licensed therapist.
You can read more about different types of therapy professionals in my article about finding a child therapist.
What is Involved in Family Therapy?
Family therapy does not always involve the entire family. Some sessions may involve just one person or part of the family.
Initially a family therapist will meet with your family for an assessment. The therapist will aim to hear each person’s voice (even if the whole family is not present at the appointment).
In family therapy, the therapist will not take sides. As with any type of group therapy, they will aim for each person to feel heard and understood.
They usually draw a specific type of family tree called a genogram to help them understand your family better.
The therapist may then recommend a block of family therapy sessions (say 4-6) at regular intervals. They will usually write a letter to the family (or just to the parents) outlining the treatment plan. Some family therapists write a therapeutic letter after each meeting with you.
Young children can be involved in family therapy but may not attend all sessions. The therapist may use play therapy strategies to engage younger children. They will often use creative or fun activities even with adults and teens too.
At each appointment the aim is to understand any unhelpful patterns and dynamics, and make small shifts to produce healthier family relationships.
The family therapist may suggest that different members of the family attend each appointment. This helps address specific patterns of interaction between subsections of the family, such as the parents or the siblings.
Generally family therapists offer in-person sessions with families, but since the pandemic online therapy sessions have become more common.
Online therapy services can work well, but if the entire family is involved I recommend face-to-face sessions if possible.
Online family therapy can be a great way to work on issues, if being all the same place at one time is a problem. But in-person sessions allow us to see all aspects of body language and better gauge how others are thinking or feeling.
It is most helpful if all members of a child’s immediate family get involved in the therapy process, but this is not essential.
What Can Family Therapy Be Helpful For?
Family therapy can give your family a private space and a safe environment to explore and manage specific issues, including:
- Illness or death of a family member.
- Separation or divorce.
- Physical aggression or verbal aggression, or high levels of conflict within a family.
- Behavioural problems.
- Addiction or substance abuse / substance use disorder.
- Mental health issues.
Sometimes family therapy works alongside other forms of mental health treatment.
For example, in eating disorders, a young person will often have individual therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy in addition to family therapy.
Couples therapy is sometimes considered a form of family therapy. Couples therapy can help parents to re-align their values, priorities and boundaries, where there have been difference or difficulties in the way they parent. A healthy relationship between parents is vital to healthy everyday family functioning.
Types of Family Therapy
All family therapy has a focus on group interactions rather than individual problems but there are several different “models” of therapy. I will give you a very brief summary of some of the different forms of family interventions in family therapy.
Structural Family Therapy
In Structural family therapy the family therapist is like a detective uncovering the subsystems within the family structure that impact a family’s functioning.
The therapist helps the family members uncover behaviours, patterns or routines that are not serving them. Together they work towards healthy communication skills and creating more positive relationships.
The therapist works directly on dysfunctional interactions through methods such as role play, boundary restructuring and reframing. You can read more in this article about structural family therapy from healthyplace.com.
Strategic Family Therapy
Strategic family therapy is a brief family intervention often used when children have been identified as having behavioural problems. It involves very active and specific techniques to directly tackle patterns of interaction thought to be contributing to the problem.
For example the therapist might deliberately move a member of the family to a different seating position to interrupt a pattern. They may also try to deliberately recreate problematic patterns of interaction in the therapy room, in order to directly tackle these. You can read more in this article about strategic family therapy by verywellmind.
Functional Family Therapy
Functional family therapy seeks to reduce risk factors for increased distress or dysfunction, and to increase protective factors. It is an evidence-based approach most commonly used in families of teenagers and pre-teens.
Functionalfamilytherapy.org.uk/ states that:
Functional Family Therapy is a family based therapy for young people between 11-18yrs. The therapy supports the reduction of disruptive communication patterns and focuses on positive interactions, effective supervision and boundary setting.
Family Therapy Activities: Summary
If you are looking to build family ties or bring your family together when they have been drifting apart, you can try the fun activities I have hand-picked for you, as your starting point towards a happier family life.
Make sure you take time to reflect on what works or doesn’t work, and tweak the activities to make them more effective for you as a family.
If your difficulties are more ingrained you may need to seek out family therapy.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Are you the parent of a 6-16 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.