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.
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.
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.
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.