by Dawn Ferrera, LPC
When someone you love has an addiction or mental health issue, people will often tell you:
“They have to be the ones to get help.”
“They have to decide to go to treatment.”
“They have to make the choice.”
And that’s all true.
What’s also true is that addiction and mental health issues can wreak havoc on a family. Months or years of stressing over a loved one’s health and behaviors can leave family and friends at their wit’s end, with relationships in tatters.
With this information in time, it might be a little confusing that treatment centers encourage or even require family involvement as part of the treatment process. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, family engagement is essential to the treatment process.
Family therapy not only supports the person in treatment but also helps heal wounds left by years of conflict, especially when included as part of a structured treatment program. An engaged family empowers people to work towards their own healing and recovery.
Even if you’ve tried therapy before and found the experience less than helpful, it doesn’t mean family therapy can’t help you navigate having a loved one in treatment. Family therapy, as part of a treatment program, is specific and focused on healing and building a foundation for support and growth for both the person in treatment and the people who love them.
What is Family Therapy?
Many people envision family therapy as everyone in a room arguing and blaming each other for what’s happening. And, by the time a family comes to therapy, they’ve probably had more than a few family arguments ending in everyone feeling wounded and emotionally disconnected.
When a family member is struggling with addiction or a mental health issue, the entire family is affected. Unhealthy patterns of interacting evolve as an effort to cope, creating even more conflict: some family members might emotionally check out or become combative. Others might find themselves taking on too much responsibility or enabling the behavior.
While often well-intentioned, these unhealthy patterns can persist, keeping the family in distress and even impacting the recovery process long-term. After all, family is the most likely source of support for someone leaving treatment. If they return to the same dysfunctional dynamics, the chances of sustaining recovery are poor.
Family therapy brings family members together to address and resolve unhelpful dynamics – it is not a place of blaming or shaming. Instead, family therapy is a place to learn how to heal relationships and grow together.
Family therapy views the family as a system of different parts; any change in one part triggers changes in all the others. One way to think of a family system is to imagine it as a mobile you’d see over a crib: touch one piece, and the entire mobile moves.
Similarly, a mental health or addiction issue that impacts a loved one will affect the entire family in some way. Family therapy aims to help bring everything back into balance.
Who Is Included in Family Therapy?
One of the questions that comes up most often is, “Who can attend a family session?” The short answer is … it depends.
We generally define “family” as a group of people related by blood, marital, adoptive, or other emotional ties. For most people, family includes those relatives closest or most significant in their lives – spouses or significant others, moms, dads, grandparents, older or adult children, blended families, etc.
Some people don’t have the support of their biological family, but let’s be clear: your chosen family IS your family. Families come in many forms and can include close friends and significant others – anyone actively involved in life outside treatment. The idea is to gather a network of support and get everyone on the same page so their loved one can have the best possible chance of sustained recovery.
At All Points North, we offer a comprehensive and intensive family program for partners, family members, or family of choice – those who have an active role in providing support to APN clients.
How Can Family Therapy Help?
Family therapy seeks to help the family recover and heal by teaching healthy, positive coping techniques, facilitating an environment of healing, and encouraging family members to support their loved one in recovery.
While the family unit focuses on building new skill sets, their loved one in treatment can focus on making the changes they need to maintain recovery, including repairing and building healthy relationships.
Some of the many benefits of family therapy as part of treatment and recovery include:
- Learning more about addiction and how it impacts your family dynamics
- Increasing family involvement to help keep your loved one engaged and motivated while in treatment
- Gaining a better understanding of your loved one’s treatment process
- Establishing a safe space for everyone to express their feelings and concerns and improve communication
- Creating a solid foundation of support to help your loved one transition out of treatment
- Building skills and strategies that complement your loved one’s recovery goals
- Practicing healthy boundary setting within the family unit
Family therapy gives you a place to learn more about how your family interacts, work on the issues that negatively impact your family, and begin the process of healing. Family therapy can strengthen resilience and bonds, improve coping and problem-solving skills, increase the likelihood of successful long-term recovery, and improve family functioning and support.
For many people, family support can be the variable that makes or breaks their recovery.
How Does Family Therapy Work?
Therapists specifically trained in family therapy meet with your family in person or virtually. They will guide you through your sessions and facilitate healthy interactions.
Because family is not always close by, sessions are often conducted via telehealth so that distance is not a barrier to treatment. Family therapy may continue after transitioning back home as part of wraparound services or aftercare planning.
Don’t be surprised if family therapy doesn’t begin on day one. Walking through the door to treatment, especially for the first time, can be overwhelming. It takes time to get acclimated.
Family therapy is most helpful once the loved one struggling with addiction or mental health issues enters treatment and starts making progress. Establishing a safe, therapeutic environment is the first step in healing, and your loved one’s therapist will let you know what comes next for the family unit.
Family Therapy Techniques and Skills
Family therapy may seem daunting at first – after all, you’ve probably faced more than a few conflicts related to your loved one’s issues.
Remember that being asked to attend family therapy is NOT a judgment or criticism of you or your family. Every family faces their own unique set of challenges, and family therapy is simply one more tool for supporting a successful outcome for the one you love.
In a residential treatment program, family therapy functions similarly to what clients would encounter in a treatment environment. However, a therapist will prioritize helping the family unit heal with the ultimate goal of supporting your loved one in their recovery. Part of accomplishing that goal includes learning techniques to take care of your individual well-being.
Your therapist will use an approach and techniques based on several factors, including where your loved one is in treatment, treatment goals, and the family’s readiness for change. They’ll ask questions, listen, and observe to learn more about how your family interacts, then guide each session based on identified strengths and needs.
Sometimes, families need more intensive support than family therapy can offer. If that happens, the therapist may refer individual family members or the whole family to other resources such as parenting classes, a support group, or individual counseling.
The great thing about family therapy is that it allows the therapist to identify your family’s unique needs and connect you to the resources that will work for you.
Common Family Therapy Topics
During each session, you and your family members will learn new coping and communication methods. Some of the many areas of focus include:
- Communication skills – problem-solving, expressing emotions in healthy ways, and practicing direct communication while using active listening skills.
- Goal setting – managing your relationship with your loved one in ways that support recovery, redefining relationship roles, and setting boundaries moving forward.
- Behavior changes – addressing unhealthy behavior patterns (e.g., enabling behaviors, codependent behaviors, scapegoating) that have impacted your family and your loved one. Learning new behavior patterns can help the family heal and encourage your loved one’s engagement in recovery.
- Rebuilding trust – share a safe environment with a therapist’s support and begin rebuilding the trust that has eroded from years of conflict.
- Repairing attachments – learning ways to improve your relationship and exploring how to connect in healthier ways.
Family therapy aims to help families heal and establish new, healthier ways of interacting and supporting each other as their loved one journeys deeper into recovery.
Other Family Support Options
Family therapy is not the only way to get involved in a loved one’s treatment. Some programs offer other opportunities for engagement, including family education and family support groups.
While it might sound the same as family therapy, family education involves different goals. Family therapy is a private, secure space to address behavioral and emotional issues. Family education is a broad, education-based process focused on helping the family learn about what their loved one is experiencing and what they can expect.
Family education can help families work toward gaining more insight on:
- A particular mental illness (e.g., depression, anxiety)
- Treatment process
- What to expect/how the treatment process works
- What to expect post-treatment
- Mental health and addiction resources
Families can access family education in many ways, including sessions with a family educator, multifamily group educational sessions, videos, books, or brochures.
Family Support Groups
Having someone who has walked your path and understands your struggles is invaluable. Family support groups bring families in various stages of the process together. Support groups allow members to share successes and struggles, offer advice, ask for support, or find support from others who share the same path.
Family Therapy at All Points North
When family members do their own work to grow and learn, their loved one in treatment benefits, too. Clients with strong family involvement in the process have a higher likelihood of long-term recovery.
Family systems are the foundation for attachment styles, communication, and boundaries. For many of us, our family system is also where we experience a lot of pain and dysfunction. The good news is that there is hope for you and your family – you can overcome the past.
At All Points North, we believe that family healing lays the foundation for long-term recovery. We offer a comprehensive and intensive family therapy program that cultivates the support, guidance, and education needed for healing the family system. Your family can reconnect and strengthen your bond together.
Our team of dedicated family therapists can meet with your family from anywhere. We include telehealth sessions for clients and families in the overall residential treatment cost at All Points North Lodge, and services continue after the transition home.
- Ulaş, E., & Ekşi, H. (2019). Inclusion of Family Therapy in Rehabilitation Program of Substance Abuse and Its Efficacious Implementation. The Family Journal, 27(4), 443–451. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480719871968
- SAMHSA. Family Therapy Can Help: For People in Recovery From Mental Illness or Addiction, Knowledge Application Program, 2013.
- NIDA. “Preface.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5 Oct. 2022, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/preface Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
- “APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association, https://dictionary.apa.org/family.