What Is Cognitive Behavioral Family Therapy?

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  • Written By: C. Webb
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 22 February 2020
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Cognitive behavioral family therapy (CBFT) is a form of therapy focused on action. The premise of this therapy is that faulty thinking patterns cause dysfunctional choices and behaviors within the family structure. If family members are able to change their cognitive thought process, better choices and decisions may follow.

Therapists often use cognitive behavioral family therapy to treat families impacted by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, mood disorders, and other mental illnesses that can benefit from an action oriented therapy program. Such illnesses can create havoc within the family, if family members do not know how to react. For example, if someone in the family has severe OCD, other family members may develop a pattern of giving in to the OCD rituals, which in turn may limit their own freedoms and lives. Resentments can stem from this pattern, causing more negative thinking.

Family members work with a cognitive behavioral family therapist to determine behaviors they would like to change. For example, if one child is ADHD and easily distracted and other family members lose their tempers with him or her, it can be counterproductive. In CBFT, family members may set a goal of allowing the ADHD child more time to accomplish tasks at home.


For cognitive behavioral family therapy to be most effective, all family members should actively participate. Other types of therapy, including traditional talk therapy, require less action on the part of clients. Goal setting, effort, and evaluation are hallmark actions required in CBFT.

Changing the thought process of a family takes work. For example, if the adult male in the family has been an alcoholic for years, when he does stop drinking, family members may have a hard time changing their behaviors and attitudes toward him. Cognitive behavioral family therapy can help change the patterned behavior they developed during the alcoholic's drinking days.

Thought patterns are deeply ingrained in the mind. According to the cognitive-behavioral pioneers Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, automatic thoughts drive most emotional disturbances. The way dysfunctional family members react to each other and the world around them is motivated by disturbed and negative thought patterns that have become habits. Learning to recognize those automatic thoughts and behaviors through cognitive behavioral family therapy can be the first step to changing them.


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