Treating the Family System – When Addiction Impacts the Whole Clan…



Imagine an extended family dinner at the home of a relative. A birthday or a holiday, the crepe paper is hung, the smell of something cooking dangles on the air. Pies are cooling on the countertop. The children are playing with their cousins and soft music plays. The stuff of Norman Rockwell. Everyone on their best behavior, wrinkle free and problem free. The family traditions dragged out like boxes of old photographs: dusty, well worn, familiar and occasionally torn.


No One’s Family Looks Like a Rockwell Painting…

Wait a minute. No one’s family looks as spiffy as a Rockwell painting. And if you add alcohol or other drug addiction to the family dynamic, there are a host of hot buttons waiting to be pushed. The children watch their adult relatives “having fun” toasting with Champagne, sipping wine, disappearing into the backyard, getting “silly”. Patterning begins. And if there is someone in the family who has a “problem”, the children either watch with fascination, or if they feel responsible for the behavior, they try to make things right. The definition of codependent behavior.


If a family member drinks too much or seems inebriated, the clan is watchful. A spouse says, “That’s enough.” Mom asks, “What’s wrong?”A family member in recovery? The watchfulness increases. And if other members of the family still drink or use – hold onto your hats – there’s bound to be an argument. The slammed door exit. Or at best, the brow raised looks that only family members can exchange with such unbearable piquancy.


What is it about family that fills you with unmitigated love while pushing every emotional button? The family system can light you up like a pinball arcade…


We sat down with Sanford House Marriage and Family Therapist, Lynnel Brewster (RN,LPC, LLMFT, ADS), to talk about the effects of addiction on every member of the family. Lynnel developed the Family Program for Sanford House.


What is the Family System?

Lynnel Brewster says, “When I think of the family system, I think of the fact that an individual can’t be totally understood outside of their family. They are a part of the family unit. Families are connected emotionally. So in ‘family system theory’, we use ‘systems thinking’ to outline and understand the complex interactions. In your example (above), no member of that family is exempt from the negative effects of alcohol or drug use of a family member. Whether they use or not. For every person who is mired in this terrible disease, a mother, father, child, spouse or significant other, grandparent, brother, sister are suffering too.”


Sanford House Family Program Goals

  • To educate the family about the disease of addiction


  • Provide solid facts about addiction, substance use, co-occurring mental health issues, and relapse prevention


  • Develop effective skills for communication, coping and boundary setting


  • Help families recognize the need for treating the whole family


  • Encourage the family to participate in treatment


  • Examine the stages of recovery for all family members


  • And bring hope and community to the family – they are not alone


Lynnel says, “Sanford House desires to be there for the entire family. We believe family involvement is one of the most important components for a successful treatment experience. I like to answer these questions for family members: Why is it important to include family in the recovery process? What is their role in the process? What can they expect as their loved one begins to change? How can family members handle the inevitable bumps in the road?


“Families are the hidden victims of addiction. At times enduring enormous levels of stress and pain. Despite their suffering, families of addicts seldom receive the support extended to families of loved ones suffering with cancer, a stroke or heart attack,” says Lynnel. “Recovery is more than just stopping the substance use. It is even more than changing the behavior. Recovery suggests something more profound – an inner transformation. The bottom line is that healing truly begins when family members share responsibility.”


For more of Lynnel Brewster’s videos on The Family and Addiction go to the Sanford House YouTube Channel  or click on Excursions and find all our videos in the right hand column.



Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world. (She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing). Seven years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, "Excursions". She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction.