Functional Family Therapy

Functional Family Therapy is a family-based treatment programme, run by Lewisham YOS, that addresses young people’s offending.

Lewisham Youth Offending Service is pioneering a different approach to offending and family related underlying problems. They spoke to us about the Functional Family Therapy (FFT) programme that helps many families with young people who have offended by taking a therapeutic approach towards reducing the risk of re-offending and improving family relationships.

The Origins of Functional Family Therapy (FFT)

Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is a family-based treatment programme that addresses young people’s offending through their problems at home or school. FFT originated in the United States as a therapeutic intervention based on the evidence provided by multiple studies that a large number of young people offend or re-offend as a response to strenuous family issue.

As a result, the fractious relationship between the family and the young person is usually an underlying problem. The research consensus is that such issues are only successfully addressed by interventions that are short-term, family-focused and does not label the young person or family.

FFT is thus designed to understand the relationship between family members, particularly as it relates to the child. The programme then proceeds to fertilise positive elements of the relationship and change negative ones.

The programme aims to turn the family relationship from one that may fuel offending to one that protects the young person and builds a haven for him in which he can grow out of his anti-social behaviour. FFT is particularly aimed at families who may not readily have access to or are cynical of statutory services.

FFT Process

FFT is delivered by specialist staff who have extensive experience of working with young people and families in the criminal justice system. They are usually seconded from the YOS.

As it is a referral programme, referral comes from such sources as but not limited to Pupil Referral Units, mainstream schools, Youth Offending Services (YOS) and social care.

Once the young person has been referred, a team member from the FFT team is allocated and initially assesses the young person’s issues and family relationships. Using the results of the assessment, the team member formulates a therapy plan for the young person.

For a young person and his family to be eligible for the FFT:

  • The young person must be between 11-17 years old.
  • He/she must be at risk of or currently engaged in offending behaviour
  • He/she person must be living with their parents/carers

The therapy plan formulated usually takes the form of weekly sessions that take place in the home of the young person. The plan is for the duration of between three to six months depending on progress made.

The plan systemically proceeds the family and young person through its history, problems and possible solutions. The therapy progresses through 3 different stages:

  1. Engagement and Motivation: This initial phase focuses on engaging and motivating all family members to work towards positive change. In this phase, the aim is to initially reduce negativity and blame and to help everyone see that they share responsibility for their problems and are wholly responsible for each other’s well-being
  2. Behaviour Change:  this phase focuses on behaviour change and involves family members setting small goals for change and learning skills that they need to achieve their goals such as problem-solving, positive communication and conflict resolution.
  3. Generalisation: In this phase, family members apply the skills that they have learnt in other context such as helping each other, accessing support for other agencies and communicating better.

After working through the therapy plan over 3 to 6 months, the progress of the family and the young person specifically is then recorded and a progress check is offered after a few months.

How has the FFT performed so far?

Evaluation of FFT has shown so far that it has been effective in reducing:

  • Youth offending, particularly violence behaviour
  • Anti-social behaviour by the young people in schools and in social settings.
  • Risky behaviour by the young person’s siblings.

The programme has also shown significant positive impact on:

  • Family conflict, family communication and parenting
  • The young person’s emotional, psychological and social state.

Other studies in other parts of Europe has also shown FFT to reduce re-offending rates by more than 20% 18 months’ post-treatment with long-term maintenance of change over 5 years.

FFT was also found by Waldron and Turner in 2007 to be the best evidence-based approaches to reduce adolescence drug use/abuse.

For more information about Functional Family Therapy, go to


This case-study was compiled by Michael Farinu in 2019