How to Become a Family Counselor

Counseling and psychology students hope to make a difference in people's lives and relationships. Learn how to become a family counselor.

portrait of Emily Gillespie-Lord
by Emily Gillespie-Lord

Published September 15, 2022

Edited by Desiree Cunningham
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How to Become a Family Counselor
Image Credit: Kentaroo Tryman / Maskot / Getty Images


Family counselors work with families and couples to not only treat the mental health of individuals but treat their relationships as well. They guide their patients through various life challenges, including divorce, substance misuse, stress, and more, with a family-focused approach.

Continue reading to learn more about counseling, including the steps to become a family counselor and tips to consider before pursuing this career.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Family Counselor Do?

Family counselors help people manage relationships and family dynamics. To work as a family counselor, you must earn a master's degree in family and marriage counseling, psychology, or another related mental health field. You must also be licensed in your state.

While a bachelor's degree in counseling is common, you can become a family counselor with any undergraduate degree. While many are happy in this role, family counselors can earn a doctorate and become clinical and research psychologists.

Family Counselor Responsibilities

  • Encourage clients to both identify and express the emotions they feel in their relationships
  • Help their clients navigate their emotions and make decisions in their relationships and personal lives
  • Develop strategies with clients to better cope with difficult situations
  • Track progress and maintain client confidentiality
  • If running a private practice, maintain business

Family Counseling Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps To Become a Family Counselor?

Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Counseling

Earning a bachelor's in counseling can give you a strong counseling foundation. Students in a bachelor's of counseling program learn about mental health and child development, along with soft skills that can be used in the workplace. It typically takes four years to complete a bachelor's degree and costs an average of $9,375 in tuition each year.

While earning a bachelor's degree in counseling or psychology is a popular choice, many different degree programs are also acceptable for future graduate students. While you should choose a major with your future career in mind, focus on one that interests you and will help you earn acceptance to a master's in family counseling program.

Complete Your Master's In Family Counseling Degree

The next step to becoming a family counselor is to complete a master's in family counseling degree program. All states require you to complete a master's in counseling degree program to become licensed, though some allow you to work as a certified counselor with only a bachelor's degree.

Graduate school is expensive and not always necessary, but it will make a difference in your career. According to Payscale, those with a bachelor's in counseling earned an average of $51,000 per year as of July 2022, while those with a master's in marriage and family therapy earned $58,000. Salary is not the only factor; most states will not allow you to practice without a master's degree.

Obtain a State License

Each state has its own rules for how to get your family counselor license. Along with completing the required education, you must pass the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Some states accept only one of these exams while others allow you to take either one for your license. State certification and licensing requirements include completing continuing education hours and supervised clinical hours.

Get a Job as a Family Counselor

Family and marriage counselors do not only provide counseling for married couples. While relationships and families are their main focus, they also address different challenges that arise within these relationships.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average family counselor earned a median salary of $49,880 as of May 2021. The median salary for the top 10% of earners is more than $96,520. Many family counselors work evenings and weekends to accommodate their clients' schedules.

Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

Most states require you to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year for your license to remain current. All states require a master's degree for you to become licensed.

You can earn a doctorate in family counseling, leading to more employment opportunities and higher pay. For example, psychologists earned a median salary of $81,040 in 2021, according to the BLS. Earning a doctorate opens up opportunities for research and teaching.

What to Know Before Becoming a Family Counselor

Accreditation

If any part of your family counseling education is not completed at an accredited college, you may not be able to transfer your credits or sit for the NCE or NCMHCE exams. Many online programs are accredited and are just as legitimate as their in-person counterparts.

Cost

The cost of your bachelor's and master's degrees depends on your chosen school and programs. Be sure to research the true cost of a college program; do not make decisions based on the listed tuition costs alone. Some online programs may cost about the same as in-person courses of study but may have distance learning fees or other hidden costs associated with online learning. National exam fees range from $250-$375.

Salary

According to the BLS, the median salary for marriage and family counselors was $49,880 as of May 2021, with the top 10% earning $96,520 or more. Many family counselors work in private practices, running their own offices. In Utah, family counselors earned an average of $86,490 annually, making it the highest-paying state.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Family Counselor

What qualifications do you need to become a family counselor?

Most states require licensed family counselors to hold a master's degree. A few states offer alternative certifications, some of which require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. All states require a certain number of supervised counseling hours; some require a full year of supervised work.

To be an effective family counselor, you must be a good listener, empathetic, and caring. Many family counselors work in private practice, so being business-minded is also a useful trait for a counselor.

What is the fastest way to become a family counselor?

You must earn a master's degree to become a family counselor. Typically, it takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree, then an additional 2-3 years to complete a master's program. Some schools offer an accelerated format allowing undergraduate students to complete graduate courses and then graduate with a bachelor's and master's degree in about five years.

Some states allow you to work as a certified family counselor with only a bachelor's degree. You can work as a certified counselor while you earn your master's and then become licensed in your state.

How do I become a family counselor without a degree?

You cannot become a family counselor without a degree.

All states require you to earn a master's degree to become a licensed family counselor. A few states will allow you to become a certified family counselor after completing a bachelor's degree.

Can I become a family counselor with an online degree?

You can become a marriage and family counselor with an online degree; accredited online degrees are just as legitimate as on-campus or in-person programs. Some online programs are offered in an accelerated format, just as some on-campus programs are, and take about as much time to complete as any other counseling program. While online program costs are comparable to on-campus programs, check for distance-learning fees or tuition costs. Many family counselors earn their degrees online, though some clinical hours may require some level of in-person learning.

How much money can I make as a family counselor?

Many family counselors work in private practice and run their own offices. According to the BLS, the average marriage and family counselor earned a median salary of $49,880 as of May 2021. The lowest 10% of family counselors earned $37,050, while the top 10% earned $96,520 or more.

Some of the highest earners worked in government or public positions, though some may be private practitioners. Average pay varies across states as well. Utah is the highest-paying state, with family counselors earning an average of $86,490 per year.

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