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The Family Dynamics of Addiction

You may have heard the saying “addiction is a family disease,” and in many ways it is. Addiction impacts everyone who has a relationship with the addict, which can disrupt daily life and negatively impact the stability of a family. Parents, children, friends, and partners of addicts are all swept up in the pain and chaos of addiction, and certain family patterns tend to develop over time that can inadvertently sustain addictive behavior and heighten family tension.

Families instinctually gravitate towards stability. When a loved one is battling addiction, it is the natural impulse to protect them and ease their suffering. Over a long enough period of time, this behavior enables the addict to keep drinking or using by insulating them from the natural consequences of their actions. For many families, intervening by asking the addict to attend treatment is the culmination of many months of preparation and planning and is a huge step towards breaking the pattern of enabling behavior. However, checking into rehab is only the beginning of the journey for both the addict and the family. Once an addict is in treatment, family members will have a lot of work to do to repair relationships, reestablish personal and family security, and rebuilt trust. While it’s easy to place the majority of concern on the family member battling addiction, it’s important for each family member to receive the tools and support they need and for the family to come together as a unit to work on repairing the damage caused by addiction.

Treatment and support options are available for family members of any age. Programs like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are available for adult family members and friends of those suffering from addiction. These programs are based on the same 12-step model as AA and NA, which guides people through a process of self-discovery and building positive support networks that help them overcome difficulties and develop healthy coping skills. Other 12-step programs for adult family members include Co-dependents Anonymous (CODA) and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), for those who face the lasting impacts of growing up and living around the disease of addiction. For children ages 13-18, there is the Alateen program, and for younger children, Al-Anon offers some family group meetings that are suitable for all ages. Working with professional therapists and attending inpatient or outpatient treatment programs for families might also be useful tools for overcoming challenges and laying the foundation for lasting family recovery. For any family member suffering from the impact of addiction, understanding the disease and learning from other facing the same challenges is a worthwhile endeavor.

Once a recovering addict returns from treatment, the family’s own recovery work will be important to sustain. It’s easy for families to fall back into familiar roles: the addict, the enabler, the disciplinarian, the martyr, the good child, the forgotten sibling, etc. However, in order to sustain lasting recovery for the whole family, being aware of these tendencies and creating space for each family member to grow into a new, healthy role will benefit the family’s long-term recovery. The recovering addict will not return from rehab being “cured,” and there will still be work for them to do in order to attain lasting sobriety. The best way the family and loved ones of an addict can support them is by investing in their own recovery and trying to reestablish healthy relationships to nurture growth and stability for the whole family.