Family of Origin Therapy
What does family of origin mean?
You’re researching for a therapist to finally help you understand the anxiety you feel or the way you treat others in relationships in the heat of the moment that you know aren’t doing you any favors long-term. All of their bios reference “family of origin”, “family systems informed”, or “systems-oriented.” What does this actually mean?
Family systems refer to the environment you were raised in during your childhood and years of development. The term refers to your caregivers growing up and includes parents, adoptive parents, or other significant guardians. It can also more broadly refer to siblings, extended family, your school, social history- all of the relationship dynamics growing up that have made you who you are today.
Why do therapists always ask you about your family of origin?
I know, I know. Talking about your childhood in therapy can be an eye-roll worthy cliche. But as a therapist, I could not overstate how important the context of family of origin is in understanding a client. In fact, to me, it would feel negligent to work on any goals without understanding this context.
Why? Because while each person may have different personality traits or tendencies, we are all a product of early programming and the experiences we had as we were first learning how to exist in the world.
Sort of like how a computer or application has to be encoded for it to process information and perform functions as optimally as possible over time, the human mind has experiences that wire the way it processes information and prepares to be successful in future experiences or interactions.
So the “encoding” of your mind happens early on, as you are learning to navigate the world. And this is when you are a child, under the care of others in your family of origin, whatever that looked like for you.
Who can family of origin therapy help?
Sometimes people go to therapy specifically wanting to address family of origin issues. Typically, these people have challenges that are more obviously rooted in family of origin, and could be things like:
- Adult child and parent conflicts
- Impacts of being raised by narcissistic, addicted, abusive, or negligent parents
- Grief from a the loss of a significant other (e.g. parent or sibling) in childhood
- Traumatic event that impacted the family system and changed the family dynamic (e.g. family secrets, infidelity, divorce)
To most people experiencing the impacts of one of the experiences above, the need to untangle family of origin dynamics is obvious.
However, people often seek out therapy for different reasons with specific goals. They may start therapy focused on a certain objective. But as we explore where they continue to get stuck in working toward these objectives, it becomes clear that there are deeper dynamics to uncover. While these clients may not realize it at the beginning of treatment, I almost always find there are family of origin dynamics to help bring understanding and healing to issues like:
- General, social, performance, or sexual anxiety
- Significant difficulty coping with a life transition (career change, move, loss of friendship, break up, etc.)
- Depression and lack of motivation
- Relationship and dating issues
- Marital distress
As a therapist, helping you work toward goals and objectives without intentionally understanding your programming from your family of origin sort of feels like trying to put a bandaid on a wound over and over again without ever stopping to clean and attend to the wound so that the oozing underneath actually heals and stops.
What’s an example of family of origin therapy?
Let’s say a client reaches out for therapy wanting to work on debilitating anxiety. The client describes how they frequently feel anxiety that leads to sensations of panic, tightness in the chest, and high stress that they would like to reduce.
The client describes one of the ways they manage this anxiety is through maintaining a schedule. They obsess over their calendar, always wanting it to be full of activities, events, and meetings. They panic if there are empty spaces on their calendar and get very upset if someone has to change or reschedule on them, which also impacts their relationships.
Through family of origin therapy, the therapist gradually learns that this client had early experiences in childhood that left them feeling unsafe if left in their house for too long. As a child, their father would drink heavily on the weekends, which lead to unpredictability and even physical danger when their father would drive them places.
To manage the fear of not being safe at home, this child learned very early to manage a schedule and to make plans that would take them away from this house with their father. Having plans (to visit and stay with grandparents, attend sporting tournaments, etc.) meant staying safe.
Once we dug into this dynamic, this client was able to connect their rigidity to schedules and have compassion for their younger self that learned to keep them safe through the schedule. Understanding this dynamic alone released some of its grip over them. Then, and only then, could they slowly learn to re-code their programming, to not associate the number of events on the calendar with safety, to find more mental flexibility, and to alleviate their own anxiety.
What if I love my parents and don’t want to blame them?
While many children experience abuse and neglect growing up, the majority of parents do the best they can with the information and knowledge they have. Often when parents act in ways that are harmful to their children, they are operating from parts of their own family of origin programming that were never healed before they became parents.
Exploring the ways your family of origin impacted you does not mean you do not love your parents. Both can be true, and both are true. In fact, I would argue that bringing family patterns into consciousness so that you can prevent passing ineffective communication and coping styles into the next generation is a huge act of love for the entire family system.
I personally have found that before understanding my own history, I did not fully understand myself and why I kept doing things and treating others in ways that were hurting me and them. When I was able to find this clarity through therapy, I was able to have compassion, understanding, and genuine love for myself. Finding this self-love has allowed me to love others in my family more genuinely and have regard for their own experiences, even knowing the ways we have hurt one another along the way.
Just like couples in marriage therapy can discuss the ways they have impacted and hurt one another without insinuating they place all of the blame or do not have love for one another, you can understand how your family impacted you and have compassion for the unhealed parts of your parents. Unlike the couples therapy example, though, parent-child relationships are not responsible, and children are not expected to hold accountability.
How do I know if family of origin therapy would help me?
If you see yourself in any of the examples above, experience anxiety or repeating issues in your relationships, family of origin therapy can be an incredibly promising place to start. If you see yourself in either the anxious or avoidant attachment style, that’s a pretty sure sign there are some family of origin wounds to work through (and if you aren’t sure, find out here).
The best part about this work is that it’s not a whac-a-mole- meaning, you aren’t going to go to therapy, work on one goal, make progress on it, and then leave and have the same issue pop up again in a different context.
Instead, you are getting to the root, understanding your programming (I.e. cleaning the wound) and then you are using that understanding to pivot and make new decisions aligned with your values and goals. A therapist can support you in both so that the changes stick.
I’m ready to dive in. What’s the next step?
Reaching out to a therapist on Psychology Today in the state you live in is a great start. When you call, you can ask the therapist:
- Are you trained in family systems?
- How do you view how problems originate?
- How do you approach treating [insert the issue you’d like to work on].
If you live in Florida, you can schedule a free family of origin therapy consultation here to get to know us more and see if we’d be a good fit.