101Careers in CounselingIn this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BOLS, 2010–2011), there are some 25,000 marriage and family therapists or counselors in the United States. Now, this figure is somewhat deceptive as the International Association for Marriage and Family Counselors and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists credential “marriage and family counselors” and “marriage and family therapists,” respectively. The terms “therapist” and “counselor” are used interchangeably and can be confusing to anyone outside the counseling profession. In this section, I will be consistent and continue to use the term “counselor” to refer to professionals providing family and couples therapy, while realizing at the same time that marriage and family therapy is a field vibrant and distinct from family counseling.

Things to Know

  • Family counseling is distinctly different from individual or group counseling in that you have a group of people related to one another in a therapeutic setting. Instead of considering the needs of a single client, family counselors must address the needs of the family system and how systems outside the family impact the quality of family functioning (Bowen, 1960). There is no question that family counseling with children and parents in the same treatment room complicates the role of the counselor. Family counselors must consider whose issues to address and in what order they are to be addressed, and gauge whether family counseling is a “safe” place should domestic violence arise as an issue.
  •  What defines a family? Today, more than half the couples who marry will end up divorcing (Maples & Abney, 2006). This means a family may be a mother and dependent children, two unmarried partners and children, two gay or lesbian partners and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or foster parents and children. The traditional nuclear family you might see in counseling is likely to be the minority in the counseling setting and beyond.
  • A key issue that will often emerge in family counseling is who has custody of the children. What if the noncustodial parent wants information on the session with his ex-wife and children? What if you are caught between a nasty custody battle involving the former spouses? Will you be able to accept two gay or lesbian parents and their children in a counseling session? What if you discover that a child is being abused and the legal requirement to report the abuse clashes with your desire to keep the family intact? Family counselors walk these and other “tightropes” on a regular basis.
  •  Another issue that makes counseling more complicated for family counselors lies in the fact that there are several people in the session of different genders, ages, and developmental needs. Counseling will be more complicated for all these reasons, and counselors must be able to balance numerous demands and keep track of the multiple individual and family issues. Because of the number of people and the additional issues involved, family sessions are usually 90 minutes instead of the traditional 1-hour sessions in individual counseling. Family counselors also will use many intervention techniques to educate the family, such as genograms, which are therapeutic family trees, role plays, having the family do homework each week (such as caring days where they do something helpful for another family member), simple dialogue from siblings and the partners, and much more.

 Best Aspects of the Job

A family counselor once said, at a conference, “The best aspect of being a family counselor lies in helping family members to have closer and more rewarding relationship with each other.” Another aspect is helping parents address the needs of behaviorally challenging children, facilitating dialogue between feuding siblings, and sometimes assisting divorcing partners in how to break up without tearing themselves and their children apart. Another rewarding part of family counseling is that the counselor has the opportunity to treat the entire family, or at least a significant part, instead of just one member. Because families serve as the foundation for growth and development, or perhaps the opposite of that, treating the family instead of a single individual carries distinct advantages over individual counseling (Whitaker, 1977).

Challenging Aspects of the Job

First, family counseling is more complex than individual counseling and likely more difficult. Family counselors will also have many families that break up before or after the family counseling has been completed. In family counseling, as in couples counseling, the motivation of the individuals in the session may vary considerably. Finally, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse will sometimes be disclosed, forcing the counselor to remove the offending party, often at the protest of the remaining family members.

Occupational Outlook and Salary

BOLS (2010–2011) projects the profession of family counseling to grow by a rate of 12% over the next 7 to 10 years. Median earnings for marriage and family counselors are roughly $45,000, though there may be considerable variation depending on the work setting.