The Family As a System
We tend to underestimate the influence that our family has on us and the impact we have on our family unit. The family is a system of complex dynamics – there are relationships between different individuals, influences from the past and present, as well as different backgrounds and life experiences. Family life flows through changes like birth and death, children leaving home and new members joining. Families also have to navigate challenges such as financial issues, chronic illnesses and unexpected events.
When someone in a family is struggling with addiction, we are inclined to give all of our attention to that addiction. However, just as the addicted person needs time and support, the family needs help to heal from the experience and learn how to navigate life while supporting someone rebuilding theirs. Recovery is a process for the addicted person, the family unit and every one of its members.
The Impact Addiction Has on the Family
As a person dedicates their time and efforts to their addiction, those closest to them can start to feel discarded and alone. Social events can become too difficult as they feel ashamed to go with the addicted person. The invitations may then stop coming in, leaving family members feeling isolated.
Many families dealing with an addiction also have to deal with financial stress. When the addicted person’s productivity or attitude at work becomes affected, they can be at the top of the list for redundancy, or find that their job becomes under threat due to absences or underperformance.
When addicted, people also tend to neglect responsibilities at home, and their partners have to take on more tasks such as paying bills, maintaining the home and attending school events. While the partner may try to persuade, manipulate, coerce and threaten the addicted person to change their behavior, many eventually give up, cover up, pick up the pieces and take on extra roles. This can leave family members feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and lead to mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety.
If a family attempts to separate the addict from their habit, this can be met with tension, hostility and deceit. The shame that an addicted person feels can trigger anger and arguments, causing them to blame their family for their addiction. They may accuse the family of “making a big deal out of nothing” or state that they haven’t been drinking or using drugs. Families can be left feeling hopeless, whilst the addiction remains at the forefront of everyone’s mind. This can cause frustration, which can negatively impact the mood of the family who are stuck in a cycle of blame, resentment and dishonesty.
The Effect of Addiction on Children within the Family
Children are often aware that something is wrong, even if their family attempts to ignore or hide an addiction.
When working with a particular client, arrangements were made for him to return home for the weekend during his final week of treatment. When he returned, he was shocked that his five year old daughter asked if he was better now and wouldn’t be so grumpy when he put her to bed. He discovered that she associated the smell of alcohol with him being grumpy with her when he read a bedtime story. Children naturally absorb the behaviors of their carers and this little girl thought her daddy was grumpy because of something she had done. She had stopped wanting daddy to put her to bed, which he blamed on his wife. They had no idea this was her experience, which can be common as children often don’t have the ability to verbalize their feelings or concerns.
Children are self-focused and when things are amiss in the family, they usually feel responsible. It’s common for them to feel guilty and believe that they are the cause of the problems even when they don’t know it’s addiction. Often, they feel angry and frustrated, and can’t understand what’s happening and why it won’t stop even when they are really good.
The impact of living in a household can be something that a child takes with them into adulthood, and has the potential to contribute to issues with trust, relationships, their mental health and possibly addiction.
External Support Is Beneficial for the Entire Family
Nowadays, so much more is understood about the complexity of addiction. In recent years, there has been a surge of interest to better understand the impact addiction has on families. While establishing effective treatment for families is still in the early days of research, systemic or family therapy – which is evidence-based – takes a relational approach and when integrated with other recognized psychotherapies, can contribute to the recovery for everyone the addiction has touched.
Whether or not the addicted person is in recovery, the family should take care of themselves, both as a unit and as individuals. The addicted person cannot be forced or coerced into recovery, no matter how much everyone may want it. Tough love is a bit of a myth. Making choices for oneself and for the family is the only reasonable solution. After all, no-one – partner, parent or child – should have to live with the deceit, abuse and unreliability that come with addiction.
The realization that the addicted person chooses to be how they are and nothing is going to change that can be the first step in exploring a different way forward. This might involve setting different boundaries or making decisions that seem counter-intuitive in the moment. Such changes are rarely taken lightly and shifting from judgement, blame and resentment to making a choice driven by wellbeing very often needs support from others who understand the fears, anger and uncertainty.
Family Support Programs
Family support programs provide educational and experiential support. They act as a safe place where families can discuss their fears so that they can work through troubles or rough patches at home. These multi-family groups bring together members from different families, providing people with the opportunity to talk with others who have gone through similar experiences, while giving them a chance to tell their story and vent their feelings.
Support Groups for Children
There are also family support groups designed for children. As children and teenagers may struggle to verbalize their feelings and concerns, it is important to give them a space to discuss what is happening. You may want to give them access to their own therapist so that they have a safe place to talk, as well as making space for sessions with the family. It is also recommended that a child’s school is informed to ensure they are given appropriate support and so that you know of any behavioral changes in the classroom.
Family Therapy Sessions
As everyone is likely to face changes during the early recovery process, therapy sessions can provide support when the newness feels uneasy or challenging.
Family therapy sessions give everyone the opportunity to explore their own feelings, experiences and issues, and understand one another’s perspectives. It allows everyone to open up and honestly discuss the challenges they have faced as a result of the addiction and address the dysfunction that exists within their family.
It then helps families to work on how they function individually and as a family system, focusing on improving communication, increasing trust and building relationships. Families also get to learn the resources they already have and how they can support each other when issues arise or a crisis hits. The therapy can be a good way of encouraging open and honest dialogue so that people are able to talk through any ups and downs, and work together to organize solutions for life going forward.
Recovery for the Whole Family
Of course, family therapy sessions and family support groups are incredibly valuable to the person with the addiction as well as their other family members. They can encourage long-lasting recovery and support a person as they regain important connections and responsibilities within the family.
By working together, every individual can initiate meaningful change to help the whole family. Through love, support and determination, they can move away from the dysfunction caused by the addiction and other natural crises, and create the safe, stable environment that’s crucial for everyone’s recovery.
Additional Support Networks
There are 12-step organizations such as Al-Anon, which was established around a similar time to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the 1930s, and there are other meetings available throughout the UK. There are also other family support groups such as Alateen, Fam-Anon, ACOA and many other similar groups associated with different addictions.
- Al-Anon – https://www.al-anonuk.org.uk
- Al-Ateen – https://al-anon.org/newcomers/teen-corner-alateen/
- Fam-Anon – http://famanon.org.uk
- ACOA – https://adultchildren.org
Pamela Roberts is the addictions program manager at Priory Hospital Woking. Her role involves managing the team and the continuous development of the program. Pamela meets with people who are considering treatment, and works with patients in therapy groups, individual sessions and family sessions. Pamela is an accredited member of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals and is a member of the British Psychology Society.