Addiction: It’s a Family Affair by Kerry Law LMFT,LADC


Parenting is not an easy job. It becomes even more challenging when your teen or young adult uses and or abuses substances. Common statements made by clients entering treatment are: “It’s my life, I am not hurting anyone else” or “my parents are crazy.”  However, what they are neglecting to take into account is that their behavior directly affects their family dynamic.

While working with families who have a loved one struggling with substances, it is essential to understand that just as our bodies are always attempting to maintain homeostasis, family systems are doing the same. The system is constantly reacting to dysfunction and attempting to restore balance.  

How families attempt to maintain this balance varies. Some families may use avoidance or denial while others micro manage and attempt to control with ridged structure and inflexibility.  Making excuses, over compensating and hyper vigilance becomes the new normal.  As your loved one under performs family members may over perform.  This attempt to create balance are enabling behaviors. What you think is helping is actually supporting the behavior to continue.

Have you ever ask yourself what could I have been thinking? Or why did I do that? You are not alone.  I find that these are common questions pondered by parents or significant others who have been dealing with substance use within the family and have reached a point that they can no longer live in chaos or fear. I encourage people not beat themselves up, but to recognize that you were trying to support and protect and survive. I also to stress having empathy as you were acting on your parental instinct to protect.

It is important for parents and family members to receive support and education around substance use and the how it impacts the functioning of ALL family members.

The subconscious drive to protect and save is instinctual. A clear example of instinct is a mother tiger and her baby cubs. Her instinct is to PROTECT!  How do you feel when your loved is doing something that may put them in danger?  My guess is you’re awfully similar to the tiger.

The family’s response to these situations is ingrained within the family system.  Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to point out patterns of dysfunction to help find new ways to promote healthy functioning.

From an evolutionary perspective our brains have developed a powerful nurturing circuit which influences many of our cognitions and behavior as parents. This nurturing circuit is primal and powerful and it is a part of our genetic makeup.  Take a moment and think about some important decisions you have made related to your children. Now consider how the power of the nurturing circuit in your brain may have influenced your thinking. Decisions and behaviors that involve protecting, helping, fixing, saving and supporting were aimed at fixing the problem and balancing the family system.  Unfortunately enabling can prevent learning or growth from taking place as a result of natural consequences.

Substance use impacts the entire family system and therefore is a family affair.  I encourage treatment for parents and significant others as well as the individual struggling with a substance use disorder. Remember that our parental instinct and nurture circuit is a powerful force and it is ok to ask for help. 

Here some questions that you may find helpful when you are wondering am I supporting or am I enabling?

Is this action helping the person or supporting the substance use?  
Am I preventing them from an opportunity to grow?  
Am I doing something that they can do them self?
Am I making an excuse for them?  
Am I taking on their anxiety?
Am I trying to fix?
Am I more concerned about it than they are?

Project Courage believes in healing the family as a unit and as such we offer multiple family services both on a group and individual basis. To learn more about our services visit our services page here

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