Updated on May 1, 2024
6 min read

Is Family Systems Theory the Right Approach for Addiction?

Recovering from alcohol addiction is a personal journey, but you don’t have to do it alone. It might feel daunting at first, but there’s a framework designed to help you and your loved ones navigate through the process—especially if you’re going on this journey with your family.

The Family System Theory (FST) can help you understand your family's complex dynamics and how they might affect your recovery or even influence your addiction in the first place.

FST is used principally in therapy and counseling to improve relationships and navigate big transitions so that each family member is aware of their impact on the rest of the family. It’s a great way to see the bigger picture when dealing with something as sensitive as addiction in a family.

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Is Family Systems Theory the Right Approach for Addiction?
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How Can Family Systems Theory Help Addiction Recovery?

Family Systems Theory explores how the action of one family member can ripple throughout the entire family unit and affect everyone. The family feels anything that happens⁠—in different intensities that cause different responses.

Addiction is not just one member’s issue but something that affects everyone. With FST in mind, you consider that each person’s behavior and emotional response can influence addiction and recovery.  It’s a theory of how the family handles stress, communicates, and reacts to problems.

When you’re able to take the entirety of the family and its dynamics into consideration, it becomes easier to see how addiction may have come about and how recovery can happen.

Family Dynamics that Influence Addiction

By evaluating a family’s complex threads and relationships, counselors can uncover harmful patterns or interactions that may have encouraged addiction or made someone vulnerable to it.

There are key factors that influence the family’s emotional unit. These dynamics include:

1. Family Projection Process

How your family handles stress or insecurities can affect each member. It’s not uncommon for parents and children to share similar emotional challenges or mental health conditions, as children will notice changes in a parent’s emotional state and feel anxious as a result.

The family projection process discusses how parents transmit their emotional problems to their children, affecting their development.10 Acknowledging this process can be the first step towards healing for you and the family.

2. Emotional Cutoff

At times, family members can be too emotionally taxing for one person, which is why an emotional cutoff can be helpful. An emotional cutoff involves intentionally limiting one's interactions with the family for self-preservation.

This isn’t about putting blame on others but understanding that distance is an act of caring. Understanding this can help you find healthier ways of connecting and supporting each other.

You can do this by creating a physical or emotional distance. You can also try avoiding certain sensitive topics to avoid triggers. However, it’s important to understand that emotional cutoff rarely solves familial issues.

3. Emotional Distance

Emotional distances typically happen when family members feel disconnected for various reasons, including time spent apart and past events or trauma.

Acknowledging this distance and getting to the root of it can help you reconnect and foster a supportive environment. This way, every family member feels seen and heard.


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Family Systems Therapy and the Genogram

Mental health professionals use a genogram to chart family members' interpersonal relationships. This involves interviewing each family member to learn the family’s history spanning at least three generations.

It also displays the family’s medical history, including:

  • Hereditary history
  • Physical history
  • Psychological history

The genogram helps identify patterns and connections that may impact your behavioral and mental health. It can help you see the bigger picture and understand how these relationships shape your recovery process.

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Who Benefits From Family Systems Theory?

Any family with communication issues or dysfunctional relationships can benefit from this type of therapy. But it can especially help those dealing with addiction and recovery. 

Understanding how the family dynamic works can offer insights into patterns impacting recovery. But it’s important to know that FST isn’t about placing blame on anyone. Instead, it’s about recognizing and working with patterns to foster a supportive environment.

When it comes to addiction recovery, FST is great at uncovering the mechanisms that may have contributed to addiction and which can ensure safe recovery. Families that have experienced trauma, loss, or separation can experience a communication issue. This can make FST a valuable tool to reconnect and communicate with each other.

How Does Family Systems Theory Work?

Professionals apply FST to group therapy sessions. You and your family can share your experiences with a therapist to cultivate understanding without putting anyone on the defensive.

Here, each person can voice their concerns directly to a healthcare professional. Allowing other family members to listen without interrupting or fighting.

The exact focus of FST varies depending on the situation. In the case of a child or adolescent, a healthcare provider may focus on their parents. This is because an adult has a higher emotional impact on a child.

What Are The Four Subsystems in Family Systems Theory?

It’s helpful to understand how the family’s relationship affects your path to wellness. FST breaks down the family unit into four subsystems based on the nuclear family.

Here’s how each subsystem in FST affects your family dynamic:

  • Individual members: Recognizing that every member of the family contributes to each other’s overall health
  • Relationships: Partners and spouses can often affect the family’s emotional health
  • Parent-child relationships: The interaction between parents and children can greatly influence recovery
  • Siblings: The relationship between siblings can help through their shared history and understanding

One way you can see this at work is how your parents' relationship can affect how you view love. Meanwhile, sibling relationships can influence your development and how you treat others.

Overall, these relationships are interconnected and shape how your family supports each other. Understanding how you influence each other can help you navigate the challenges of addiction recovery.

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What are the Benefits of Family Systems Therapy 

Every treatment option has advantages and disadvantages. Family systems therapy is no different, whether you’re using it as a strategy for addiction recovery or for unpacking other issues.

These are the strengths of family systems therapy:

  • Improve communication 
  • Stabilize emotional system
  • Strengthen family relationships and cohesion
  • Foster a healthier environment for children 
  • Reduce emotional cutoff
  • Promote a non-medicinal form of treatment
  • Introduce a new way of viewing family problems
  • Support from experts

Limitations of the Family Systems Theory

On the other hand, these are the weaknesses of family systems therapy:

  • Increase short-term tension due to voiced personal complaints
  • Can be ineffective on unwilling participants
  • Can be unproductive with inpatient treatment
  • Can cause traumatic triggers
  • Can be emotionally overwhelming
  • Doesn't treat issues that don’t directly connect to the family

Additionally, many therapists and patients in treatment have agreed that family systems therapy is effective. However, there's limited empirical evidence to back the approach. While the evidence grows, more data is necessary to confirm its efficacy.

Other Resources for Families Dealing with Addiction

Aside from FST, various resources can help you and your family navigate through addiction. These include:

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Updated on May 1, 2024
10 sources cited
Updated on May 1, 2024
  1. Zerbe et al. “Benefits and limitations of Bowen therapy with psychiatric inpatients.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1989.
  2. Fundamentals of Family Theory.” Atlantic International University, 2019.
  3. Brown, J. "Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Technique.” The Family Systems Institute, 1999.
  4. Kerr, M.E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2000.
  5. Varghese et al. “Family Interventions: Basic Principles and Techniques.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2020.
  6. Slesnick et al. “Family systems therapy for substance-using mothers and their 8- to 16-year-old children.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors: Journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 2016.
  7. Jakimowicz et al. “Bowen Family Systems Theory: Mapping a framework to support critical care nurses' well-being and care quality.” Nursing Philosophy, 2021.
  8. Briggs et al. “Subsystem in Family Systems Theory.” Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy, 2017.
  9. Watson, W. “Family Systems.” Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Second Edition), 2012.
  10. Family Projection Process.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.

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