Family Systems Key to Lasting Recovery
Substance use disorders and mental health issues can affect friends and family just as much as the individual experiencing difficulties. While the focus naturally gravitates towards the individual, effective treatment and recovery involves the entire family system. This is why Family Recovery Resource Experts puts family systems at the heart of everything we do, bringing all relevant parties into the discussion to facilitate growth on all sides.
What is a family system?
The most obvious definition of a family system is the traditional nuclear family: mom, dad, and children. That is often extended to include stepmothers and stepfathers, cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, step-siblings, and other close familial relations. But a family system isn’t defined by just blood relation or marital connection. A family system is made up of all those who are connected to and have influence on an individual.
For many of the individuals we serve, their family system contains no blood relatives at all. A family system can simply be friends and close associates, people who hold an important place in that individual’s life. That’s also not to say that the individual wants that person in their family system. It’s not about like or dislike, it’s about meaningful connections and influence, for better or for worse.
Healthy family systems
While each family is unique, there are a number of defining characteristics that constitute healthy or unhealthy family systems. A healthy system knows when to open or close, it knows when to let information in, and overall maintains healthy boundaries. It knows when to take walls down, it knows when to put walls up, and there is self-awareness on all sides. Healthy feedback loops are also important so that members of the system learn from their interactions with each other.
An unhealthy system is more rigid and closed off, and family members may be entrenched in certain behavior patterns that inhibit progress. When a family system becomes stagnant, we don’t see the fluidity and flexibility necessary for healthy feedback. Whatever the specific situation calls for, a healthy family system will remain flexible and maintain an environment that cultivates growth.
Substance use disorders and mental illness
Substance use disorders and mental illness can have a profound impact on family systems, often in ways that go unnoticed by those within the system. We often see individuals who are attempting to help a loved one who has become very entrenched in certain unhealthy behavior patterns. While they set out with the best intentions, the family often starts to mirror those behavior patterns. Whether those behaviors arise from substance use disorders or mental health issues, you start to see rigidity and poor boundaries develop within the system.
Family systems tend to close when they’re experiencing crisis situations because of the stigma of substance use disorder and mental illness. They’re no longer getting feedback from outside sources and they tend to isolate just as the individual isolates themselves.
At Family Recovery Resource Experts, I often jump right in to buffer some of those rigid behavior patterns that aren’t benefitting the larger family system. As those patterns are typically much more destructive than constructive, I’m able to block and challenge some of those behaviors. My presence within the system throws things out of balance and creates the movement, fluidity, and flexibility necessary for growth to take place. By offering insight, education, and support, I can help facilitate real change and break the deadlock that is inhibiting progress.
I’m proud to say that I have seen numerous family systems change and cultivate healthier long-term relationships as a result of their work with Family Recovery Resource Experts. I’m reminded of one family in particular who came in because they suspected their father may have had a substance use disorder. We also suspected that there were other mental health issues, and the relationships within the family were incredibly strained. The children, in particular, were struggling to make sense of the situation and their relationship with their father.
The father went to treatment and has maintained his sobriety ever since. Still, some of the mental health issues persisted and continued to interfere with the family system and cause strain in the relationships with his children. By allowing me to become a part of that system, and to work individually with every member of that system, I was able to help guide and facilitate growth within the children. So even though the father wasn’t working on his mental health issues, the children took it upon themselves to do their own work. Through their efforts, they learned how to communicate with their father more effectively and learned how to maintain adequate expectations about their relationship. Tensions, reactivity, and acts of aggression all became less frequent and less severe. So now they are at the point where they are communicating with their father more effectively, and their father has even reached out for help himself.