The Role of Family Therapy in Recovery

When someone is affected by mental illness or addiction, it can affect the entire family. When that person enters treatment, the family’s pain and confusion don’t just go away. How does any family member move past the damage that has occurred? How does the family as a whole strengthen the ties that hold it together? Family therapy is one answer. It works together with individual therapy for the benefit of all family members.


Family therapy is based on the idea that a family is a system of different parts. A change in any part of the system will trigger changes in all the other parts. This means that when one member of a family is affected by a behavioral health disorder such as mental illness or addiction, everyone is affected. As a result, family dynamics can change in unhealthy ways. Lies and secrets can build up in the family. Some family members may take on too much responsibility, other family members may act out, and some may just shut down. Sometimes conditions at home are already unhappy before a family member’s mental illness or addiction emerges. That person’s changing behaviors can throw the family into even greater turmoil. Often a family remains stuck in unhealthy patterns even after the family member with the behavioral health disorder moves into recovery. Even in the best circumstances, families can find it hard to adjust to the person in their midst who is recovering, who is behaving differently than before, and who needs support. Family therapy can help the family as a whole recover and heal. It can help all members of the family make specific, positive changes as the person in recovery changes. These changes can help all family members heal from the trauma of mental illness or addiction.


“Family” means a group of two or more people with close and enduring emotional ties. Using this definition, each person in treatment for a behavioral health disorder has a unique set of family members. Therapists don’t decide who should be in family therapy. Instead they ask, “Who is most important to you?” Sometimes members of a family live together, but sometimes they live apart. Either way, if they are considered family by the person in treatment, they can be included in family therapy.

Who is your family?

  • parents, guardians, caretakers
  • spouses or partners
  • in-laws
  • siblings
  • children
  • elected, chosen, or honorary family members
  • other relatives
  • stepparents
  • stepchildren
  • foster parents
  • foster children
  • godparents
  • godchildren
  • blended family members
  • extended family members
  • friends
  • fellow veterans
  • colleagues who care
  • mentors
  • mutual-help group members
  • sponsor


Family therapy is typically introduced after the individual in treatment for mental illness or addiction has made progress in recovery. This could be a few months after treatment starts, or a year or more later. Timing is important because people new to recovery have a lot to do. They are working to remain stable in their new patterns of behavior and ways of thinking. They are just beginning to face the many changes they must make to stay mentally healthy or to remain sober. They are learning such things as how to deal with urges to fall into old patterns, how to resist triggers and cravings, how to adhere to medication regimens, and how to avoid temptations to rationalize and make excuses. For them to explore family issues at the same time can be too much. It can potentially contribute to relapse into mental illness or substance-using behaviors. Family therapy tends to be most helpful once the person in treatment is fully committed to the recovery process and is ready to make more changes. The person’s counselor can advise on the best time to start family therapy.

Stages of Recovery


There are two main goals in family therapy. One goal is to help everyone give the right kind of support to the family member in behavioral health treatment, so that recovery sticks and relapse is avoided. The other goal is to strengthen the whole family’s emotional health, so that everyone can thrive. Specific objectives for family therapy are unique to each family, and these objectives may change over time. The family decides for itself what to focus on, and when.

Family Therapy Objectives



No, family therapy is more than family education. Many behavioral health programs conduct education sessions for families on such topics as a particular mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, treatment, relapse, and recovery. Families can use this information to better understand what is happening, how it might affect them, and what to do to help the family member in treatment. Education is important, but many families also need help applying the information they have learned. Family therapy provides a safe and neutral space in which everyone learns how to adjust to life with a member recovering from mental illness or addiction. The therapist helps the family make changes so that members support each other and treat each other with respect, stop enabling unhealthy behaviors, and learn to trust each other. Working with a specially trained therapist, family members take a close look at how they act with one another. They look at whether they are conducting themselves in ways that are hurtful or helpful. Family members learn how to modify their behaviors so that they support the needs of the person in recovery as well as the needs of the whole family, including themselves. They also learn how to better communicate with each other, and they practice new ways of talking, relating, and behaving. Sometimes, a family has problems that have been hidden behind the drama of mental illness or addiction. These problems rise to the surface once the person with a behavioral health disorder goes into treatment. The family therapist can help the family talk together to resolve concerns and mend relationships. The family therapist can refer members of the family to individual counseling if they need or request it.


The leader of a family therapy session may be a licensed family therapist, social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, clergy member, or some other type of professional. Whatever the title, the leader must meet the legal and professional requirements for working in family therapy. Special training and skills are required, because family therapy is quite different from one-on-one counseling. The professional who conducts family therapy sessions may be associated with a center that specializes in this work. Sometimes the professional is on the staff of the behavioral health treatment program where the family member is a client. It’s important that the professional who conducts the sessions be sensitive to the family’s unique characteristics. This person does not have to have the same background as the family in terms of culture, race, ethnic group, or any other factor. However, he or she must be respectful and understanding without being judgmental. Typically, the family is provided with a 24-hour crisis phone number. If there is a family emergency between sessions, counseling professionals who staff the crisis line can provide support.


Family therapy involves the entire family meeting together. Sometimes part of the family meets. The family therapist may work one-on-one with a particular family member, in addition to the family sessions, although this is not typical. Sessions usually last about an hour and take place at a clinic, at the therapist’s office, or—less often—in a family member’s home. The focus of the session may be on the person in treatment, on another family member, or on the family as a whole. Sessions can be low-key or intense, depending on the purpose of the particular session. Before starting the first session, the therapist may ask family members to sign a contract. This is a way to show that family members agree to certain behaviors, such as to continue individual treatment or to not interrupt each other. Family members also may be asked to sign a consent form to show that they understand the ground rules for privacy and confidentiality. Usually, everyone including the therapist is expected to respect the privacy of what is said during each session and not share it with anyone outside the group. There are some exceptions to this rule, which will be explained on the consent form and by the therapist. In the session, the family therapist may ask questions or listen and observe while the others talk. The therapist does this to learn such things as how family members behave and communicate with each other and what the family’s strengths and needs are. The particular techniques used by the therapist will depend on the phase of treatment for the member in treatment and the family’s readiness for change. The family therapist may refer the whole family or individual members to extra sources of help. For example, the therapist may encourage family members to go for individual counseling, to join a mutual-help group, or to take classes on topics such as parenting or anger management.


There are many things that can happen in family therapy. A session can be devoted to talking about family concerns and how people are feeling. Family members might use the session to talk about a particular crisis or problem that needs solving. Or, they might want to focus on the changes that have been happening. Another possible topic for a family therapy session is coping skills, such as how to deal with anger, regret, or sadness. Sometimes just letting out feelings and talking about them in therapy sessions can bring relief, understanding, and healing. The focus of a session might be on learning how to communicate more effectively with each other. For example, the therapist might coach a family member to speak up, to practice saying “no” to unreasonable demands, or to give a compliment. Family members might be asked to rephrase a statement in a more positive way. The therapist also might help family members improve their listening and observing skills to reduce misunderstanding. Sometimes the therapist asks family members to do homework before the next session. For example, the therapist might ask family members to watch for nice things that other family members say during the week. The therapist might ask family members to eat a meal together or to do something fun together, like play board games or go bowling. The homework is designed to help family members practice new and healthier ways of behaving with each other.


Sometimes family members are unwilling to join family therapy. There are many possible reasons for this:


Research suggests that behavioral health treatment that includes family therapy works better than treatment that does not. For people with mental illness, family therapy in conjunction with individual treatment can increase medication adherence, reduce rates of relapse and rehospitalization, reduce psychiatric symptoms, and relieve stress. For people with addiction, family therapy can help them decide to enter or stay in treatment. It can reduce their risk of dropping out of treatment. It also can reduce their continued use of alcohol or drugs, discourage relapse, and promote long-term recovery. Family therapy benefits other family members besides the person in treatment. By making positive changes in family dynamics, the therapy can reduce the burden of stress that other family members feel. It can prevent additional family members from moving into drug or alcohol use. Research also shows that family therapy can improve how couples treat each other, how children behave, how the whole family gets along, and how the family connects with its neighbors. Family therapy isn’t always easy. There will be struggles for everyone involved, but the outcome is worth it. Family therapy is an effective way to help the person in treatment, while also helping the family as a whole.

Contact CT Addiction Medicine today to begin your family’s journey to a healthier and happier life.

Source:  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) ; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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