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Family Systems Therapy

The idea that everyone is a unique individual operating only as an individual is too simplistic a notion. The reality is everyone works within groups where interactions often affect a person’s behavior. At work, an individual is either an owner with employees or part of the staff. Companies are successful when everyone works together to make the company profitable.

In sports, everyone plays on a team, in a league or participates in a tournament. Again, success or failure is usually determined by people operating for the common good of the others within the team or group of teams. The point is most people interact within groups.

At home, everyone is part of some kind of family structure. It might include a spouse and kids, parents and kids or perhaps close friends living together as roommates or partners. Even if someone’s relationships are difficult, they still exist. When people live within close proximity of each other, they have the ability to profoundly affect how each other feels and behaves. They may not even be aware of the effect they are having.

How Addiction Affects the Family

When an individual is suffering from addiction, the consequences are not limited to the person themselves. The entire family unit is impacted by the individual’s behavior. Many times, family members feel a sense of guilt thinking they could do more for their loved one or place the blame on themselves. Addiction puts family members under a significant amount of stress as it disrupts normal routines and causes frightening experiences. As a result of this stress, family members develop unhealthy coping methods to try and maintain balance in the household. Some of the consequences of addiction within the family include:

  • Safety concerns: In some cases, severe addiction puts the safety of other family members at risk. Addiction causes behavioral changes that could potentially put family members, including children, in harm’s way.
  • Negative emotions: In families dealing with substance addiction, negative emotions such as guilt, shame, resentment, anger, and anxiety usually arise frequently.
  • Communication: Addiction usually causes an individual to withdraw and isolate themselves from those around them. This creates a lack of positive communication in the family unit with family needs being overlooked.
  • Denial. In many cases, an individual will deny that their addiction is causing any negative impact. In some situations, family members will also deny their loved one’s addiction either due to embarrassment or they simply cannot understand it.
  • Responsibilities. When a person’s life revolves around their addiction, they cannot keep up with their responsibilities within the family. This results in other members of the family having to take on those responsibilities. This could be a person taking on too many responsibilities or even responsibilities that are not age-appropriate, such as a young child caring for their even younger siblings when their parent doesn’t.
  • Relationships. Substance abuse and addiction can damage severely damage family relationships. This could impact family dynamics for generations to come. In order to repair family relationships, Family Systems Therapy is needed.

When it comes to addiction treatment, there’s a form of treatment that focuses on the family unit. There might be some individual therapy used to identify problems and try to develop solutions, but Family Systems Therapy is mostly focused on the family unit and how that unit might be affecting the individual’s addiction.

What is Family Systems Therapy

Advocates for the use of Family Systems Therapy in treating addictions believe that behaviors are created because of interactions within the family unit. Family therapists believe in two very important things. First, they believe they can identify the basis for certain behaviors by observing family members and how they interact with the family. They can identify pecking order, where friction and resentment might exist and where the emotional support within the family lies. Translation. They believe they can identify each family member’s role within the family and how it creates family dynamics.

When they identify issues within the family that could be promoting the drug user’s desire to abuse substances, they further believe they can help the client by helping to resolve family issues and mend relationships. That really is the essence of family therapy. The therapist sets out to find out what’s not working properly within the family unit and subsequently offers solutions to resolve issues.

How Family Therapy Works

A family unit is described as a group of persons with some level of mental, emotional or physical dependence upon each other. That could potentially include very close friendships if the individuals have reliance upon each other for care and camaraderie.

In order for Family Systems Therapy to be effective, there has to be as much family participation as possible. Hopefully, loved ones will be willing to come together for the benefit of the individual who is suffering from addiction. If and when they do participate, open and honest communication is absolutely essential to the treatment process.

During family therapy sessions, the therapist initially takes on the role of an observer. While prompting family members to interact and discuss issues, the clinician bides their time by taking notes and deciphering the dynamics within the family. While the focus is generally on viewing the family dynamics in terms of how they might be creating the drug user’s desire to self-medicate and escape problems, there could certainly be benefits from family therapy for the other participants. In a perfect world, everyone involved in the process will experience some level of healing.

Family Systems Therapy Techniques

There are a variety of treatment techniques from which a family therapist can choose. They will determine the most suitable technique based on their initial perceptions of where the real issues may lie. Remember, the emphasis of treatment is communication between family members. The goal of treatment is to find the root causes of the client’s problems so solutions can be instituted.

A favorite technique among family therapists is a restatement of content. During this process, family members will take turns making statements while the other family members listen. The other family members then get an opportunity to repeat or rephrase what they heard. Therapists use this exercise to strengthen the ability of family members to deliver a message that is clear while the receivers are able to improve their ability to understand where the speaker is coming from. The underlying goal of this approach is picking up clues about previous family events, successes, and failures, that may be influencing the client’s behavior.

Another interesting activity is “the empty chair” conversation. The process starts with an empty chair. The therapist will ask one family member to speak to the chair as though it’s a key family member. The goal of this technique is to give family members the opportunity to address one another without having to incur confrontations. Chairs don’t talk back.

Finally, there’s another popular family therapy technique experts call “sculpting.” During this process, the client is asked to physically arrange the participating family members based on their alliances. This technique gives the therapist a clear idea about family hierarchy and where fractured relationships might be evident.

Finding Solutions

At the end of the day, Family Systems Therapy is supposed to help resolve family issues. This is a critical component of treatment because family members need to be willing to accept the role of support as their addicted loved one goes into recovery. A lot of people get sober. The ones who stay sober are the ones who seem to have a solid set of relapse prevention resources.

If you feel family issues are driving your need to abuse substances, there’s a high likelihood Family Systems Therapy would be useful in your treatment. It’s a wonderful thing when the sources of your problems become the solutions to your problems. For more information about family therapy and how it works, please give us a call.

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