Addiction IS a Family Disease

Addiction IS a Family Disease

Addiction IS a Family Disease


Sarah Allen Benton, MS, LMHC, LPC, AADC

Everyone knows of a family that has struggled to cope with a loved one who has a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Friends and observers may try to understand the experience of the family and may watch, sometimes with judgment, as family members try to navigate this stressful situation. Years may pass and despite the family’s best efforts to address the unhealthy family patterns and facilitate change, somehow individuals with SUD may control the family system. Families sometimes falsely believe that unconditional love involves giving unlimited access to finances, housing, inclusion, but they still remain addicted.

Addiction specialists who are working with families, have a really difficult job in terms of helping families to see that the way that they have been expressing love and concern may be feeding the addiction instead of truly helping their loved one recover.  This can be confusing, scary and counterintuitive- as the ways that a family would demonstrate caring towards a healthy member of their family is NOT the way that they should towards one struggling with active addiction. 

Many parents show love through trying to help their child to have a “happy” life.  This may work well for those without SUDs, but parenting those with SUDs requires a different skill set and often involves a new road map.  Families often struggle to chart this course, and that is why therapy, family education programs, educational books and programs such as Al-Anon and Al-Ateen can help families to learn about new ways to deal with their addicted loved one as well as finding a starting point towards their own healing.  Some books that have been helpful resources for families include “Co-Dependent No More” by Melody Beattie, “Get Your Loved One Sober” by William Meyers, Al-Anon literature ( and many more.

A common theme of fear seems to fuel many of the behaviors that families engage in: fear of loss, fear of causing pain and discomfort, fear of illness and death, fear for safety, fears of opinions, fear of the unknown and fear of guilt.  These fears are real- and legitimate, for any number of them could come true.  However, the addicted part of the individual may count on their loved ones being ruled by these fears and may try to capitalize on that reality.  When families are taking a stand and setting limits, they are targeting the SUD, not their loved one. By allowing their loved one to experience natural consequences as a result of their addiction, they are helping to speed up the “cause and effect” connection for that individual.

No one expects a family to instinctively know how to appropriately care for a loved one with an SUD.  Families can role model asking for help just as they would want for the alcoholic in their family- because it truly takes a village to help individuals and families to heal from addiction.  For this and many other reasons, the In Home Addiction Treatment (IHAT) model treats the identified client as well as the entire family system.  Having individuals being treated in their home environment also gives the treatment team observations and access to the way that the family has been impacted by their loved ones SUD and how they have responded.  Each family received both Family Education Sessions as well as Family Systems Therapy sessions and ongoing coaching support from the treatment team.  

As clinicians, we all realize the importance of addressing the family component of addiction treatment.  If you have interest in being trained in a model of care that centers around the family, then the IHAT Institute is providing training for providers in states including CT, MA, NH, ME, RI,VA, IN, FL and now OH!



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