By Cynthia Doth, MA LADC LPCC
Outreach Mgr, Substance Use Support Specialist, Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation
Link to Professional Bio

The family is a system and is in constant motion. The family, as a whole,is continually seeking balance. Each individual affects the whole system and the whole system affects each individual. Each person has their place, role, or position in the family. When there is a crisis within the system or with one of the family members, the system is off balance. With time a new balance settles in as an attempt to create a new normal.

Some crises are predictable (children starting school or becoming teenagers), some crises are unpredictable (loss of job, moving, divorce, illness, death). All events in the family affect the system’s balance, but when you are part of the system, you are partially blind to what is going on. Addiction is a burden that makes the individual less functional. Maybe the addict skips school, does not attend family dinner, and does not get up in the morning. The whole system is off, whether or not the family members know about the addiction; each family member is affected.

Communication in the family system is also affected by substance use. At the heart of every relationship is communication. If the people in the family system cannot find a way to tell each other what they need, what they want, and what they appreciate in each other, the relationship is skating on thin ice. Therefore, communication is key in addressing any substance use concerns, including prevention.

Using a different approach when communicating with family members can influence your interactions and relationships. Using “I” statements and adapting negative feelings into positive statements are key techniques to use so your loved one can hear what you are trying to communicate. Another helpful adjustment is to use “understanding statements.” When you show that you understand how the other person feels, it lets your loved one know that you care about their feelings and lowers the potential for them to be defensive. Because the family is a system, it is important to share responsibility when things go wrong in the relationship not in all cases, but when appropriate. Acknowledging that you are part of whatever situation is going on, is an important action to take.

Improvement in communication skills is part of a plethora of options to support young people as a form of prevention from substance use difficulties. Building a young person’s resilience and wellbeing can also have a significant impact on reducing the risk of the development of mental health concerns, including substance use.

Filling your life with things that make you smile brings about positive emotions. When we feel positive emotions, we perform better, respond better in relationships, and are more willing to have hope for the future. Engagement is another useful building block for wellbeing. Becoming fully engaged with a task is fulfilling.

Having positive relationships is also key to help build resilience and wellbeing. Humans need connections, intimacy, and emotional and physical contact with others. When we are conscious of building positive relationships, it increases our overall satisfaction of life.

Individuals that seek out a deeper meaning to life that is bigger and more important that just their own happiness, report a sense of purpose to their life, which brings them satisfaction. Being with likeminded individuals that are working toward a common goal bring significance to life.

Finally, accomplishments help humans flourish. When we have a sense of mastery over something, it shows us that we can do something well, we set a goal and achieved it, and we can enjoy the feeling of success.

The family system is in constant motion, however, by having frequent, open conversations about substance use and building resilience to support wellbeing, the risk of substance use can be reduced and the system can find a new balance.