The Family Effect: Navigating and Supporting a Loved One’s Recovery Journey

By Paul Sawyer

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This article is part of a four-part series recognizing September as National Recovery Month. This month we aim to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover.  Each part of the series will explore a different aspect of recovery. 

Time and time again, when we speak with families of loved ones who have struggled with a substance use or mental health disorder, we find that the treatment focus has been on the individual and not the family. Not surprising, when the individual begins their recovery journey, the family is left behind and does not know how to adapt to their loved one’s new life and change their behaviors in order to best support their loved one which creates stress both on the family and individual. In order to effectively support their loved one’s recovery, the family, especially the parents, need to engage in the treatment process and understand how their own behaviors and the family system operated to contribute or protect the disorder. By no means are we saying that the family is at fault for a loved one’s disorder, but, because the family is a system, when one part of the system is out of sync (i.e. a loved one experiencing a substance use or mental health disorder), the whole system (family) adapts to create a certain pattern of behaviors to protect the whole system.

Every family is unique, but some typical behaviors we see from families who have a loved one struggling with a substance use or other compulsive disorders are protecting the individual from negative consequences (credit or financial consequences, not meeting school or work obligations, social image, etc.), taking over the loved one’s responsibilities, making excuses for their behavior, minimizing or rationalizing their behavior, or keeping it a secret from family and friends. It makes sense why parents engage in these behaviors because protecting their child is an innate characteristic that parents often do unconsciously. Frequently, these patterns of behaviors are created and maintained over a long period of time and it is not easy to change them quickly.

Substance use disorders are not natural; therefore they require an unnatural or uncomfortable approach by the family for change to be made. We find that when change is made in the parental unit, change is much more likely to follow with the individual struggling with the substance use disorder. This includes setting clear boundaries and expectations, letting the loved one fail, letting them have consequences for their actions, and supporting the loved one when they do make the right decisions. As mentioned, these behaviors will be uncomfortable to the parents or family, but are necessary to help move their loved one toward the recovery process. The actions that the family took to help get the loved one into treatment are likely going to be the same things that keep the individual from relapsing and going back to treatment. Clear expectations and consistency are key in supporting a loved one throughout the whole recovery journey. Again, every family and situation is different which is why it is important to work with a trusted coach, consultant, or advisor with experience navigating the complicated family dynamics when a loved one is struggling with a substance use or mental health issue.

If your family has loved one experiencing substance use or mental health issues and you are unsure on how to manage it, please give us a call and we can assess to see if we will be the right fit to support you and your family.

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