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All in the Family: The Advantages of Family Systems Therapy

Family Systems Therapy, couple in therapy session - family systems therapy

Family Systems Therapy can be particularly beneficial in the context of addiction recovery. Substance use disorder, (formerly known as substance abuse), and addiction not only affect the individual struggling with the addiction but also have a significant impact on the entire family unit. Family members may experience feelings of helplessness, anger, guilt, and anxiety, and the dynamics within the family can contribute to the addiction or hinder the recovery process. 

Incorporating Family Systems Therapy into the recovery process can help address these issues and create a supportive and healthy environment for the individual seeking recovery.  


Consider the five players on a basketball team. On every play—offense or defense—what one player does affects all five players. If you aren’t in position to rebound a missed shot, your team might lose the ball. If you don’t guard the person you are assigned to guard on defense, the other team might get an easy bucket and put your whole team behind. Mistakes made by one person hurt the entire team. On the other hand, when things go right, success is shared.

Your family is like a basketball team. That’s the theory behind family systems therapy (FST), an approach that asks entire family units to work individually and together to find solutions to problems being experienced by one or more members of the “team.” The family works collaboratively to help one another and to find new strategies to support each other when someone is struggling. The hope is that the therapy will rebuild the family team, healing broken relationships and solving—or at least ameliorating—long-standing problems.

You Know What They Say About Middle Children…

FTS might sound exotic, but a portion of its original ideas are widely known and repeated—sometimes jokingly and sometimes seriously—by lots of people. In the 1950s, psychiatrist Murray Bowen was working at the National Institute of Mental Health and outlining the family systems therapy idea. Bowen believed that birth order had a lot to do with determining the personalities and behaviors of members of a family. So, for example, the idea that first children are overachievers and youngest children are rebels entered the public consciousness.

Whether or not birth order is an indicator of likely behavioral patterns, it is undeniable that every member of a family plays a role in the dynamics of that family—and that role can be positive or negative, helpful or damaging, neutral or influential. FTS seeks to understand existing roles in the hope of inspiring change that might lead to a better environment for everyone.

Family Systems Therapy and Substance Abuse Disorders

In some cases, family systems therapy may be useful to a person struggling with addiction—particularly if the substance abuse disorder in question has its roots in an attachment disorder or family-related trauma of some kind.

While undergoing family systems therapy, the person with the substance use disorder will be asked to come to terms with the causes and effects of his or her behavior. But other family members will have their own reckoning to do. Maybe a parent’s overly high expectations and expressions of disappointment have undermined a child’s confidence and led them to seek comfort in drugs or alcohol. Maybe a sibling is in a codependent relationship with the person struggling with addiction. Maybe the whole family needs better approaches to talking about problems and supporting one another.

In the end, family systems therapy doesn’t just result in improved outcomes for one member of the family. Rather, it provides a space for honesty, empathy, and adjustment that can benefit every member of a family, providing a firm foundation for building and maintaining strong, supportive relationships.

Here are five important ways that Family Systems Therapy can be applied to recovery: 

  • Establishing Boundaries: In recovery, it’s crucial to set appropriate boundaries to support the individual’s sobriety. Family Systems Therapy can assist both the individual in recovery and their family members in understanding and respecting each other’s boundaries. 
  • Addressing Codependency: Codependency is a common issue in families with addiction, where family members enable the substance use by accommodating or covering up for the addicted individual. Family Systems Therapy can help family members recognize and address codependent behaviors.
  • Strengthening Support Systems: Family Systems Therapy focuses on strengthening the support system around the individual in recovery. It involves working with family members to become allies in the recovery journey rather than triggers for relapse. 
  • Enhancing Family Communication: Effective communication is essential for understanding each family member’s needs and promoting a supportive atmosphere. Family Systems Therapy can teach healthy communication skills, such as active listening and expressing emotions constructively. 
  • Promoting Empathy and Understanding: Addiction can lead to strained relationships and emotional distance within the family. Family Systems Therapy aims to promote empathy and understanding among family members, fostering a sense of connection and unity. 

Not Just for Addiction Issues

Family systems therapy can be effective in any number of situations, helping families come to grips with a range of mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression as well as eating disorders. Difficult issues like divorce, unemployment, chronic illness, or even the death of a family member can be addressed in a FTS setting. Regardless of the issues at hand, the therapy gives every member of the family a voice and encourages mutual support for one another.

Every Team Needs a Great Coach

Remember that basketball team we were thinking about? Well, there may be five players on the floor at any given time, but there’s also an important person standing on the sidelines watching the game unfold. A team’s coach can see what’s working and what isn’t working and can help find solutions that each member of the team can put into effect on the court. The coach can’t shoot the ball or block a shot, but he or she has a unique perspective that can help a committed team get better all the time.

That coaching role is filled by your therapist in a family systems setting. He or she will be able to help you define the issues that are harming your family as a whole as well as those that are harming any individual member of the family. Together, you’ll develop a winning game plan.

We’ll Help Your Family Find A Winning Strategy

Family Systems Therapy can be conducted in various settings, including individual therapy sessions with the person in recovery, joint sessions involving the entire family, or a combination of both. The therapist’s goal is to create a safe space where family members can express their feelings and work collaboratively to support the individual’s recovery process. 

It’s important to note that Family Systems Therapy should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan that may include individual counseling, support groups, and other evidence-based interventions to address the complexity of addiction and promote lasting recovery. 

At Bel Aire Recovery Center in Kansas, we care not only about the person pursuing lasting sobriety. We also care about the whole family. If FTS is right for your family, we have the resources and expertise to get you started. We are always on your team and ready to help you secure a victory over substance abuse disorders.

For more information about programs offered at Bel Aire Recovery Center, Kansas substance abuse treatment, contact us today. We are ready to help you transform your life from drug and alcohol addiction.

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