Family Systems Can Help Recovery

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Do Families Help or Hurt Recovery?

For many people who struggle with substance abuse issues, interactions with their families have set past patterns and can be reasons for substance abuse. The way family members interact with the person struggling with addiction can help or hurt a person’s recovery.

Families can help resolve a substance abuse problem. Family therapy is a way for family members to come together to support the recovery journey for someone struggling with addiction. Family therapy is not recommended if other family members:

  • Have an active addiction
  • Are violent or angry
  • If they deny that the person’s substance abuse is a problem

Family support can play a significant role in substance abuse development.1 Higher levels of support from parents can lower rates of drinking and substance abuse. Also, parental support can help reduce the chances that negative life events will lead to substance abuse.

What is a Family Support System?

A family support system consists of family members from the immediate and extended families. Ideally, the family provides positive emotional and practical support to its members.

What are Alcoholic Family System Roles?

Research shows that:2 

  • Children of parents with alcohol problems are 4 to 6 times more likely to develop alcohol problems.
  • Anxiety and depression are more common among people who have parents with alcohol issues. 
  • Children and parents tend to have similar drinking practices. This suggests what children see in their parents’ drinking plays a role in later alcohol use. 

There are six common family system roles in addiction:

The Person with the Addiction

The family member whose main way of coping with problems and negative emotions is by using drugs and/or alcohol.

The Enabler or Caretaker

The caretaker tries to lessen harm or danger by doing things for the addict or making excuses for his or her behaviors. The caretaker tries to keep the family together through denial and avoiding the problem.

The Hero

The hero is the child who is a stressed-out overachiever and puts a high amount of pressure on himself or herself.

The Scapegoat

The family scapegoat takes the blame for all of the family problems and is typically the “black sheep” of the family.

The Mascot or Clown

The mascot tries to lessen family stress through jokes or clowning around. This family member is seen as immature.

The Lost Child

The lost child is largely invisible to the rest of the family and copes by staying under the radar.

What Does a Good Family System Look Like?

When the family system is healthy, family members:

  • Express appreciation to one another
  • Communicate in healthy and open ways
  • Spend quality time together
  • Develop productive ways of handling problems
  • Hold each member of the family system accountable for their behaviors 

These traits help strengthen family relationships.

What is Family Systems Theory?

Family Systems Theory (FST) is based mostly on the work of Dr. Murray Bowen.3 Bowen said that families are a system and not just a group of individuals that function independently of each other. Therefore, a change in one member influences all other interconnected parts of the family. This means when one family member changes behaviors, it can produce higher levels of anxiety or tension. Other family members react positively or negatively to these changes.

How Family Therapy Can Help

Family therapy is a mix of therapeutic approaches. Since the family is an interconnected system, any change in part of the system will trigger changes in all other parts. Family therapy is based on this outlook. It uses the strengths of families to bring about changes in substance abuse and other problems.

Family therapy in addiction treatment uses the family’s strong points and resources to discover or create ways to live without substances and to reduce the effects of addiction on the person struggling with it and the family.

Talk with your doctor or contact a reputable treatment center. Finding help can get your family on track to recovery, healing, and a healthier family system.



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