When it comes to addressing a preteen, teen, or young adult’s mental health concerns and helping them heal, the Embark Behavioral Health team believes developing and practicing healthy relationships with family members is essential. That’s why this leading network of mental health treatment programs uses a family-systems framework for therapy that allows children and their caregivers to examine how they communicate and interact.
“Most of our clients come in with symptoms that let us know something’s off in their lives, usually dealing with relationships and how they get their emotional needs met,” said Jake Sparks, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Embark Behavioral Health’s treatment director. “At Embark, family therapy is really about understanding the environment in which the symptoms have grown and developed. We believe people heal and change because of the attachments they develop to their primary care figures. If those aspects of the relationship are healthy, then the patient heals better.”
How Treating the Entire Family at Embark Helps Children Heal
Embark invites a patient’s primary caregivers, usually their parents, into the therapeutic process so all family members can understand not only the way they interact but also how those interactions may influence problematic behaviors. They can then work on ways to disrupt unhealthy patterns and establish healthier family roles and rules.
As preteens, teens, or young adults observe their family members participating in therapy and being vulnerable about their issues, it sets a powerful example.
“One of the things I’m always telling parents is ‘Your child will work as hard as he or she believes you’re working,’” Sparks said. “Just by showing up and being vulnerable themselves, they’re developing an environment where it’s safe for children to do that work.”
Establishing this safe environment not just in therapy but also at home is essential for building healthy emotional vulnerability and empathy, which promotes growth for the client as well as the parents. As Sparks noted, practicing healthy relationships at home helps a child feel validated and supported as they continue regulating their emotions and dealing with mental health issues.
Embark’s Approach to Family Therapy
At Embark, parents and caregivers are expected to:
- Be fully engaged in the therapeutic process.
- Participate in experiential therapy activities, such as creating art or walking outdoors, alongside their children.
- Work on homework assignments.
- Participate in scheduled therapy sessions. These interactions help identify unhealthy norms within the family and offer opportunities for Embark’s therapists to intervene.
For example, talk therapy sessions may reveal a family has unspoken rules against showing vulnerability or talking about issues such as substance abuse. As this can trigger anxiety and other emotional issues, Embark therapists help families recognize these problematic behavior patterns and understand the reason behind them. From there, role-playing and other experiential activities help preteens, teens, young adults, and parents practice alternative, healthier ways of interacting with each other.
Depending on the Embark program and level of care a family is using, each family therapy session may last anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes per week. It can be in person or virtual.
Because in-person meetings tend to generate emotionally intense sessions, Sparks said the virtual option can be beneficial for people who shut down in high-intensity situations and feel more comfortable communicating through a screen. Whether a family lives near an Embark facility also determines if family therapy sessions are in person (which can include in-home therapy) or virtual.
Over time, family therapy sessions can involve additional family members, including siblings and other relatives. However, Sparks said parent-child relationships are particularly important to address.
“Parents typically have the most power in a family system,” he said. “They’re usually the leaders, the ones with the most influence. So, a parent-child relationship that’s safe and reliable maintains a vertical relationship where development of self-worth begins to form because the child feels ‘I have a caregiver who unconditionally cares about me personally.’ This is different from horizontal relationships with peers, siblings, or friends. There isn’t the same power differential. Horizontal relationships are important but cannot compensate for a failed vertical relationship.”
During family therapy, if parents discover they need additional help to address their own mental and emotional issues, Embark will help them get in touch with substance abuse counselors, therapists, and more, even as they continue with family therapy sessions.
Real Results: How the Embark Approach Helped a Family Heal
Many families have benefited from the family-systems approach at Embark. Sparks remembered one young client who grew up struggling with anxiety. During family therapy sessions with the girl’s mother, the mother realized she’d been mourning when her daughter was born because the girl’s father had died during the pregnancy. The mother also discovered she herself was on the autism spectrum and did not process emotion like her daughter. This made it difficult for her to deal with or understand her daughter’s emotional issues.
Through therapy, the mother learned that by not showing emotion in a way her daughter could recognize, she was sending the message that it wasn’t OK to feel sad, causing her daughter to develop anxiety when her emotional needs were not met.
To address this, therapy sessions focused on the mother identifying how she understood emotions. This allowed the daughter to see her mother was not being dismissive and understand how her mother expressed sadness so they could talk more productively and establish a healthier relationship.
As healthy relationships create powerful experiences of acceptance, family therapy will continue to be an integral part of Embark Behavioral Health’s treatment programs.
To learn more about Embark’s approach to helping clients and their families heal, visit the premier mental health webpage.
Get your free guide:
6 Tips and Tactics to Help Your Child and Family Thrive Mentally, Socially, and Emotionally