An Integrated Approach to Healing Families With Addiction

The effects of a substance use disorder (SUD) are felt by the whole family,” wrote Lander, Howsare, and Byrne in their 2013 study on the impact of substance use disorders on families and children. “The family context holds information about how SUDs develop, are maintained, and what can positively or negatively influence the treatment of the disorder.” In addition, “understanding the current developmental stage a family is in helps inform assessment of impairment and determination of appropriate interventions.”

Kevin Petersen, MA, LMFT is the author of the books: Chronic Hope: Parenting the Addicted Child and Chronic Hope: Families & Addiction, which share an integrated, holistic approach to healing families in crisis due to addiction and codependency. In 2020, he established The Chronic Hope Institute to help families in crisis through family addiction coaching. 

In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, Petersen shared a step-by-step approach for working with families and helping them heal from addiction and codependency. 

Since he grew up in a house with addiction himself, Petersen is very familiar with the impact of addiction on the family dynamic on a very personal level. His mother was addicted to prescription drugs, and he himself started using drugs and alcohol at the age of thirteen. 

“I did drugs and alcohol at a young age,” he wrote in Chronic Hope: Families & Addiction. “The question for me was always, ‘How do I make myself feel better? How do I make myself numb?’ Today, children whose parents are addicts may turn to porn, gambling, shopping, or high-pressure academics.”

“From the outside, we were a normal, successful family, but on the inside, it was ‘every man for himself,’” he recalled during the webinar. Petersen began his own journey of recovery in May 1991 and has been sober ever since. 

First off, Petersen talked about how to engage with families that are struggling with drug and alcohol misuse. Therapists should look out for certain signs in client families: “Does the family seem defensive or show signs of denial? Is it apparent that boundaries are poor? Do they have reservations, or are they ready for a different approach?”

Petersen emphasized that it is important that the whole family is ready to make changes. “No therapist can get someone sober,” he told the webinar audience. Families need to learn that sober means more than abstaining from substances, “it’s about quitting drugs and alcohol and living a new way of life.”

Clients and their families need to understand that addiction has three aspects: physical, mental, and spiritual. Petersen then outlined a “Plan A” for recovery with the following components:

  • Boundaries: drawing a hard line around behaviors
  • Accountability: how boundaries will be enforced
  • Structure: what will happen if boundaries are met or not met

There need to be clear boundaries for use (no drugs or alcohol); work and school (weekly accountability reports); and behavior (no disrespectful behavior, language, or violence with weekly meetings to review compliance). 

If this approach does not achieve the intended outcome, a more intense “Plan B” should be considered: treatment in a professional rehab facility. The family needs to learn about available levels of care depending on the needs of the client: medical detox, residential treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, and sober living homes. 

Families also need to address any codependency and enabling behaviors. Codependency is a psychological or emotional reliance on another person in a self-destructive or otherwise harmful way. It often includes enabling behavior, i.e., rescuing the addicted person after they make bad choices. Both behaviors occur frequently in families with addiction. 

Families should always remember that “addiction affects the whole family, not just the addict,” Petersen said. “The entire family system has to change in order not to repeat the past.” Family members are not responsible for their loved one’s addiction, but they are responsible for how they respond to it. “When the addict is a teen, it’s critical for both parents to agree to boundaries, accountability, and structure.”

Recovery is a lifelong process, and people should always remember that “just because the addict is in treatment doesn’t mean everything is okay.” 

Harmony Foundation is one of the world’s longest-running and most successful addiction treatment centers. We offer a family engagement workshop to all families of current and former clients. It provides education to family members about the disease model of addiction and gives family members a place to express themselves and begin the healing process.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction or have questions about our programs, call us today at (970) 432-8075 to get the help needed as soon as possible. Our experienced staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.