Family Systems Therapy: Overcoming Family Challenges in Addiction Recovery

wooden pegs representing family members against yellow background - family systems therapy

By Sandy Baker

Are you facing family challenges? Do you find it is so hard to communicate with your spouse or to be on the same page as your teen? Sometimes this is normal; after all, arguing and getting upset with each other is just part of living in a family. But when the fights escalate and trust breaks down, it’s time to consider getting help. Family systems therapy is a type of talk therapy that helps families build trust and learn to communicate effectively.

All People in the Family Contribute to Its Success

One of the foundations of family systems therapy is that each member of the family unit plays a role in its success. Alternately, each family member also plays a role in the family’s dysfunction. In this way, the family is a single emotional unit. You have deep emotional bonds with those within your family.

That said, it’s common to feel disconnected with one or more family members at times. Perhaps you just don’t like or cannot seem to form a close bond to someone in your family. This is often due to some type of previous trauma you’ve experienced with that person that was not properly managed at the time of the event.

For example, sometimes that trauma can come from not feeling accepted or validated by the other person (a child may not feel validated or supported by a parent; a spouse may not feel respected, etc.). Maybe you don’t approve of your loved one or believe that they approve of you. When these feelings are ongoing, trauma is created, which eventually damages the way the family communicates, interacts, and manages stress.

How Does Family Systems Therapy Work?

Therapists work closely with families to help them understand what’s going on and why. Family systems therapy can be especially crucial when one family member struggles with addiction. As that person is getting treatment for addiction, they may dive deep into their emotional baggage and in the process discover that some trauma they experienced as a child is contributing to their addiction.

Developed by Murray Bowen, family systems therapy has eight key concepts.

1. Differentiation of Self:

Though each person is born with an innate sense of who they are, they develop relationships within families that help to further build their identity, which rarely changes after that point.

2. Triangles:

Three-person dynamics tend to form within a family, and while triangles create stability, they also create tension because one person tends to feel left out or ganged up on.

3. Nuclear Family Emotional Process:

This concept focuses on the patterns that play a role in the family’s structure and in the emotional relationships that develop. There are four components to this:

    • Marital Conflict: Some type of strife occurs within the partnership, leading to one or both parties fixating on the faults of the other.
      Dysfunction in One Spouse: Here, one person in the partnership puts pressure on the other to act in a specific manner. This leads to tension and dysfunction.
    • Impairment of Children: This occurs when one or both parents focus their worry and attention on one child’s well-being, to the exclusion of the other children. This creates a divide within the family unit as a whole.
    • Emotional Distance: This occurs when one person distances themselves – emotionally or physically – from the rest of the family. They may do this to escape from the dysfunction. Typically, though, this distance only worsens the dysfunction.

4. Family Projection Process:

In this process, a parent passes down emotional problems to the children. Specifically, the parent begins to believe something is wrong with their child and then treats the child differently because of it.

5. Multigenerational Transmission Process:

Parents transmit to their children (who then transmit to their own children) “relational patterns, resources, symptoms, strengths, anxiety, and behaviors.”

6. Emotional Cutoff:

In this situation, one member of the family cuts off their emotional connection and/or physical contact with another member of the family. This can occur between parent and child but also between siblings.

7. Sibling Position:

A child’s position in the family (oldest, middle, youngest) plays a role in their development of key traits. This may include things like being a leader or a follower.

8. Societal Emotional Process:

Society as a whole plays a role in the dynamics of the family. Cultural trends affect how parent-child relationships play out.

How Can Family Systems Therapy Help You?

Family systems therapy aims to address these eight principles. If you are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, perhaps because of mental health issues, this type of therapy can help you to understand the “why” behind your condition. In this type of therapy, the family works as a group to overcome the problems presented and rebuild both individual and family health.

If you or a loved one needs treatment for a substance use disorder, please contact The Ranch at Dove Tree today. Our continuum of care includes family therapy, and we can help you learn about your addiction and give you the tools to overcome it.

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Are you or a loved one searching for a Texas IOP? To learn more about our programs at Ranch at Dove Tree, please contact us today at 800.218.6727.