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The Impact of Family Dynamics on Addiction Recovery

The ripple effect of substance use disorders spreads far outside of the individual using substances alone. This effect can also extend to friends, families, and entire communities, often resulting in serious hardship for the entire social circle that loves a person with addiction. Yet the reverse is also true — loved ones can come together to support a person in recovery and help the whole family heal as a result.

The way a family interacts with each other as a whole can play a significant role in both the development of a substance use disorder and the recovery from it. Take a closer look at how addiction and the unique dynamics of a family are connected.

How Addiction Affects Families

A person living with a substance use disorder faces incredible challenges on a daily basis. Not only can they experience intensely uncomfortable physical withdrawal and invasive drug or alcohol cravings, but their emotional and mental states can be pulled in several directions by the substance as well

As much as a person living with a substance use disorder attempts to hide or mask these changes, it often results in them lashing out at the people they care about the most. Their priorities can shift away from the family toward substance use and ultimately end up harming the family unit as a whole.

When someone comes to addiction treatment for the first time, they are typically experiencing three main challenges within the family unit.

Damaged Relationships

There are countless reasons why substance use disorders often lead to damaged relationships in families. Some of the more common sources of damaged relationships include:

  • Loss of trust
  • Secrecy
  • Prioritising drugs or alcohol over the family
  • Isolation
  • Compassion fatigue

The simple fact is that it can be difficult for family members to see their loved one struggle with addiction. While families can be resilient, every family has their limit — and the behaviour of the person living with a substance use disorder can often push families too far.

Financial Difficulties

Substance use disorders can be expensive. People living with an addiction often spend inordinate amounts of money on their drug of choice and frequently lose their jobs, savings, or other assets in the process.

The stress of financial hardship can quickly become too much for families to bear. Unsurprisingly, many studies investigating the cause of divorce have found that financial stress is one of the most common factors.

Emotional Turmoil

Substance use disorders have a profound effect on mood and emotions. Certain drugs can greatly amplify the intensity of emotions, leading to angry outbursts, weeping despair, and anything in between. While drugs or alcohol can cause these effects directly, withdrawal from an addictive substance can have similar effects.

Families who love a person going through these drastic emotional swings can get caught up in them as well. But living in these dramatic circumstances isn’t sustainable, resulting in resentment and detachment if their loved one doesn’t get help.

How Families Can Affect Addiction

Equally important to consider is the impact that families can have on their loved one’s substance use. From a very early age, family dynamics can influence the way that children develop the tools to process their emotions, learn healthy or unhealthy coping mechanisms, and communicate with others.

While many people are quick to write off these events for adult children, families can still contribute to substance use if the unhealthy patterns are left unaddressed.

Parenting Style

Parenting style has repeatedly been identified as a risk factor for adolescent substance use. Many developmental psychologists use a four-item model to classify different parenting styles, which include:

  • Authoritative Parenting: Where parents are responsive to their children’s feelings and needs and place demands upon them
  • Authoritarian Parenting: Where parents are unresponsive to children’s feelings and place demands upon them
  • Permissive Parenting: Where parents place few demands on their children and are responsive to their children’s feelings
  • Neglectful Parenting: Where parents don’t place rules or demands on their children and are unresponsive to their feelings

These four parenting styles are based on two core concepts in parenting: demandingness and responsiveness. In the case of substance use, low levels of demandingness are frequently indicated as a risk factor.

Permissive or neglectful parenting, the two categories with low levels of demandingness, have frequently been associated with higher rates of substance use in adolescents. This, in turn, leads to higher levels of substance use in young adults and increasing rates of addiction.

Enabling Behaviour

Enabling behaviour refers to any actions that protect your loved one from experiencing the consequences of their actions. In substance use disorders, this could include behaviours such as:

  • Paying their rent
  • Covering up for their mistakes
  • Not enforcing rules
  • Keeping your loved one’s secrets
  • Not following through on boundaries
  • Avoiding the topic of addiction

Of course, many parents want to shield their children from harm. But when a person is bringing harm upon themselves, never facing the consequences of those behaviours can lead to repeating the harmful behaviours over and over again.

Support groups for loved ones of people living with a substance use disorder often focus on the process of learning to detach from your loved one while still holding love for them.

Harmful Patterns

Families can often have long-standing patterns that serve as obstacles for people taking the steps needed to break free from a substance use disorder. These patterns can often go as unspoken rules and may include behaviours such as:

  • Not talking about feelings
  • Not addressing conflict
  • Using alcohol excessively on weekends, birthdays, or holidays
  • Considering parents’ rule as law, even as the child grows into an adult

Every family has a set of patterns and habits that they return to over and over again, and while it may not be immediately clear that these patterns influence substance use, they often play a major role in the person living with addiction’s struggles.

Understanding Family Dynamics in Addiction Recovery

The amalgamation of patterns, rules, communication styles, and relationship hierarchies combine into what is known as “family dynamics.” While it’s important to understand how different family patterns can lead to people turning to substance use as a coping method, it’s just as crucial to recognise how changing these patterns can have a profound healing effect on addiction recovery.

The rules of family dynamics are not fixed, and incorporating healthy patterns of behaviour can go a long way toward providing the support and accountability people need to break free from a substance use disorder.

Healing these negative patterns requires both the person with the substance use disorder and their family to be willing to:

  • Take part in the addiction recovery process
  • Take accountability for their actions
  • Make changes

Thankfully, there are several evidence-based therapy options to help families and individuals alike start the healing work of addiction recovery together.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is the quintessential method for helping families heal from the damage of the past and work toward building a new life in recovery together. While there are several different styles of family therapy, most focus on a similar set of goals to help facilitate the healing process:

Providing Addiction Education

First, many families need a baseline education about what substance use disorders are like. Without having lived through a substance use disorder, it can be difficult to understand the complex set of symptoms and behavioural changes that a substance use disorder can cause. This can make it challenging to empathise with your loved one struggling with addiction.

Family therapy provides a space for families to find answers to the multitude of questions they often have when a loved one struggles with substance use, such as:

  • Why can’t they just stop?
  • Is addiction a disease?
  • Why are they struggling to get back on their feet?
  • Why are they using drugs or alcohol anyway?
  • How is all this therapy and treatment going to help?
  • What do I do if they relapse?

With this education in hand, families are better equipped to move forward to the work of recovery.

Healing Damaged Relationships

Relationships that were damaged during a substance use disorder often need time, communication, and compassion to repair. Even though your loved one has stopped using addictive substances, the harm left between you may still be present.

A family therapist can help family members understand and process these emotions and work together toward resolutions that restore these critically important relationships. While not everything can be healed at once, a family therapist provides the framework for families to start the healing process together.

Changing Family Dynamics

Part of the work of a family therapist is identifying the unspoken rules in families, the patterns that guide how family members interact with one another, and the styles of communication within the family unit.

Through collaboration with the therapist, the family can start to probe and question whether these automatic, default patterns are serving the family well or causing more harm than good.

It’s not always easy for families to see whether these family dynamics can be changed. They have often existed for decades without interruption, and as with any long-term habit, can be extremely difficult to break without outside intervention.

But that’s exactly what family therapy provides: an outside interventionist who can help you start taking the first steps to replace unhealthy patterns with better, more adaptive patterns that help with addiction recovery and family cohesion alike.

Learning to Support Your Loved One

Finally, family therapy can teach the entire family to support your loved one in their journey toward addiction recovery. By learning how to be supporters and collaborators in the addiction recovery journey, the family can become a rock-solid foundation of support to last a lifetime.

Often, this means joining your loved one on the path to recovery yourself. Whether this means learning to overcome codependency, working on your own communication style, or overcoming your own mental health challenges, a family that embraces recovery as a unit can be a powerful force for change.

Find Support at APN London

Family dynamics and addiction recovery are often intricately linked. With the right tools, you and your family can learn to support each other throughout the recovery journey.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use and ready to take the steps to start recovery, reach out to the team at APN London to explore our comprehensive addiction treatment options. Use our confidential online contact form or call 0203 984 7699 for more information.