A marriage and family therapist (MFT) is a highly trained behavorial science professional that specializes in working with families. MFTs typically have a background in clinical psychology or social work before undergoing extensive education in understanding how family systems work. After completing a marriage family therapy degree program and other related educational programs, MFTs must pass a licensure exam.
MFTs can typically work in many different settings with couples, individuals, or complete families. Because of this, working in the field of marriage and family therapy can be rewarding.
In this guide, we’ll discuss what’s required to become an MFT and what you can expect when you earn your license.
How Do You Become a Licensed MFT?
The work required to become a licensed professional counselor in the area of marriage family therapy can be broken into three phases1:
Your exact path in family counseling might look a little different depending on your background, experience, and where you live. In general, you must complete some form of each of these steps.
Step 1: Required Education
If you’re interested in a career as an MFT, you might be wondering what is an MFT therapist degree like? Typically, to enroll in an MFT program, you must have already completed a bachelor’s degree program. MFT programs are usually one of three levels:
- Post-graduate certification
Along with a bachelor’s degree, you may need to take the GRE or complete other entrance requirements to be admitted to the school of your choice.This is the same regardless whether you choose MFT vs MSW.
Once you get in, you’ll spend approximately two years or more attending classes. The exact length of time it takes to complete the coursework required for your MFT degree depends on whether you attend school full or part-time. Regardless of your enrollment status, your curriculum will likely involve coursework in the following2:
- Conducting research
- Ethical and legal considerations
- Diagnosis and treatment
- Diverse communities and families
- Clinical practice
- Basic and advanced theoretical concepts
One thing you must do before you enroll in an MFT program is to make sure it’s accredited. COAMFTE is the official accrediting board for MFT educational programs. Attending a school that’s accredited helps ensure you’re being taught the right way by a respected institution.
Step 2: Supervised Clinical Work
Once you’ve completed your classroom requirements, you can practice your skills with clients. Depending on where you live, you must complete somewhere between 1,500 to 4,000 hours of client-facing work before you can sit for the licensure exam. Some of this work must be supervised by a licensed MFT. Each state has a different requirement for both clinical hours and supervision.
Step 3: Licensure
Typically, the last step to becoming an MFT is to complete the licensing exam. The exam changes regularly, as does the score required for licensure. You’ll need to check the most up-to-date information before you take the exam.
Bonus Step 4: CEUs
Because the field of therapy is constantly evolving, so too must your skills. Once you’ve received your MFT license, it isn’t good forever. Instead, you have to renew it regularly. Most states require a renewal every 2 years. To renew your license, you’ll likely need to complete continuing education units (CEUs). Some examples of CEUs include:
- Attending an educational conference
- Taking an online or face-to-face course
- Completing activities sponsored by an allied mental health association
Each state board has different requirements, so you’ll need to check with your state for the most current information.
What Tasks Does an MFT Perform?
Marriage and family therapy is typically designed to be short—that is, it’s planned to last approximately 12 sessions. The sessions are focused on getting to the root of the conflict and finding a solution. Unlike in traditional therapy, MFTs aren’t concerned as much with the individual as they are with how the individual’s actions can impact the family’s dynamic.5
When MFTs work with a family, they may complete some or all of the following tasks:
- Gather information about client/s – Whether they meet with an entire family or only one person, MFTs can benefit from gathering information about the problem or problems causing distress. They also learn more about the family dynamic to analyze how to proceed with treatment.
- Diagnose mental disorders – When one person in a family unit is struggling with their mental health, it can negatively impact everyone else. Diagnosing a mental health problem is often the first step to determining the right course of treatment.
- Develop a treatment plan – MFTs might prescribe medications, schedule mediation, or provide advice for familial relationships. Specific treatment will depend on the problem and needs of the family involved.
- Conduct sessions with individuals or the whole unit – Depending on which treatment the MFT feels will be most effective, counseling sessions might be held with one person, a couple, or an entire family unit. The goal of face-to-face sessions is to set specific, attainable, and solution-focused goals.
- Help with communication barriers – Poor communication can be a problem in any type of relationship, including within families. MFTs are trained in methods to break down communication barriers to help families move toward solutions.
Paperwork is also an important component of an MFT’s practice. MFTs must keep careful and detailed notes about every session and any recommendations made for treatment. MFTs must also complete necessary insurance and billing paperwork.
What Conditions Can MFTs Address?
MFTs can help families work through a wide variety of issues. Some of the specific topics that might be covered in therapy sessions include:
- Behavioral changes during adolescence
- Childhood behavioral challenges
- Emotional and mental health disorders
- Marital problems
- Domestic violence
- Family issues and complications
- Gender and LGBTQ identity
- Medical challenges of family members
- Caring for older adults
- Overcoming grief
- Substance abuse and addiction
One key component of an MFT’s work is the safety of everyone involved. MFTs must act quickly and in the best interest of the safety of the entire family while working with delicate situations.
Where Do MFTs Work?
Marriage and family therapists might work in many different settings. Some of these include:
- In private practices
- Through a state or federal government program
- In schools or universities
- At mental health facilities
- In hospitals
- In veteran’s affairs facilities
- At clinics
Some MFTs may begin their career working in another facility before transitioning to private practice. This can allow them time to gain experience and clients before attempting to go out on their own.
Which Skills Are Important for MFTs?
If you’re considering a career as an MFT, several skills may help increase your success. Among these are:
- Ability to make sound decisions quickly – Family problems are often complex and, in some cases, can present danger to one or more family members. It can be helpful to make quick, effective decisions that put the safety of your clients first at all times. Your decision-making can be a life or death situation when working with domestic violence, depression, addiction, and other serious problems within a family unit.
- Effective critical thinking skills – MFTs may need to play detective at times. This means being able to ask the right questions to figure out what a family’s problem is and what they need to do to resolve it. Furthermore, since your work involves not just one person but a group, understanding the dynamics of that group is critical to designing workable solutions.
- Top-level communication abilities – You cannot help others develop better communication skills if your own are poor. Speaking clearly, writing effectively, and listening well are all beneficial skills for a good MFT.
- Excellent listening skills – A large part of an MFT’s job is to listen and learn what a family needs. If you can’t listen well, you may not be able to get to the root of the problem plaguing your client and help them work through a solution.
- Strong ethics and judgment – Part of your education as an MFT involves learning the ethical and legal practices required of the profession. The ability to use your judgment to make ethically sound and legal recommendations in your practice is therefore important.
- Organizational skills – Paperwork is a big part of a career as an MFT. It’s helpful to keep careful records of client notes, billing, and insurance claims to run a successful practice. Without strong organizational skills, you may not be able to effectively treat your clients.
- Ability to build trust – Lastly, it’s beneficial for MFTs to build trust with clients. If you aren’t honest, open, and trustworthy, your clients likely won’t be willing to open up. In contrast, if you’re able to get your clients to trust you, they’re more likely to be open to working through the problems they face.
The biggest takeaway is that a good MFT can be trusted to be ethical, make solid decisions, and act in the best interest of their clients’ safety.
Take the First Step to Becoming an MFT with Alliant
A marriage and family therapist works with families of all shapes and sizes. They typically devise treatments that are solutions-focused and centered on the role of individuals within a family system. MFTs are highly experienced and trained in Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Programs to work with a wide range of mental health disorders, family challenges, and behavioral problems.
If you think marriage and family therapy is the right career path for you, then Alliant might be a good place to start. Our COAMFTE-accredited graduate MFT programs are offered completely online to better accommodate your schedule and help you achieve your educational goals. Contact us today to learn more about becoming an MFT.
- About Marriage and Family Therapists.” American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 2022. https://www.aamft.org/About_AAMFT/About_Marriage_and_Family_Therapists…. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “Accreditation Standards.” Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. January 2018. https://www.coamfte.org/documents/COAMFTE/Accreditation%20Resources/201…. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “State Licensure Comparison,” Associate of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Board. 2018. https://amftrb.org/resources/state-licensure-comparison/. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “AMFTRB State Continuing Competency Chart.” Associate of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards. https://amftrb.org/resources/continuing-competency-chart/. Accessed February 14, 2022.
- “Therapy Topics.” American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. 2022. https://aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Consumer_Updates.aspx?hkey=f0491410-…. Accessed February 14, 2022.