Addiction does not only affect the individual directly involved with drugs or alcohol. Often, the entire family, as well as friends and co-workers, are impacted by a person’s substance abuse. The impact of addiction does not immediately vanish once a person decides to seek treatment. Consequently, when an individual is in recovery, including family therapy as part of the treatment program can be beneficial and healing for the entire family unit.

What is Family Therapy?

Family therapy is founded on the notion that a family is a system of moving parts, all of which have the power to affect one another. Think about it like a car. If one part of the engine is not working properly, the vehicle may not operate fully or even run at all. In terms of addiction, if one family member is struggling with drug or alcohol use, every member of the family is impacted.

When an individual is in the throes of addiction, it’s common for negative feelings, behaviors, and coping mechanisms to infiltrate the family unit. Family members, as well as the person suffering from addiction, may feel anger, sadness, guilt, or resentment. People can act out, shut down, or be in denial about the situation. This can lead to unhealthy patterns and relationships within the family which damages the family dynamic. Recovery is typically an adjustment for everyone. Even when the person struggling with substance abuse or addiction enters treatment, that does not mean that the pain, hurt, or behavior patterns of the people around them simply stop. In fact, family members often need help to work through feelings around a loved one’s addiction. They may also need to become aware of their own negative behaviors they’re bringing into the family unit and, most importantly, learn how they can support their loved one in their newfound sobriety. This is where family therapy comes.

Family therapy encompasses a diverse set of therapeutic approaches where specially-trained therapists or counselors aim to assess and treat the family unit as a whole. It allows each family member to heal from the effects of addiction while creating positive changes in regards to behavior and communication. This, in turn, allows the entire family to recover alongside the individual who is seeking addiction treatment and helps create a support system that is crucial once the affected individual returns home.

The Benefits of Family Therapy

If you or a loved is struggling with substance abuse or actively in recovery, you may be wondering—how would family therapy help the situation? There are several benefits to incorporating family therapy into the recovery process.

1. Anyone can attend.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines family as “a group of two or more people with close and enduring emotional ties.” This means that attendees of family therapy do not need to be “blood-related” to the individual in recovery. In fact, anyone who is important to and close with the individual is able to attend. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Spouses
  • Partners
  • Parents
  • Children
  • Grandparents
  • Grandchildren
  • Extended family
  • Stepparents
  • Stepchildren
  • Foster parents
  • Friends
  • Co-workers
  • Teachers
  • Sponsors

The individual in recovery should be given the option to include whomever they consider family to be part of their family therapy sessions. If the person will be returning to a home with specific family members, it’s paramount that these family members be involved in the therapy process.

2. Family members learn ways to support their loved one in recovery.

For an individual currently in treatment, having familial support can be vitally important to the recovery process. However, this support may be even more crucial once a person leaves the treatment facility and returns home. Adjusting to a newly sober lifestyle can be tough and individuals tend to be most vulnerable in the early stages of recovery outside of a rehabilitation center. Consequently, the counselor or therapist will spend time during family therapy sessions teaching family members how they can positively support their loved one in recovery while also learning healthy ways to cope with any challenges or frustrations that may arise during this adjustment period.

3. Strengthen the family unit as a whole.

The goals of family therapy are not only to teach family members how to support their loved one. Family therapy can also strengthen the family unit as a whole by helping families:

  • Improve communication
  • Make specific goals to improve family functioning
  • Solve underlying problems
  • Rebuild trust amongst family members
  • Design a healthier home environment
  • Address and increase the emotional health of each individual

By addressing these key components, family therapy can help reduce overall stress, deter other family members from abusing drugs or alcohol, improve children’s behavior and the way couples relate to one another, and restore a strong family connection.

4. Gives family members a chance to heal, too.

As mentioned previously, it’s understandable that family members of individuals struggling with substance abuse may feel a variety of emotions such as:

  • Hurt
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Confusion
  • Resentment

It’s imperative that family members are able to work through these feelings in a safe space with a counselor or mental health professional who understands addiction. By giving family members a chance to heal, this increases the health of the entire family unit and helps ensure the individual leaving treatment can return to a safe, supportive environment.

5. Promotes discussion in a safe, neutral space.

When families are working through something as serious as addiction, it can be easy for emotions to run high and for people to play the blame game. However, progress is less likely to be made if anyone feels “ganged-up” on or like they’re not being heard. By participating in family therapy, family members are able to meet in a neutral location—usually the counselor’s office—and speak honestly with an objective individual guiding the session. By having a counselor mediate and facilitate discussion, everyone can express themselves and have the end result be proactive and constructive to the family’s recovery.

6. Increases chance of success in recovery.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Center for Substance Abuse Treatment suggest that individuals suffering from addiction who participate in family therapy are:

  • More inclined to enter treatment
  • More likely to engage and stay in treatment
  • Less likely to relapse

Having healthy communication within families along strong familial support are key reasons why individuals who participate in family therapy are more likely to obtain and maintain sobriety long-term.

Types of Family Therapy

Every family is different, and therefore every family’s response to addiction will be different. Consequently, there are several approaches to family therapy. Some sessions may include the family as a whole, others may involve one individual speaking to the therapist. Talking with an addiction counselor, therapist, or physician may help you determine which types of family therapy may be the best fit for you and your family. Sometimes, counselors will use a mix of approaches during treatment.

Brief Strategic Family Therapy (BSFT)

Brief Strategic Family Therapy or BSFT explores how an individual’s addiction or substance abuse may be rooted in an unhealthy family dynamic and destructive familial interactions. With BSFT, the counselor forms relationships with each family member involved, witnesses how they interact with one another, and then works to modify and change negative or destructive interactions. Since BSFT typically only lasts for 12-16 sessions, therapists typically assign homework to family members between meetings.

Family Behavior Therapy (FBT)

In Family Behavior Therapy or FBT, the counselor will address substance abuse along with other behavioral problems. The individual and at least one other family member help create a treatment plan along with a therapist and then use new skills taught in sessions in the home environment. Behavioral goals are assessed at each session and goals that are achieved are rewarded with privileges or low-cost incentives. This reward system is known as Contingency Management (CM) and works well with adolescents.

Functional Family Therapy (FFT)

Functional Family Therapy, like Brief Strategic Family Therapy, identifies unhealthy family interactions that may be contributing to substance abuse. This is combined with evidence-based treatment techniques such as Contingency Management and behavioral contracts to foster healthy communication, conflict resolution, and problem-solving amongst families.

Bowenian Family Therapy (BFT)

Bowenian Family Therapy or BFT can be a viable option for people who cannot or prefer not to include family members in their addiction treatment. In this type of therapy, individuals learn techniques to become less emotionally reactive in familial interactions or relationships—which can be a trigger for substance abuse—and begin to see family members as people versus a role (e.g. daughter, husband, parent).

Resources for Families

At Nexus Recovery Services, our clients have access to a variety of treatment modules, one of which is family therapy. We understand the importance of familial support and communication in the treatment process and aim to help families recover from addiction as a whole. If you or a loved one is in need of treatment for substance abuse or addiction, reach out today. Our trusted recovery advisors can help guide you on the next steps toward long-lasting sobriety.

There are also several support groups available to friends and family members of individuals struggling with addiction:

Please keep in mind that these are not run by licensed family therapists but can be helpful to those in need of support.

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