Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Family Counseling for Teen Addiction

portrait of a young family of three

Family counseling is an important component of adolescent mental health and substance use disorder treatment. 

Addictions aren’t caused by bad parenting. In order for an addiction to blossom, a teen needs a perfect storm of opportunity, a willingness to take risks and a brain susceptible to the siren song of addictive drugs. Once an addiction is in place, however, the family has a strategic role to play. Good relationships between parents and children could provide the structure that could place a teen on the right path. Poor relationships could allow the dysfunction to continue. Family therapy can help the group come together and amend the situations that could keep them all from healing.

Goals of Family Counseling

The cessation of teen substance abuse is the primary target of the family’s work in therapy. However, reaching this major milestone often means dealing with smaller, more manageable goals, such as:

  • Improved communication
  • Restoration of trust
  • Robust anger management skills
  • Setting appropriate limits
  • Emphasizing respect

A group that can achieve these smaller goals can work together to overcome almost any obstacle, and they might have the kinds of skills that allow them to develop deeper, more connected relationships. Families like this are easy to live in and easy to support, and this might be a benefit that extends long after the addiction is a distant memory.

Parenting skills might also be a focus of family therapy. As an addiction moves forward, parents can feel as though their children are disrespectful, uncontrollable or just lost. They may resort to spying, lying or physical violence, all in the hopes of making the situation better, but these steps could drive a wedge between the parents and the child, making the addiction issue stronger. In therapy, parents can learn how to communicate with their children and provide them with strong, loving guidance.

According to a study of parenting skills after therapy, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, family therapy improved parenting skills, and those stronger parents were directly responsible for the improved behavior of their teens. Even siblings who don’t have addictions might benefit from these therapies, as their parents might be more apt to help them with the new skills they’ve gained.

How Sessions Work

The Mayo Clinic reports that family therapy sessions typically take about an hour and the entire treatment program is often complete within about six months. Teens with more severe issues might need longer courses of treatment, of course, and sometimes sessions might run a little longer. But these general guidelines can give parents some idea of what to plan for when they sign up for family therapy.

Some sessions contain all the members of the family, and they come together as a group under the direction of the counselor. It’s not uncommon, however, for family therapy sessions to mix and match members of the family in separate appointments. Parents might come to one meeting, for example, while just the mother and child might come to the next meeting. Some people even attend individual sessions as part of family therapy. The whole group is changing and growing as the therapy moves forward, but they may not all be in the same room at the same time.

Family therapists often discuss roles that people play within a family. Some members might act out to break tension, for example, while others are forced into stifling caregiver roles. These are patterns buried deep within years of behavior and they can be very hard both to see and to change without help. Family therapists may break down these roles by exposing them and then asking family members to role-play, discuss or just observe. Homework might also play an important role, allowing people to study the changes an addiction can cause within the family and the things they might need to do to make the situation better.

Family therapy is often considered an adjunct therapy for addiction, meaning that it’s used as a supplemental tool to help augment the efficacy of other tools the treatment team is using to deal with an addiction. While teens participate in family therapy, they might also be participating in individual therapy and going to support group meetings. This all-encompassing approach can ensure that the teen has the best chance of really learning, growing and dealing with the addiction issue.

At Muir Wood, we believe that parents can be of vital help during the addiction treatment process, and we ask parents to participate in family therapy as they work to help their teen boys overcome addiction. If you’d like to find out more about how this works, please give us a call.