Family Therapy and Substance Abuse

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Smiling patient standing and telling her problems during therapyFamily therapy can play an important role in an individual’s recovery from substance abuse. The addict is not the only person damaged when substance abuse is in play. Rather, every person the addict deals with intimately or on a regular basis can be affected by the addiction. As a result, family therapy is often needed to repair the damage done.

How Family Factors into Sustained Recovery

David Sheff, New York Times bestselling author is not only one of the most acclaimed journalists on addiction science, but also a father whose struggle to help his son overcome addiction was published in the memoir Beautiful Boy. In his 2013 book, Clean, Sheff discusses the important and necessary role of family in a loved one’s addiction and recovery.

As Sheff explains, in earlier days of addiction treatment, families were often seen as in need of therapy due to the havoc addiction had wreaked on their lives and they sought help from recovery groups such as Al-Anon. However, addiction specialists began to observe that when recovering substance abusers returned home, they often relapsed. Despite everyone’s best intentions and actions, family stress proved to be a relapse trigger. When relationships and family dynamics improved, recovery also improved. In response to these insights, addiction treatment expanded to include family participation.

According to Sheff, family can be so instrumental to the healing involved in recovery that when possible, family should always be involved in treatment. Sheff clearly points out that substance abusers can, of course, recover successfully even if they are without a family, or lack family support, but family participation is preferable. An important point, not to be overlooked, is that recovering substance abusers can benefit from family involvement even in the face of family dysfunction. In short, if families waited to be perfect until they participated in treatment, they would never participate.

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In addition to the healing that family members can experience, the benefits for the recovering addict include:

  • Receiving positive reinforcement and support
  • Help facing and working through any downturns in the recovery process
  • Increasing one’s understanding of self through family relations
  • Sharing the responsibility, so the focus is not exclusively on the addict’s faults

Sheff, with full awareness of the reality that some family members will be unwilling or unable to participate, advises substance abusers to exercise self-preservation in their individual situation. For instance, rather than return to a family environment rife with unhealthy triggers, a recovering person may need to change their environment by:

  • Living separately from family
  • Residing in a sober living facility
  • Changing jobs
  • Cutting ties with loved ones, at least in the short term


As a discussion of family therapy in PsychCentral states, most recovering addicts sought help directly because of the concern of family members and other loved ones. An intervention (informal or formal) is a form of family therapy to the extent that honest lines of communication are opened. An intervention can help to break the ground that family therapy will further develop.

Complete treatment may be outpatient or inpatient, but both types involve periodically inviting family members on site. In the case of inpatient treatment, physical separation can help family members to recognize unhealthy patterns and assess how they may have unwittingly contributed to the drug abuse. Such insights can then be brought to family therapy sessions and explored with a qualified therapist.

Family involvement in the recovery process is not limited to group therapy. In some instances, family members may also undergo individual counseling. Depending on the recovery program, there may be educational programs, seminars, and workshops available to family members. Learning how to overcome substance abuse with the support of family can signal a new beginning for everyone.

Help for the Whole Family

Solid addiction treatment will support the involvement of family members in the recovery process. Family counseling is one of cornerstones of effective behavioral treatment, and at FRN, we provide our patients with this option as part of our commitment to offer them every opportunity to make a successful recovery. While it’s your journey to recovery, you do not to travel alone. Call us for more information about how we can help.

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