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Addiction and Family Systems: The Real Story

Have you ever felt that your family’s dysfunction is so bad that no one else’s can compare? If so, you are not alone. Paradoxically enough, it’s very normal to believe that your specific family is the biggest mess. After all, this belief goes hand-in-hand with the thought that you, yourself, are the most messed up … and that’s the kind of extreme thinking that characterizes addiction.

Perhaps the most famous line ever written about family life is Leo Tolstoy’s, in the iconic opening to Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

We all experience our particular family’s unhappiness as unique. And while no two unhappy families are alike, such families do share certain characteristics in common. In fact, there’s a whole arm of psychology called family systems theory that’s devoted to this topic.

In this post, we’ll talk about what family systems are, and why they matter in terms of addiction and recovery. We’ll explore the link between certain types of family dysfunctions and addiction. Finally, we’ll also cover a few family-based addiction prevention approaches, so that you as an individual are empowered to create healthy family relationships and environments going forward.

What Is Family Systems Theory?

Family Systems Theory – conceived by psychiatrist Murray Bowen in the 1950’s – is about looking at the limiting beliefs and behavioral patterns that were handed down to you from your family of origin. It involves taking a close look at how your family operates, and how those dynamics impact your daily life.

Lest this sound grim or fatalistic, know that the goal of working with Family Systems is to help you identify your issues, then work to resolve and heal them. Ultimately, it’s about becoming your own person. You can love and honor your family while still charting your own course in life.

Learning about Family Systems also empowers you to see that your dysfunction doesn’t start and end with you. Instead, you come to realize that present-day dysfunction is one result of hereditary, multi-generational limiting patterns.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t about pointing fingers and assigning blame on your ancestors. Rather, it’s about realizing that you’re just one part of the large, interconnected web that is your family. Understanding this can help to set you free from self-recrimination and regret.

Family Systems and Addiction

We now know that certain types of family dysfunction are linked with addiction. For example, as the authors of the New Zealand-based study Family functioning in families with alcohol and other drug addiction observed:

“… the majority of [addicted] participants had experienced painful and traumatic childhoods in their families of origin, which contributed to their subsequent addictive behavior and which they felt had affected their current familial relationships.”

The study goes on to list several types of traumatic events that can contribute to the development of addiction, including abuse, job loss, divorce, chronic illness, and having a parent struggle with substance abuse themselves.

Child abuse in particular is highly correlated with addiction. Why? Because when you have a family unit in which physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse occurs, you’ll also have family members trying to cope with the trauma.

Addiction is one dysfunctional response to unhealed trauma. Substance abuse is a way of numbing out against the mental and emotional pain of what you experienced in your family system.

As writer, speaker, sexual abuse survivor, and recovering overdrinker Laura Parrott Perry noted in a 2017 interview, The Story You’re Not Telling, “If you’re unwilling to deal with that original wound, you will seek out voluntary pains left, right, and center.”

Family Systems and Recovery

Healing Yourself

Understanding Family Systems Theory also empowers you to take the next step into addiction recovery. Once you grasp how your unhealthy family relationships have shaped your unhealthy, compulsive behaviors, the way forward becomes clear.

In order to heal your addiction, you need to heal your relationships: with reality, with others, and with yourself. As Murray Bowen himself said, “That which is created in a relationship can be ?xed in a relationship.”

So, healing from addiction is about getting connected with healthy relationships and learning a healthier way of being. Where should you start? If you have a dual diagnosis – an addiction and a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety – a well-trained, compassionate therapist is a must.

Healing Your Family Dynamics

One fascinating aspect of Family Systems is that it emphasizes the interconnectedness of family member’s emotional states. According to Family Systems, when one person shifts their emotional state and changes their level of emotional functioning, everyone else in the family unit automatically makes a shift as well.

This is exciting because it frees people to focus on their own behavior. There’s no need to try to control others; rather, as we become healthier and more centered within ourselves, we precipitate changes in our family system. This happens naturally, without force or coercion.

So, if you’re the one dealing with addiction, know that facing down your fears and healing your hurts will benefit the rest of your family as well. Likewise, you have a spouse or sibling or parent who is resisting treatment for their addiction, the changes you make in your own inner life may eventually help to set your loved one on a healthier path.

That said, a word of caution: sometimes relationships get worse before they get better. As you begin to get healthier, the change you’re making will disrupt the previous balance in your family system. There will be an adjustment period, as people get used to the new you. But if you hang in there, staying the course and resisting “change back” attacks, you’ll reap the benefits on the other side. 

Family Systems and Addiction Prevention

Of course, the best way to stop addiction in its tracks is to prevent it from happening in the first place … and that’s where Family Systems meets Addiction Prevention.

If you want to prevent drug abuse in your family, where should you start? Listen to these wise words from Dr. Gilberto Gerra, an addiction expert who runs the Drug Prevention and Health Branch for the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC). He’s one of the world’s foremost authorities on how to use Family Systems Theory to prevent the development of drug addiction.

In a 2017 interview on Family-Based Prevention, Dr. Gerra outlined three simple approaches parents can take to prevent the development of drug addiction in their children:

  • Sharing your undivided attention (but start small): “Spend an afternoon together … Joking with the parents, joking with the child. I always say to parents, don’t spend two hours with them in the beginning. They never see you and they’re going to be sick of you! I suggest [starting] with something smaller, then scale up. Play Lego or to play something together or to prepare a homework for tomorrow.”
  • Model support and relational engagement (especially when a child fails): “[If a child says], “I’m afraid of the test in school. What can I do?” Instead of blaming, you can say, “We can work together so next time you can do better …. You are not to consider this being defeated. You are not diminished because you failed a test. You can do better next time.”
  • Provide real supervision, and don’t give up when it gets tough: “Supervision means, Where are you going? To do what? What time will you come back? With whom will you go? When the child is saying to you, “Go to hell, Daddy. I do not want to reveal to you where I go with whom to do what with at what time” … they say this with the cortex, with the conscious brain. But their amygdala, the storer of emotion and hippocampus and the unconscious brain, is saying, You know why my father and my mother are bothering me so much? Because for them I am of value. They are very interested in me and taking care of me.


Here’s the most important point to remember about family systems: no matter what family system shaped your life in the past, you have the power to choose your present and future.

Exploring and understanding family systems is not about going into victim mode. Rather, it’s about taking a clear-eyed look at what relationships influenced you, and discovering how you can use that influence for good in your life today.

It’s not always easy. In fact, it’s probably going to be a challenge of the highest order. To put it in the wise words of Glennon Doyle, recovering alcoholic, drug user, and bulimic, “Family is the final frontier.”

It’s worth it, though. You can do the work of building healthy relationships within your own family…and when you do, future generations will thank you.

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