How Therapy Can Help Families Navigate Chronic Illness

by Jan 18, 2022Family Counseling

Our previous blog post looked at the impact of chronic illness on a family system, along with important features to be addressed by a medical family therapist. A family therapist, or an EMDR therapist may also explore how family dynamics change when a chronic illness disrupts daily routines, family member identities, family relationships, and future goals.

Understanding the Biology

A therapist who is helping a family through the changes that accompany a chronic illness diagnosis will seek to understand its biological aspects. The therapist will consult with those medical providers who are involved in treatment and care through conference talks that include both family and patient. A humble focus on the patient’s experience gives the medical therapist, family therapist, and EMDR therapist the correct stance and curiosity necessary to help those in distress.

History, Meaning and Healing

Medical family therapists, family therapists, and EMDR therapists will begin to elicit from family members their individual and personal narratives. This gives every family member the chance to express who she or he is apart from the illness; this also gives family members a forum in which they can speak about hopes and fears.
Hopes and fears contribute to making meaning about the illness. When family members can speak freely about their inner worlds, they find a safe place in which to explore their own belief systems. In addition, through encouraged expression of hidden hopes and fears, more history can come to light. When elicited without judgment, this type of expression can prove to be healing in its own right. Meaning equates with healing.

To Respect is to Accept

A good therapist will always take note of feelings of blame, shame or guilt, and will use pertinent psychoeducation to help families understand the dynamics between illness and these emotions. Education, along with the processing of difficult feelings, give families and patients relief, and present a path towards a fuller acceptance of self and the conditions in which the family finds itself. In addition, providing information on strategies for coping should help families find appropriate supports within the family system, online, and in various support groups, some of which already exist within primary care settings.


The medical family therapist, family therapist, and EMDR therapist are all concerned with facilitating the acknowledgment of feelings in whatever time frame feels most comfortable for each family member. Opening up communications between patient and family members gives everyone a chance to unburden himself or herself, while continuing to accept unacceptable and difficult feelings. Also, when families and patients understand how the medical community conceptualizes specific treatments, expectations on both ends can be tempered and managed.

Developmental Stages Matter

A chronic illness can affect a family at any stage in its development, whether, for example, at inception when a couple first gets together, or during the phase when children leave the home, The therapist will help families understand these natural stages as they impact both individual and family life. The therapist can provide examples of how others fare and cope, and can provide information about where each family member may be finding himself or herself in the moment.

A Different Way of Seeing Things

Asking families to imagine the illness as something external is a technique which can help families remember how they used to function before the illness manifested. This kind of therapeutic intervention helps families envision how they could manage their lives after they have put the illness in a rightful place. This externalization can be done through story-tellling, art-making, role-plays, visualization, and various EMDR techniques.

When Families Feel in Charge

Family sense of agency means that families feel in charge of their lives. The therapist can help families increase a positive take-charge feeling by:

  • helping families understand and work with their medical providers to collaborate on treatment;
  • helping families incorporate enjoyable activities into daily living;
  • providing positive reinforcement for effective family responses to illness;
  • and rehearsing with families how they would like to respond to friends and neighbors, or anyone else who may be curious about the illness.

Connection after Isolation

Families may have spent time isolating themselves due to the exigencies of a chronic illness. They may have been struggling with identity issues, treatment logistics, breakdown in communication, disruption to schedules, misunderstandings, and confusion. Helping families recognize and process these challenges is the first step.
After some time, the therapist can help family members learn how to invite others into their lives; this can lead to a sense of connection. When we forge bonds with others, we exchange with them deeper thoughts and feelings. This gives our lives meaning.

Summing It Up

These posts have examined how therapists can help family members and patients deal with chronic illness. We’ve looked at some ingredients that make for beneficial therapeutic encounters. Discovering meaning through the process of becoming intimately acquainted with one’s own and others’ strengths and vulnerabilities can lead to satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, a measure of control, and a way to accept life’s varied circumstances.

Skip to content