Drug addiction is a relapsing and chronic disease that more than 20 million Americans struggled with in 2016, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) publishes. Addiction not only affects people who are battling the disease, but also their families and friends.

Addiction is a disease with behavioral ramifications. It is complex with many different factors contributing to its onset and persistence.

Families can play an integral role in addiction recovery. When families work together to improve the family dynamic and home life, the lives of all involved can be enhanced. Family therapy can be a great method for addressing any potential dysfunctions in the family unit, improving communication skills, and minimizing relapse, helping to sustain a long and healthy recovery.

Family therapy is often a component of a comprehensive addiction treatment program, and it is generally an adjunctive form of therapy. The full commitment of each family member can enhance the therapy and help to facilitate positive change

Specifics of Family Therapy

In terms of drug addiction, many methods and treatment measures can aid in recovery. Many of these are directed at the individual battling the disease directly. Addiction does not generally just occur, however, and treatment often involves getting to the root of the drug abuseand determining what dysfunctional coping methods, thoughts, and behaviors are contributing to the disease. Levels of stress and potential triggers for drug abuse are explored.

Families can be complexly intertwined, and family members can both complicate and improve treatment measures. When families work together to improve the overall family dynamic, each individual benefits, and stress can be more effectively managed.

Family therapy can provide the tools for learning how to cope with specific situations, communicate more effectively, and improve dysfunctional actions and behaviors. With drug addiction, family members often enable the person battling addiction, make excuses for their behavior, and may feel afraid to rock the boat. Family therapy can help to change these patterns and create clear boundaries.

Families come in all sizes and shapes. Often, the first step in family therapy during drug addiction treatment is to define exactly what family means to the individual receiving care. Families are not necessarily blood relatives or even those who live in the same home. Family can be anyone who the person battling addiction feels is important to them.

Family therapy focuses on the strengths of the family and works to eliminate the impact of drug addiction on the family as a whole, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes. It explores the family system — what is working and also what isn’t — and how to improve it as a whole. Each member of a family is part of the whole, and change to any single part of a family impacts the entire system. Family therapy strives to enhance the overall workings of the family.

Family therapy is beneficial when used as an adjunctive therapy, which means it is used in tandem with other therapeutic methods. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of substance use disorders, the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice UK publishes. Studies show that nearly three-quarters of families who participated in family therapy were better off at follow-up visits than those who didn’t participate.

Man sitting on a couch next to his spouse and a therapist

Research conducted by a Brigham Young University professor shows that family therapy is also cost-effective and can help to reduce the number of health care visits needed down the line, thus decreasing overall healthcare costs.

Overall, family therapy can help to minimize relapse and enhance the family system, thus benefiting recovery.

Types of Family Therapy

Family therapy can take many forms. In general, four main types are used to treat drug addiction.

Cognitive behavioral family therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a longstanding form of therapy that is often used during the treatment of drug addiction. This method addresses negative thoughts and how exactly those thoughts affect behaviors such as drug use.

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling explains that one family member’s actions can interfere with the workings of the family as a whole; therefore, cognitive behavioral family therapy helps each member to recognize how their actions influence the whole.

New ways of thinking are explored, and coping strategies are taught during CBT. With cognitive behavioral family therapy, the manner in which these negative thoughts and behaviors affect other members of the family is closely looked at, and tools are learned to improve the behaviors to minimize drug use. During cognitive behavioral family therapy, the entire family is seen together, and homework plays an integral role.

Solution-focused family therapy

Instead of looking at the problems or issues that may exist within a family dynamic, solution-focused therapy looks closely at what can be done to improve the family unit. This therapy model works to eliminate drug use and dysfunction within the family by putting more weight on what can be done to minimize these actions and fix things going forward.

This type of therapy model is often short-term, and Psychology Today publishes that solution-focused therapy is goal-driven. This means the family will be asked questions to establish goals and then to work out methods and solutions for achieving these goals. In the case of addiction, the goals may commonly center around minimizing drug use.

Systemic family therapy

Systemic family therapy methods hold that each aspect of a person’s life affects the overall family unit. Each area of life needs to be looked at and managed to treat addiction.

A method of systemic family therapy, called brief strategic family therapy (BSFT), is often useful when treating adolescents who struggle with drug addiction, as it addresses each aspect of the child’s life, including the family. Families can work together to improve communication skills, and systemic family therapy promotes positive interactions as a method of deterring drug abuse and negative actions.

The Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice reports that systemic family therapy can be accomplished outside the bounds of traditional therapy settings and can be highly effective in treating a variety of issues, including drug abuse. Since systemic family therapy does not always rely on an office setting, the therapist will often go directly to the family.

Structural family therapy

This type of therapy addresses the family dynamic directly. This can be highly effective when roles between parents and children may be reversed or unclear. For example, if a parent is battling addiction, the child will often step up and take on adult roles. Structural family therapy can help to revert these roles to more healthy parameters and establish clear boundaries between each member of the family in their designated and accepted role.

The Family Journal explains that structural family therapy identifies the problems that lie in family hierarchies, rules, roles, and structure to improve the functioning of the overall unit.

Maximizing Family Therapy and Optimal Uses

Family therapy can have many benefits when used along with traditional methods for treating drug addiction. Communication within the family can be improved; stress in the home can be lowered; relapse can be minimized; and dysfunctional behaviors can be managed.

To get the most out of family therapy, all members who are involved must be on board. It is vital to engage during sessions and complete assigned homework exercises outside of the sessions.

Family therapy is often done on an outpatient basis; however, a family member who is battling addiction may remain on site at a residential treatment center while attending sessions. Honesty with each other and a commitment to improving the family structure and dynamics are important for recovery.

Family therapy is often an essential part of adolescent drug abuse treatment. It can help to provide the stability and oversight needed to enhance long-term recovery. Each member of the family can benefit from family therapy, and the overall family unit is enhanced as well.

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