Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT)

Is your family resilient or does it have a rather rigid pattern in the face of any change? The way in which the difficulties and needs of each family member and any changes are addressed mark the well-being and strength, or dysfunctionality and anguish, of the family unit.
Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT)
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 13 October, 2022

Have you reached a point where you don’t know how to talk to your children? Have you been experiencing a complicated relationship with your parents for a long time? As a matter of fact, family systems are often both complex and chaotic and can be one of the most common sources of stress. In fact, there are those who fear that certain ties, due to conflict and tension, may be virtually lost.

However, there are some therapeutic approaches aimed at avoiding anguish, arguments, and cycles of negative interaction that eat away at and annihilate affection. One such approach is Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT). It seeks to repair frictions and problematic ties by working on feelings, empathy, and attachment styles.

Modifying the relationships of a family system in crisis requires the navigation of more than one emotional block. There are resentments, unattended needs, anger, loneliness, and disagreements that cause anger and disaffection. Therefore, the work of the therapist needs to reach those painful nuclei and provide strategies to recover security, harmony, and belonging.

Any family dealing with problems with their teenage children can benefit from this type of therapy.

Therapists specialized in Emotionally Focused Family Therapy use attachment theory as a map to detect the dysregulated patterns that cause problems.
Cut-out figures of the family representing emotion-focused therapy (ECFT)
Emotionally Focused Family Therapy looks at parent-child problems through the lens of attachment.

Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT)

EFFT integrates two therapeutic approaches: humanistic and systemic. This theoretical framework makes it easier to understand how a family builds its experience and to analyze its patterns of interaction. In fact, in the dynamics between parents and children, multiple factors intervene and are capable of creating balances and also dysfunctionalities.

With this therapy, when parents seek help for a child’s challenging behavior, the psychologist won’t focus exclusively on the troubled youngster. In fact, to understand any family conflict, the perspective must be global and not reduced. Only in this way is it possible to analyze all the interactions in the nucleus of people that make up this social microsystem of the family. A system that’s often loaded with problems that the parents themselves may not even appreciate.

The goal of this therapeutic approach is to help children connect with their parents and vice versa. For this, any negative cycles of interaction must be reduced. In addition, bonds that are sustained by the security, protection, appreciation, and mutual recognition of its members must be created. 

Let’s look at the basic pillars that support this therapy.

When children don’t trust the emotional availability of their parents, problems appear.

Detecting, understanding, and reprocessing underlying emotions

There’s one essential task that must be carried out by a psychologist specializing in EFFT. The members of the family must make contact with their internal sensations, feelings, and needs. That’s because it’s common for them to silently drag frustrations, anxieties, resentments, fears, desires, and sadness around with them.

Parents and children must learn to verbalize their emotions. Only when they access these primary states, understand them, and process them, will their anguish be reduced. Furthermore, it’s important to promote empathy between the members of the family. Indeed, understanding and tuning into their reality facilitate understanding, conversation, and closeness.

Find out the attachment style that dominates the family structure

One of the goals of EFFT is to obtain information on the quality of attachment between parents and children. When a child perceives a distorted response to their needs for affection and validation, problems appear. A lack of healthy attachment fuels poor communication, angry feelings on the part of children, a lack of empathy from parents, etc.

In a family, there are many hidden realities that aren’t communicated.

What skills can be learned with Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT)?

Research conducted by the City University of New York (USA) indicates that this type of therapy is ideal for families with teenage children. There’s also great empirical support for its effectiveness in dealing with everything from childhood disorders to periods of great stress and family turbulence.

There are multiple skills that family members can learn from therapists trained in EFFT.

  • Parents learn to communicate with their children and vice versa. After all, while they might be skilled at conversing and reaching agreements with friends or colleagues when it comes to family, everything tends to change. That’s because there are confused feelings and negative reaction patterns that have become chronic over time.
  • They learn to stop attributing blame and start looking for solutions.
  • They enable themselves in good emotional management. Therefore, they can dilute conflicts and build bridges of understanding.
  • They create more positive patterns of interaction.
  • They feel more connected, understood, and secure. In fact, they discover how to express their needs and how to stop accusing each other. Furthermore, they’re able to create more nurturing scenarios with empathy and affection.
Man in emotion-focused therapy (ECFT)
Emotion-focused family therapy improves emotional communication between its members.

The three stages of therapy

Emotionally Focused Family Therapy is an effective and short-term psychological strategy. On average, successful results are achieved with between four to 12 one or two sessions lasting an hour per week. Obviously, each family has its own particularities, but good results are usually achieved in three specific phases:

1. Decreased family distress

  • The psychologist identifies the negative interaction patterns that dominate the family.
  • They obtain information on the type of dominant attachment between the family members.
  • They identify the emotions that are causing problematic interactions.
  • They’ll give strategies to the family to unblock these unmanaged emotions and initiate more positive interactions.

2. The restructuring of the family relationship

  • The therapist helps each member discover their needs and explain them to their parents or children.
  • They promote a healthy attachment style among the members of the family.
  • They help restructure the family relationship, transmitting strategies to favor support, understanding, and attention to each family member.

3. Consolidation

Once the family relationship improves, new problems or challenges may arise that need addressing. However, those small crises can now be approached from a safer position. That’s because both parents and children have learned to express and talk about their emotions and needs. Therefore, all that remains is to consolidate the positive patterns a little more.

To conclude, there are many families that are at risk of drifting apart. There are parents who give up on their children and children who cut themselves off from their parents. These are sad yet common realities. Therefore, it’s interesting to know that there are valid and enriching strategies to prevent these events from happening.

Emotionally Focused Family Therapy, rather than looking at problems, empower family members to be able to solve those challenges. It’s an approach that validates, accompanies, and allows flourishing in many aspects.

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Internal Family Systems Therapy: Healing Our Vulnerability
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    • Furrow, J. L., & Palmer, G. (2019). Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (pp. 879-884). Springer International Publishing.
    • Johnson SM, Bradley B, Furrow J, et al. Becoming an Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist; the Workbook. New York: Brunner-Routledge; 2005
    • Palmer, G., & Efron, D. (2007). Emotionally focused family therapy: Developing the model. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 26(4), 17-24.
    • Stavrianopoulos, K., Faller, G., & Furrow, J. L. (2014). Emotionally focused family therapy: Facilitating change within a family system. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 13(1), 25-43.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.