What is Family of Origin Work?

Therapists probably have slightly different interpretations of what family of origin work and the process is. Here is my definition:

“Family of origin work is getting unstuck emotionally and/or in your relationships in the present, by healing the family or other wounds of the past.” 

I have repeatedly found (in life and with my clients) that a range of emotional and relational issues that can be connected to the one’s family of origin experiences with parents, primary care-givers and/or families in general. Anxiety, depression, anger, fear and recurrent relationship problems are often tied up in these unresolved issues.  What springs out our earlier experiences are core beliefs about who we are and whether we can safely rely on others. It is an area of great passion for me to help people to get clarity around what happened, their resulting paradigms and making changes where useful.

People who might benefit from this type of work are those who experienced a number of different situations in the past that are keeping them from living fulfilling, connected and peaceful lives in the present. These “situations” usually occurred early in life – though can continue in various patterns straight through to adulthood.

Examples of problematic situations occurring earlier in life include:

  • Childhood Trauma (physical, sexual or emotional abuse)
  • Critical or harsh parenting styles in childhood
  • Rejecting or dismissing parenting styles in childhood
  • Living in a chaotic, fear-based environment in childhood
  • Witnessing a volatile, high-conflict relationship between your parents

Again, therapists will all have their own unique approaches – but my family of origin work in therapy involves an exploration of the past, understanding of how the past might have impacted you on an emotional level, identifying any unhelpful core beliefs you may have developed about yourself, others and the world – and changing these unhelpful core beliefs. These “unhelpful core beliefs” often underlie many depression, anxiety, fear, anger and relationship problems. I also help people consider how changing their thinking impacts feelings and ultimately actions.  A look at the quality of attachment with parents or primary caregivers is part of the work.

People who feel “stuck” often report they’ve felt this way a long time.  But others aren’t as aware.  We are equipped with primal defenses to help protect us from painful memories.  Ultimately, there is probably a sense that something isn’t working and unhealthy patterns individually and in relationship to others are occurring.

Not all therapists view people through a past-oriented lens.  If you’re considering doing this kind of work, I encourage you to ask potential therapists about their views of change to find the right fit.

If you are considering the possibility that you might benefit from family of origin work, I have a tool called,  Family of Origin Work:  Untangle Your Healthy Roots.  It’s a mini-guide empowering people to start unpacking and healing through their earlier wounds.  It will enough for some but not for all as some of these issues involve trauma and more complicated layers needing the care and guidance of a therapist in the room.  But it could be a starting point.

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of with tools for emotional and relationship health and is the author of Therapy-At-Home Workbooks® for individuals and couples. She is a frequent consultant for the media having appeared in,, and others. Lisa has a private practice in Marin County, CA and offers online therapy to residents of California.

Add comment