What are the Differences Between Individual and Family Therapy?

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Individual therapy is for just one person and focuses solely on his or her therapy needs. Family therapy is focused on an entire family or several of its members. Both types of therapy may prove beneficial, and sometimes a person may be involved in both individual and family therapy. For example, a person may meet with a therapist for individual therapy on a weekly basis and then meet with a family therapist later in the same week, biweekly, or on some other schedule.

Individual therapy focuses on just one person for therapy needs.
Individual therapy focuses on just one person for therapy needs.

Individual and family therapy differ in terms of the focus of the therapy. With individual therapy, there is one patient and the therapy is focused solely on him. For example, if an individual is in therapy for anxiety, the sessions will focus on dealing with his anxiety and the problems it may cause in other areas of his life. Family therapy, on the other hand, involves several people at one time. For instance, a whole family may be in therapy together or multiple members of a family may attend a therapy session at one time.

Family therapy can help resolve communication issues between partners.
Family therapy can help resolve communication issues between partners.

The difference between individual and family therapy often involves the focus of the sessions, but some sessions are still initiated because of the problems of one family member. For example, if an individual is working through a problem, family therapy may help his family members better understand his problem, develop new ways of coping with them, and learn how they can help him. Sometimes family therapy sessions may also help family members learn how they are contributing to an individual’s problems or impeding his progress toward getting better.

Individual therapy allows people to speak without worry of being judged by a partner.
Individual therapy allows people to speak without worry of being judged by a partner.

There are also many cases in which family therapy isn’t focused on the problems or needs of one person. Sometimes, this type of therapy is focused on overcoming the issues an entire family faces or the problems of a few of its members. For example, if family members have dysfunctional habits when it comes to dealing with each other, family therapy may help them to overcome the habits. Likewise, family therapy may also help families who are struggling with mutual grief or dealing with such issues as divorce and remarriage.

Individual therapy may include journaling thoughts and feelings.
Individual therapy may include journaling thoughts and feelings.

Interestingly, an individual may engage in individual and family therapy at the same time. For example, an individual may use individual therapy to focus only on his problems. He may then participate in family therapy as well, in order to deal with his problems from a family perspective.

Family therapy can help people focus more on activities every member can enjoy.
Family therapy can help people focus more on activities every member can enjoy.
Family therapy is often used to help feuding couples learn to communicate instead of lay blame.
Family therapy is often used to help feuding couples learn to communicate instead of lay blame.
Family therapy is geared to resolving issues related to an entire family or several of its members.
Family therapy is geared to resolving issues related to an entire family or several of its members.
Some counselors also specialize in couples therapy.
Some counselors also specialize in couples therapy.
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments


I have never been to family therapy, but I can say that individual therapy was very helpful to my state of mind. I had been suffering anxiety and panic attacks because of my mindset, and the therapist helped me to change my way of thinking.

He listened and pried ever deeper into my thoughts. I cried because it was so emotionally intense to reveal my pain and weaknesses to someone who could finally help me deal with them.

He suggested new outlooks on things that I had never considered. It blew my mind to think differently at first, but it did wonders for me down the road.


My brother attended both individual therapy and family therapy. He had a lot of issues as a teenager, and our mother was causing most of them.

In individual therapy, he got to express his uncensored emotions. The therapist told him things he could do to cope, and when the family came together for therapy, the same therapist got to listen to our mother and see where my brother was coming from.

She was very critical, and she never seemed to be satisfied with anything we did. She was particularly hard on my brother. Our dad had passed away years ago, and she expected a lot of her only son.

Without realizing it, she had been trying to replace our dad with my brother. The therapist pointed this out, and then, my mother was able to work through it.


Having a successful marriage is never easy - especially when you have a blended family as well.

When my husband and I got married there were four children that we were also bringing in to the relationship. This took a lot of time and patience to work through.

There were a few rough months where we sought out some marriage and family therapy. It gave everyone the opportunity to give a voice to their feelings and helped clear the air on several matters.

This was the best thing we could have done for our family. Even though there were more tough days ahead, we came out of it stronger and more united as a family.


When my daughter and son-in-law were having some marriage troubles the best thing they did was seek out professional family counseling services.

It was important for them to have an objective person work with them. Listening to advice from friends and family isn't always the best idea because they are too close to the situation and everyone has a different opinion.

At the first session, they met as a couple. After that, each of them met individually with the counselor for a few weeks as they worked on different areas of their relationship.

Their counseling ended with several weeks of them meeting together as a couple. I am glad they were mature enough to seek out counseling and get the help they needed before they started their family.


@Cafe41 - Personally if you are in a troubled marriage and have children you should also seek marriage and family counseling. Sometimes people drift apart because their lives are so busy that they forget why they got married in the first place.

Relationship counseling can help in these circumstances but both parties have to be committed otherwise it will not work. Sometimes a marriage receives stressors like a loss of a job or the loss of a family member that can really rock the foundation of even the best marriages, but there is always someone to talk to that can help.

I think that sometimes people are embarrassed to seek family and marriage therapy because they are afraid of being vulnerable, but for some families it might be the only hope for a happy life together.


@Sneakers41 - That is true, but it also helps traditional families that may have a dysfunctional member. For example, if the father is an alcoholic it really changes the family dynamic. The father in this situation should get individual therapy to deal with his alcohol addiction, and the rest of the family also needs counseling in order to learn how to cope with a person afflicted with this condition.

There is a group called Al-Anon that is a counseling support group for families dealing with an alcoholic family member. When a family member has a condition like this it is especially hard because the rest of the family does not know what to do because alcoholics can be really unpredictable.


@Cafe41 - The same thing can happen when a family member develops an eating disorder that is threatening their life. This eating disorder affects the person directly the most, but it also has a lasting effect on the family. I read that treating anorexia is one of the hardest conditions to treat in counseling because the person’s image is so distorted that it could take a while for them to see how wrong they were about the way they looked.

In extreme cases, the person with the anorexia needs to go to an inpatient rehab center in which they will receive individual and group therapy. The family will also have to participate is some form of family therapy to not only understand the nature of this condition but to help their family member get better.

This condition is so hard on the families because most of them feel helpless and I think that the counseling helps to a degree. I could not imagine going through something like this.


@manykitties2 - It is good to hear that the counseling worked out so well for you and your family in such a difficult time. My husband and I recently started marriage and family counseling sessions because we have been having a lot of trouble balancing household responsibilities with our jobs, and it has caused us a lot of friction.

I want to start a family, so our work loads has become a pretty big issue. We decided that we would speak with individual counselors about our own grievances, then meet with a marriage counselor together. I am happy to report that we are managing to work out our differences and things are looking up.


I know that a lot of blended families sometimes have a lot of problems because when both families unite they often have a lot of conflicts. I read somewhere that the divorce rate for second marriages that involve children was around 75%.

I was watching a television program the other day about a family that was involved in family counseling. Family therapy counseling really works if all of the members are on board with the process.

This is a place where everyone in the family can discuss their issues calmly and objectively and there can be a resolution. Usually the children in these blended families are the ones that usually feel a little cheated when their parent remarries and has more children because they realize that they will get significantly less attention than they did before.


When my parents were getting divorced we had both family counseling sessions and individual therapy for the kids. It was pretty traumatic for all of us but I feel that the family therapy counseling really helped, especially with the individual therapy.

I felt like I could really speak to my counselor about things I couldn't say to my parents, and that really helped me gather my thoughts for the family sessions we had. My brother and I had a lot of anger towards our parents over the whole thing, but I think we really managed to work it out and deal with the whole event as adults, despite our actual ages at that time.

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