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Why Does Family Matter?

Addiction can be tough on families. Addiction can disrupt communication between individuals and induce painful feelings of stress, betrayal, and shame. This can, in turn, strain the family environment and lead to unhealthy dynamics.

However, families can play an important role in recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Commission (SAMHSA) identifies community support and relationships as one of the most important pillars of recovery. As one of the primary sources of companionship and affection to an individual, family units can provide useful support for someone struggling with addiction.

What Unhealthy Roles Can Family Members Play In Addiction?

If your family is impacted by drug, alcohol or behavioral addiction, you may find that you develop what researchers call a dysfunctional system. In a dysfunctional system, members of a group unknowingly take on particular roles to cope with the stress that they are collectively experiencing. These roles may be:

  • The savior - They are the “star” of the family. They never let anyone down, and they are never seen to cause problems. They may end up compensating for the shame the family feels concerning addiction. The positive way the family treats the savior may compound the unhealthy shame the person with the addiction feels.
  • The clown - They crack jokes and make everyone else in the family laugh. While this can relieve stress, it can also make the person suffering from substance abuse or behavioral addiction feel worse.
  • The scapegoat - They often take the blame for things that go wrong in the family. They might also attempt to distract from bigger issues by manufacturing other, smaller problems. This can help the family avoid tackling the addiction or get in the way of the person seeking help with the addiction.
  • The rescuer - They excuse the behavior of the person with the addiction. They find themselves unable to hold this person to account. This can stop the family from being honest and may, in turn, create further shame about what’s really going on.

How Can Families Establish Healthy Roles?

Families can break out of toxic cycles and play a healthy role in supporting recovery. Acknowledging unhealthy roles is the first step to overcoming them. Try and open up a dialog within your family about the roles that you are playing. Be honest and clear as actions motivated by love may still be damaging.

Then you can identify healthy roles and behaviors for supporting each other, including the family member who is struggling with addiction. These may include:

  • The conversation facilitator - Someone playing this role can help tackle unhelpful feelings of shame in the family by opening up caring and honest conversations within the family unit. This can help people reflect on their actions and create stronger, more supportive bonds. It can also help everyone, including the person with the addiction, to confront problems as they arise.
  • The supportive companion - Family members can play the role of supportive companions by helping facilitate access to treatment. This may include driving them to appointments, sitting in with them, or calling them afterwards to see how it went.
  • The shoulder to cry on - They can make other family members feel safe and able to express their emotions. This can help every family member feel supported and tackle unhelpful feelings of shame that may be present.

Families can play a vital role when recovering from addiction. It is possible to transform unhealthy relationship patterns into supportive dynamics that promote recovery and allow everyone to thrive.

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