Here’s one proven way to help struggling youth and their families

It’s been a few weeks since the BDN published the story of Garrett Brown, which highlighted his struggle with addiction and the systems he encountered in his short life. I find myself thinking of him from time to time — flipping back through the article and wondering how the ending could have been different. If some things had changed, could Garrett’s mom, Traci, still have the son she loved so dearly? What should go differently for so many others who struggle today just like Garrett did?

One of the key things I picked up from the article was a new term for me: Functional Family Therapy [FFT]. It’s possible this type of assistance could have given Garrett and his family some of the support they needed, especially since he had a loving relationship with some family members — pivotal for success with this type of therapy.

So I started asking questions and doing some research. After a few calls, I ended up on the phone with Melissa Cooper, a licensed clinical professional counselor and clinical supervisor of the Functional Family Therapy program at Catholic Charities.

What follows is an interview with Melissa that provides great information about Functional Family Therapy. A huge thank you to Melissa for her time and attention to my questions.

One of Melissa’s favorite quotes that she keeps in mind every day and so should we:

“Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

1. What is functional family therapy, and how can it help?

We believe that when families are struggling there is greater risk for trouble — but also greater opportunity for positive change. We place importance on improving relationships between all family members and strengthening the family as a whole. Sometimes families are dealing with multiple problems at the same time such as mental health issues, substance abuse, etc. Therapists are trained to help with these situations and will work with families to address these issues and meet individual needs. FFT is a short-term, evidence-based program. This means FFT uses techniques that have been proven to work. It is a 3-phase therapeutic intervention with specific goals for each phase. The program typically consists of 12 to 16 weekly sessions, with additional sessions available for more complex situations. Sessions can be conducted in a home or in an office setting — whichever is more comfortable for your family. There are many benefits of completing FFT with your family. We can help you:
• create better relationships with your family
• learn better ways to manage anger and resolve problems without fighting
• improve communication between family members
• build trust and respect within your family prevent or reduce involvement with the juvenile justice system

2. Who is a perfect candidate for this type of therapy?

FFT is offered to families with youth ages 11-18 who are struggling with social, emotional or behavioral issues. Our services are provided in Androscoggin, Sagadahoc, Kennebec, Lincoln, Somerset (up to Solon), Penobscot (to Lagrange), and Hancock counties. The circumstances that are most appropriate for FFT include:
• Youth who display conduct problems including violence or aggression (initiates physical fights, bullies or threatens others, destroys property), truancy and other school related behavior problems, delinquency behavior, running away, as well as substance abuse, depression and self-destructive behaviors.
• Youth with families who have experienced multiple stressors, family disruption, loss and grief, and/or show patterns of negativity and ongoing conflict between members. The parents may have difficulty providing adequate supervision, appropriate limits, and consistency with regard to enforcing house rules.
• Youth discharging from out of home placement (LongCreek, Residential Treatment, etc.)
• Youth on Department Of Corrections aftercare status who are having problems at home, school etc.
• Youth with families that DHHS has recommended for family therapy.

3. Are there people who are not appropriate for the program?

It’s important to note that FFT is not a formal substance abuse treatment program but it can be a very effective supplement to a traditional outpatient substance abuse therapy. It is well known that addiction in one family member affects the entire family system. Therefore addressing those issues and concerns in a family therapy setting can be an important factor in supporting recovery. That being said, youth with immediate needs for detoxification or inpatient hospitalization (psychotic, homicidal or actively suicidal) would not be appropriate for FFT until after such treatment is completed.
Additionally, FFT is currently only available to youth with MaineCare or who are involved with the Department of Corrections. We hope to be able to accept private insurance in the near future.

4. Will it be helpful even if some family members disagree to attend?

It will be most helpful if all family members agree to attend. Having some resistance to treatment initially is pretty common and the therapist will work hard to build trust with all family members and help everyone to feel comfortable participating in sessions. The identified client and at least one parent/guardian are required to attend in order for treatment to continue but the therapist will welcome anyone who the family feels is important to the success of the family unit (i.e. grandparents, extended family, close friends, coaches, neighbors etc.)

5. Many families have power struggles. Does functional family therapy help all to be equal?

Yes, one of the first goals of FFT is to reduce blaming and negativity and to help the family create a family-focused theme in which everyone has responsibility but no one is to blame. It sounds complicated but it can be really powerful. Within each session it is important for each family member to have a voice and be heard. Power struggles can be the result of many things, from poor communication to changes in the family structure and/or parenting style. The therapist will carefully assess and work with each family’s unique situation to develop a plan for treatment and help family members improve their relationships.

6. Many families cannot or will not communicate. Does functional family therapy work to break down these walls?

Absolutely! Improved communication is the backbone of what we do and one of the most common treatment plan goals. The therapist will work with family members to help them understand each others perspectives and will teach them skills to help them communicate (and listen!) more effectively.

7. How can a family prepare for this type of therapy?

Families can prepare for therapy by agreeing on a time and location for therapy that is comfortable for everyone involved. It is also helpful if family members are able to think about their goals for treatment in advance, as well as their own areas for improvement. The therapist will guide the family through the process and help them to gain new perspectives and learn new skills but it is ultimately the family who is in charge of the direction of treatment. No two families are the same so treatment will always be tailored to the unique strengths and challenges of each family.

8. This sounds interesting, how do I get more information?

More information about the FFT model is available on the Functional Family Therapy website at For more information about the Catholic Charities Maine Functional Family Therapy Program or to access our referral form you can go to If you have questions about a possible referral you can call 453-4367 and someone will be happy to assist you!