What is Experiential Family Therapy?

Marjorie McAtee

Experiential family therapy is a school of family psychotherapy developed by Carl Whitaker in the 1960s. It seeks to help individual family members feel more fulfilled and self-actualized by building levels of intimacy and cooperation within the family unit. This kind of therapy does not typically blame the problems of the family on the qualities of individual family members, but usually examines how family interactions cause problems for individual members of the family. Experiential family therapy generally seeks to help family members communicate and respect one another's thoughts and feelings. Family members are typically encouraged to be themselves and family secrets are usually not encouraged.

Experiential therapy can help build intimacy.
Experiential therapy can help build intimacy.

Problems among individual family members can stem from distance in interpersonal familial relationships, or from the keeping of secrets within the family. Some family members may feel compromised by the demands of the family as a whole. This can impair individuals' abilities to fully express themselves and meet their needs.

Families should generally be already relatively stable in order to benefit from experiential family therapy.
Families should generally be already relatively stable in order to benefit from experiential family therapy.

Unlike some other types of family therapy, this therapy usually requires that the therapist treat the experience as a type of therapy for himself, as well as for the family. Therapists performing this kind of therapy may become more emotionally involved with their clients than therapists operating on other theories. Experiential family therapy usually emphasizes the importance of subjective experience and individual needs. Individual members of the family are typically encouraged to reveal their unexpressed feelings and to reach new levels of interpersonal intimacy with their family members.

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Experiential family therapy examines how family interactions cause problems for individual family members.
Experiential family therapy examines how family interactions cause problems for individual family members.

In order for this therapy to work, family members must generally learn to communicate with one another and respect one another's unique needs. Members of families who keep secrets and who maintain a facade to the rest of the world often feel that they cannot be themselves, make their own choices, or grow in the ways that most benefit them. Family members are generally encouraged to develop mutual respect and integrity. They are usually asked to assume a greater degree of personal independence, while working out viable individual roles that can help the family function more smoothly, with less conflict, and greater satisfaction among members.

Therapists often achieve these goals by stimulating emotionally charged situations during therapy. Once family members have expressed their bottled-up feelings, therapists can often guide the family as a whole toward establishing an environment of mutual respect, autonomy, and collaboration. Therapists typically see this work as subjective, so that family members are usually allowed to maintain their own perspectives, without being told that some are wrong and some are right.

This type of family therapy generally requires the full participation of every member of the group, and some families fail to benefit due to non-cooperation issues. Families should generally already be relatively stable in order to benefit from this kind of therapy. This type of family therapy generally seeks to enhance mental and emotional well-being among family members, rather than re-structuring the family itself.

Experiential family therapy may be used in addition to one-on-one sessions.
Experiential family therapy may be used in addition to one-on-one sessions.

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Discussion Comments


@fify-- Yes, my family and I participated in this therapy and it was definitely helpful. It helped us sort out issues that everyone was trying hard to cover up and ignore. The best part about this therapy is that no one is made to bear the blame.


@croydon-- I'm not an expert but I think that for any type of therapy to be effective, there has to be intent. I don't think that experiential family therapy will work if those participating do not think that there is a problem and do not want to put in any effort. No matter how great a therapy is and a therapist is, if people don't wan't to help themselves, it's not going to work.

But there is a possibility that after starting this family therapy, family members who thought that there is no problem might realize that there is a problem. So if you can get your family to participate in it, I think it will be of some benefit.


Experiential family therapy sounds like a great idea.

There are so many people experiencing emotional problems because of their relationships with family members. Seeing a therapist or psychologist alone is not very helpful because the problem is not the individual, it's the relationship between the individual and other family members. The only way that these relationships can improve is if every person in the family puts in effort to change interactions positively. This type of family therapy seems like the best way to go about it.

Has anyone here had experience with this type of therapy? What was it like? Did it benefit you and your family?


@Fa5t3r - Therapy can be extraordinary or it can be pointless, just like any other human interaction. It sounds like experiential family therapy needs the exact right therapist though, if they are really encouraged to become part of the dynamic of the family.

That can be extremely effective in a Mary Poppins kind of way, but at the same time it can be a bit dangerous, because the therapy is going to have to end eventually and if all your progress depends on the therapist then it might fall apart once they end it.


@croydon - The point of therapy is to help everyone to feel more comfortable with themselves and others. Maybe they know there is a problem and maybe they don't. That doesn't change the fact that you feel there is a problem. And avoiding it only makes the situation worse.

I used to feel quite repressed around my family, and they thought of me as sullen, because I was afraid to really speak my mind. But I hated living like that and it was driving such a big wedge between me and my family that I ended up deciding that it was better to at least be honest. And they don't always like the honesty, but at least we communicate now.

I think therapy would probably have made the transition smoother or faster, but I'm not sure it would have made any difference in the long run, for us anyway.


I know that this is a problem that I have with my own family, when I see them. I feel like I can't be myself, because being myself would eventually bring about confrontations when I disagree with something one of them has said.

I end up just not wanting to be around them because I can't relax. I guess it comes from a couple of people in my family who tend to overreact to things. I can't imagine that this kind of therapy would actually help, because I don't think they think there is even a problem.

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