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Minimizing Damage from a Substance Use Disorder Crisis in the Family

By Comments off By the Numbers: Minimizing Damage from a Substance Use Disorder Crisis in the Family

How we handle a crisis is as important as dealing with the issue itself. This is especially true when a family is dealing with a substance use disorder. Of course, the primary aim is to stabilize the situation. That can mean getting someone into treatment, getting them medically stabilized or possibly performing an intervention. But handling a crisis situation the wrong way can result in long-lasting trauma for the individuals and the entire family unit. Here are five things to consider to minimize the potential impact on your family.

This is a crisis for at least some family members.

When a person has a substance use disorder, oftentimes their loved ones will experience a crisis about it before they do. You often see this with parents dealing with a child’s substance use. For distraught and concerned parents, the crisis might be an overdose that lands their child in the hospital. But that child—and I’m talking about grown children, too—may not see even a life-threatening situation like that as a crisis. It’s important to acknowledge that this is a crisis situation for at least some members of the family even though not everyone might see it that way.

Everyone adapts to the situation—and it’s not always in healthy ways.

We all adapt to our environment; it’s human nature. When a crisis situation involving substance abuse occurs within a family, our adaptive behaviors often become dysfunctional. For example, siblings of someone with a substance use disorder may react differently based on their personality types. A high achiever may go overboard in trying to be perfect at everything so the parents will notice her. A naturally shy kid may retreat into himself so as not to rock the unsteady boat. Regardless of the way in which people adapt to crisis, the key is to recognize that it happens and is unique to each member of the family unit.

Past experiences, potentially traumatic ones, often shape our reactions today.

Crisis often triggers trauma from our past. And that doesn’t always mean one big event—trauma can be the sum of many experiences we’ve had. It’s common for us to fall back on our own adaptive behaviors in a crisis, and those don’t always serve us well. For example, maybe a mother grew up in an alcoholic home and her adaptive behavior was to be a little adult. She grew up trying to take care of her siblings and take control of things she shouldn’t have had to at such a young age. Now, as an adult faced with her child’s substance use disorder, she may revert to those old behaviors of trying to control everything—including things she doesn’t know about, like her child’s medical care. It’s important to acknowledge the roots of that dysfunctional behavior if we’re going to move past it.

We can’t control our loved ones’ behaviors and illnesses.

This is arguably the hardest thing for any parent, sibling or any family member to accept. It’s human nature for us to second-guess our actions in the past or believe there’s something we can do to save our loved one from themselves. But trying to control the situation can sometimes result in more harm than good. It’s a journey to accept our lack of control over other people. It requires surrendering to the reality that this individual is having this experience in their own life. We may be able to influence them, but we can’t control them.

Once the crisis is averted, our work toward healing continues.

Once the crisis situation is diffused, people often assume their job is complete. But a lot of damage has been done. Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s had an impact. The dysfunction in the family leaves lasting impressions. It’s formed a wedge people are not even consciously aware of. Yes, averting the crisis is the priority. But that’s only the first step. The lasting work comes after that.

Is your family experiencing a substance use disorder crisis? We can help. Send us an email at or schedule a consultation.