“A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold.” – Ogden Nash
You may describe the members of your family differently. How you get along with or tolerate each other might make a great sitcom or reality TV show. The fact is, we relate to each other and depend on one another in the family. For good or bad, we seek ways to get what we want. When addiction or substance abuse becomes a problem, the disease painfully jolts family relationships. From the beginning of alcohol and/or drug abuse by a loved one, through the many years of living with the disease, family members will experience the roller-coaster ride of emotional stress, psychological strain, and behavioral changes that interrupt how the family gets along.
How is the family affected by the disease of addiction?
Dayton (n.d.) writes, “The drug user as well as family members may bend, manipulate and deny reality in their attempt to maintain a family order that they experience as gradually slipping away.” Children of alcoholics/drug users also experience “any of the following: chaos, uncertainty, instability, inconsistent discipline, emotional and physical neglect, arguments, instability of parents’ marriage, disorganization, violence and/or physical and sexual abuse, emptiness, loneliness, the terror of repeated abandonment, or the witnessing of violence or abuse to others” (Dayton, n.d., p. 1).
These experiences can interfere with the normal development of the child, which often causes anxiety and/or depression, behavioral problems, relationship difficulties, and drug and/or alcohol abuse (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 2015). Once we view addiction as a family disease, then it is not difficult to see why support is needed by parents, a partner, aunts or uncles, grandparents, children, or any other significant relationship to the person abusing substances.
How will the family benefit from support?
Professional treatment for the family may include education services to provide understanding of addiction, teach coping skills and healthy boundaries, and assist the family in developing strategies for crisis situations. As parents/caregivers gain confidence in adapting new behaviors, the result is that “[a] drug-abusing adolescent will improve his or her behavior when the family learns how to behave adaptively. This will happen because family members, who are ‘linked’ emotionally, will respond to each other’s actions and reactions” (Szapocznik, 2003, p. 10).
Likewise, couple therapy can improve the health of the relationship as well as positively impact the recovery of the partner who is abusing substances. Fals-Stewart (2015) writes that therapy “can give you ideas and information on motivating your partner to consider getting help; these approaches are often very helpful in getting family members who are reluctant to seek help to ultimately enter treatment” (p. 1). Also, the non-abusing partner learns strategies to work through couple conflict that may not stop or that may even increase after the alcohol and/or drug use stops.
What about the long-term?
Community support groups, such as 12-Step Programs like Al-Anon or Alateen, can provide family members with mutual support year-round. “In Al-Anon/Alateen, members do not give direction or advice to other members. Instead, they share their personal experiences and stories, and invite other members to ‘take what they like and leave the rest’—that is, to determine for themselves what lesson they could apply to their own lives” (Al-Anon, 2016).
SMART Recovery Family & Friends is a secular support group that offers online meetings weekly and face-to-face meetings in various locations. These meetings help the concerned person deal with emotional upsets and learn effective communication methods when dealing with loved ones.
The disease of addiction, when treated as a family affair, has the potential to improve recovery for the person abusing alcohol and/or drugs, as well as give the family back its life force as a place of honesty, trust, and shared support.
Dayton, T., Ph.D. (n.d.). The Set Up: Living With Addiction. Retrieved from http://www.nacoa.org/pdfs/The%20Set%20Up%20for%20Social%20Work%20Curriculum.pdf
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (2015). Children of Alcoholics. Retrieved from
Szapocznik, J., et al. Brief Strategic Family Therapy for Adolescent Drug Abuse. Therapy Manuals for Drug Addiction, Manual 5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health Publication 03-4751., September 2003.
Fals- Stewart, W. (2015) Substance Abuse and Intimate Relationships: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Retrieved from
Al-Anon Family Groups. How Al-Anon/Alateen Works for Me. 2016. Retrieved from http://al-anon.org/how-al-anon-works-for-me
The SMART Recovery Family & Friends Handbook and Family & Friends Facilitator Manual. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.smartrecovery.org/resources/family.htm