Recovery Month And The Role Of Family Dynamics In Substance Abuse

September is National Recovery Month! According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, National Recovery Month “promotes the message that recovery in all its forms is possible and also encourages citizens to take action to help expand and improve the availability of effective prevention, treatment and recovery services for those in need.” September is an excellent time to remember that recovery is possible and to brush up on some terms and ideas to use in practice.

The term “recovery” can refer to a person’s journey to get addiction treatment or to utilize mental health services, and today we will look at some factors that influence a person’s quest to curtail substance abuse — and, in particular, how family dynamics can contribute to the continuance or discontinuance of that behavior.

Substance Does Not Occur in a Bubble

When we see addicts in the media, they are often portrayed as the main character struggling alone. We may see the addict destroy his/her most valued relationships, destroy a prized possession or squander important opportunities. We get to know a lot about the addict, but we rarely see the family’s role in contributing to the addictive behavior. The truth is, a person’s battle with addiction is usually closely tied to the personal relationships he or she has with family members.

As social workers, we are called to look at the “person in environment.” It is important to look beyond the addict and start asking questions about his or her family. There are often family dynamics that reinforce addictive behaviors, and family members may have no idea that these behaviors exist.

Parents and Spouses May Enable the Addict to Continue His/Her Behavior

When a family member is struggling or in trouble, it is common for the other family members to come to his or her aid. And it is normal, good and expected that family members will help each other out when they need it. But when the family member is in trouble as a result of substance abuse, any efforts on the part of the family to help with the addict’s problems often continue the addict’s behavior. The dynamic is called “enabling,” and it occurs in many families with an addicted family member.

The dynamic plays itself in countless ways. A child may get a ticket for drunk driving, and instead of allowing the child to experience the full legal repercussions of his or her action, parents will pay for a lawyer because the child needs the car to drive to school every day. A father may be using cocaine when he is with his friends, and his spouse may encourage him to spend time with friends because his presence in the house is so disturbing. An aunt may miss an important event because she was hung over, and family members tell members of the community that she couldn’t come because she has been “under the weather.” In any situation where family members take care of the problems created by an addict’s behavior, an enabling dynamic is present.

Families with an Addict May Have a Codependent Family Member

When people speak about addiction, we often hear the word “codependence.” It’s one of those phrases that gets tossed around a lot, and is often used incorrectly. So what does it mean?

The term “codependence” refers to a relationship wherein one person — usually a parent or a spouse of an addict — becomes reliant on the addicted person’s substance abuse. In families where one member is an addict, it is very likely that a codependent relationship can develop.

It sounds strange that such a dynamic can occur. Why would a family member try and keep another family member addicted to substances? How could someone become dependent on someone else’s addiction, especially when they love that person and want to best for them?

The dynamic can get pretty complex, but a simple explanation is that a family member comes to believe that they must support the addicted family member, even though the addict’s behavior is incredibly destructive. Substance-seeking family members can be very persuasive and can convince a spouse or parent or sibling that they are sick, that they need the family member’s help and that without their help, the addict will die or suffer tremendously. A family member who believes such assertions — that they must help the addict or the addict will be harmed — will then support the addict’s substance abuse. The codependent family member then becomes an accomplice in the addict’s behavior and will lend them money or support them in their addictive behaviors.

When a Family Member Begins Recovery, New Issues Will Crop Up

When a family member finally gets help, family members often believe that the family’s problems are solved. With the addiction under control, family life will finally be smooth sailing. And, as mentioned above, in movies, that’s often the way it plays out. The addict gets clean, stays sober and his or her relationships begin to bloom.

Unfortunately, recovery is only the first step toward healthy, functioning relationships within the family unit. In the period of time that an addict has exhibited addictive behavior, families feel a tremendous range of emotions: anger, fear, resentment, embarrassment, helplessness, frustration and disappointment are almost universally experienced. All of those feelings and the issues that stem from them will need to be addressed.

Recovery for Families

While a family member enters rehab for addiction, families need a variety of supportive resources. The following groups and organizations offer help that can assist a family in putting the pieces back together again:

  • Al-Anon: Al-Anon meetings offer “strength and hope for friends and families of problem drinkers.” If you have a client who has a family member with an alcohol addiction, this is an excellent resource for support.
  • Nar-Anon: Nar-Anon is very similar to Al-Anon, but is for families who have a family member who is addicted to drugs.
  • Local Substance Abuse Treatment Centers and Mental Health Clinics: SAMHSA lists thousands of mental health clinics and support groups in every state in the country. For help on how to find a clinic near your service population, you can visit them online or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or 1-800-487-4889 (TDD).


Recovery is a process. Many addicts who have been clean and sober after years of abuse say that the recovery process was the most important journey of their lives. Knowing the role of family dynamics can help you assist a client on their journey to sobriety.