Family members impacted by a loved one's addiction are not alone and shouldn’t be embarrassed to seek out help and support. A Pew Research Center report found that almost half of Americans report having a family member or close friend with a SUD.
Many families face significant challenges in responding to a loved one’s addiction, including:
Frustration.Information on the disease can be confusing and frustrating, and it can be hard to find helpful resources.
Emotional challenges. The presence of addiction in the family often leads to taxing emotional challenges for family members. Families, naturally concerned for their loved one’s well being may become depressed, angry, withdrawn, or afraid.
Financial Problems and Lost Connections.The negative effects of addiction in the family extend to practical considerations like financial problems and loss of social connections. Caring for an impacted loved one demands time, energy, and effort, which can be expensive between medical bills and lost jobs or savings. It can also become harder to see friends, go to religious services, or participate in clubs or other community groups.
Increased risk for other family members. Growing up in a family with a member who has a SUD puts an individual at greater risk of developing one and extending cycles of addiction across generations. This is not just a genetic risk, but also environmental factors than can increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Exhaustion. Caring for an impacted loved one for extended periods of time can be exhausting. Relapses, general concern for the loved one and family unit, and sadness and isolation can easily give way to depression. Family members often express concerns about an impacted loved one’s resistance to treatment and occasional disappearances, and can feel powerless, revolted, humiliated, and even hateful.
Poor self-care. Addiction-related stressors are also associated with declines in reported wellbeing among family members. Time constraints can interfere with attending to personal health, such as maintaining a good diet and finding opportunities for physical activity. Research shows that family members may also have problems eating and sleeping, increased substance use, headaches, indigestion, hypertension, asthma, and other health conditions.
Effective coping strategies include making time for oneself and your personal interests while practicing self-care. Awareness of the specific ways in which addiction affects the family is also helpful, as well as learning a new set of skills that must be practiced on an ongoing basis. Family therapy is also a resource for family members with a loved one struggling with addiction.
Family therapy is a type of counseling that can help substance use in both youth and adults, help families heal from strained relationships, address family conflict, help with school and employment attendance and performance, and address overall behaviors of individuals in the family unit. Family members can attend therapy while their loved one is in treatment or even if their loved one hasn’t chosen to seek treatment yet.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) lists two main goals for family therapy related to addiction:
One goal is to be a positive influence and help the one suffering from substance use disorder in a way that will encourage, motivate and strengthen them. This encouragement in turn will help decrease the chances of relapse.
The second goal is to strengthen the family bonds that may be strained due to the substance use disorder and related behaviors.
In family therapy you can expect to work on things like behavioral changes, life skills, communication, conflict resolution and goal setting.
Family therapy doesn’t automatically solve all of the issues or make the problem go away, but it can help members to better understand and to change their own behaviors and reactions that may be contributing factors.
If your loved one is involved in treatment for their substance use disorder, the treatment provider may offer family therapy as part of the treatment. They will likely have staff professionals who are trained in both addiction and family therapy. Otherwise they may refer you to an outside provider. If family therapy isn’t offered as part of the treatment plan you can still inquire about options or ask for a referral.
Additionally, your insurance provider may have a list of providers or you can check with your state department of health services for local options.
An excerpt from Navigating Addiction and Treatment: A Guide for Families, Addiction Policy Forum, 2020.
A Note From Addiction Policy Forum
Substance use disorders get worse over time. The earlier treatment starts the better the chances for long-term recovery. Many families are wrongly told to “wait for rock bottom” and that their loved one needs to feel ready to seek treatment in order for it to work. The idea that we should wait for the disease to get worse before seeking treatment is dangerous. Imagine if we waited until stage 4 to treat cancer. Decades of research has proven that the earlier someone is treated, the better their outcomes—and that treatment works just as well for patients who are compelled to start treatment by outside forces as it does for those who are self-motivated to enter treatment.