How to Become a Family Counselor

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For those with strong interpersonal skills and a passion for the medical sciences, becoming a family counselor might be an excellent career choice. Licensed family counselors positively impact the lives of individuals and their families. According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), nearly 90 percent of family counseling clients report improved emotional health after treatment and almost two-thirds report improved physical health. The AAMFT also notes that family counseling can improve clients’ romantic relationships and work performance and can have a positive impact on how children behave and interact with peers in school.

Marriage and family counselors work with families in private practices, hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers or nursing home settings, often in tandem with other mental health professionals such as psychotherapists. Family counselors help families process emotions related to difficult life events, big life decisions and interpersonal issues and help family members find treatment and/or additional resources to develop their coping strategies.

Job Responsibilities

Family counselors apply a wide range of counseling techniques with a focus on cognitive therapy to treat issues impacting families today such as mental illness, addiction issues, marital conflicts, age-related illnesses such as dementia and more. Family counselors generally practice short-term therapy, spending an average of 12 sessions with each family. In fact, the AAMFT reports that in 65.6 percent of cases, family therapy is completed within 20 sessions, and 87.9 percent of the time it is completed within 50 sessions. Unlike other areas of counseling that focus on treating individuals, marriage and family counselors work to address relationship issues that impact how clients function within their family units.

Degree Requirements

The road to becoming a family counselor starts with obtaining a Master of Arts in Counseling and Human Services. In addition to obtaining the degree from a program that is fully accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), students will also need to complete a 2,000- to 4,000-hour internship or residency and pass a certification exam in the state he or she wishes to practice in. Once a professional becomes an actively practicing family counselor, he or she will need to take yearly continuing education courses to maintain licensure. Graduates of Wake Forest University’s counseling and human services online master’s degree program have a 98 percent pass rate on the National Counselor Exam and have the opportunity to secure internships through a network of industry partners in their chosen specialties.

Potential Specializations

There are many specializations to choose from with a Master of Arts in Counseling. For professionals seeking to become family counselors, choosing the right career specialization to match their personal interests is crucial. Family counseling specializations include, but are not limited to:

  • Addictive behaviors — substance abuse, overeating, gambling, etc.
  • Family dynamics
  • Grief or bereavement counseling
  • Parenting
  • Romantic relationships — separation, divorce, infidelity
  • Mental health issues — depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.
  • Interpersonal relationships in community or school settings
  • Self-esteem and life coaching
  • Caregiver relationships — aging parents, disability, etc.

Wake Forest University offers three online degree tracks in counseling and human services to qualify students to become family counselors in the verticals each professional finds the most interesting. These Master of Arts in Counseling degree track include Clinical Mental Health, for students interested in working with clients with mental health issues; School Counseling, for students interested in working with children and their families in a school setting; and a Master of Arts in Human Services, for those interested in pursuing an administrative position in counseling.

Job Outlook and Salary

The job outlook is bright for those with a Master of Arts in Counseling. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment for family counselors is expected to grow by 23 percent between 2016 and 2026. The BLS also notes that this rate of growth is much faster than for other professions. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average annual salary for family counselors was $49,170 in 2016. However, U.S. News & World Report also notes that salaries vary significantly depending on whether practitioners work in private practices or in hospitals, mental health centers or nursing homes and on their level of experience and their reputations. Salaries can range from $31,600 to $81,960.

Learn More

Students who are interested in joining a growing field of mental health professionals and making an impact in clients’ lives should consider pursuing a Master of Arts in Counseling at Wake Forest University. The 60-hour mental health counseling online program offers clinical instruction through both practicum and internship experiences, as well as advanced therapeutic techniques.

If you would like to develop a deeper understanding of human nature, and seek to become a catalyst for positive health and societal change, learn how Wake Forest University can prepare you to achieve your professional goals.


Recommended Readings
Picking the Right Degree for You: Master of Social Work (MSW) vs. Master’s in Counseling
The Importance of Counseling
Counseling, Social Work and Psychology: What’s the Difference?

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
Bureau of Labor Statistics
U.S. News & World Report
Wake Forest University, About Wake Forest
Wake Forest University, Contact Us
Wake Forest University, Online Master of Counseling Curriculum
Wake Forest University, Online Master’s in Counseling and Human Services