Harnessing a Family's Motivation to Change

Much of the research into addiction shows that unresolved conflict within a family is a significant causal factor in the start of symptomatic addictive behavior. Within the family, we develop patterns of behavior and styles of relating that form the basis of our future social interactions and relationships. When a family's ability to cope with stressors and process traumatic experience breaks down many of its members may begin to exhibit symptoms of substance and process addiction, suicidality, depression, and a host of other challenges. These effects are not limited to the current generation. Often, once this cycle locks in place, its effects may continue into perpetuity unless a family addresses the underlying causes.  On the other hand, when a family can be equipped with the tools and skills to resolve the conflict they can change outcomes not just for the current generation but future generations of the family as well.

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In this article, I will examine the implications of the work of Landau and Garrett as presented in their landmark paper “Family Motivation to Change.”  Their work in Transitional Family Therapy provides many useful insights for any family suffering from addiction. By harnessing the inner strength and resilience of a family system, we can leverage the family's motivation to change and improve the outcomes for several generations.

Transitional Family Therapy

Doing the work at home will help create a better family atmosphere  

In the Transitional Family Therapy (TFT) model the primary goal is to equip families with the ability to identify the tools and other resources that can enable the family to access their inner strength and resilience so that they can become the source of healing.  In this sense, TFT is an empowerment model of therapy. TFT “views the family as intrinsically competent, resilient, and healthy and the family can be a resource for individuals in times of stress” (Landau, Garrett, 2007). Most often TFT is a therapeutic model wherein the family system itself becomes the primary driver of change.  Change is accomplished through helping a family identify their competencies, strengths, and equipping a family with a belief in their ability to overcome transitional conflicts. Most often this enables a family not only to overcome current challenge but also makes it possible for them to handle future stress to the family system more efficiently, thereby limiting future symptomatic behaviors of individual members, including substance and process addiction.

Stigma still surrounds addiction and those suffering from it.  It is easy to view an addict’s behavior and assume that he or she lacks the willpower to stop, has a character flaw that is driving behavior, or is merely amoral.  While in some cases these observations may have some truth to them modern science conclusively demonstrates that addiction is a brain disease. However, the onset of substance use disorder is often left unaddressed in the research.  The Transitional Family Therapy model views the start of addiction as an adaptive response to a family system being asked to cope with more transitional conflict than it is equipped to handle. Please note that this is not limited to chemical addiction, process addiction, some forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and many other symptomatic responses of individuals may be attributable to this overload.  There is a great deal of research which has studied individual response to stress and has shown that on average an individual can effectively process three to four life transitions at one time. Life transitions can be anything from a job change or new child being born, to the untimely death of a loved one or forced migration due to geopolitical or natural causes. When one faces more than these three or four transitions within a limited timeframe, he or she will begin to suffer deleterious effects to their well being.  A family, as a collection of individuals, will experience the same results.

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When a family system becomes overloaded with transitional conflict, one or more members will begin manifesting a symptomatic response; sometimes this causes the onset of addiction.  This response is an adaptive response to the stress placed on the family system. It can be viewed as an effort (albeit unconscious) by an individual within the family system to keep the family bond intact at times of overwhelming stress and upheaval.  This is done by taking the family’s attention away from the trauma caused by transitional conflict and by drawing the family together to deal with the problems associated with the new behavior. Now the addiction itself becomes the source of family closeness.  When the symptoms of the addiction begin to subside the grief related to past trauma will resurface, which serve to reinforce the “need” for the problem of addiction. Once set this cycle will be transmitted across generations until the time the family can resolve the underlying trauma.  

   The Family Healing Process

Allowing for time to heal and mend can help gain new perspective

When a family can make the transition from viewing the symptoms of addiction as a shortcoming or as isolated incidences with some members of the family and can begin to understand it as an adaptive response to trauma that served to hold a family together they are on their way.  This understanding alleviates feelings of shame which hinder recovery and can create a space within which the current members of the family can better recognize their resilience and strength.

When this transition occurs within a family system not only are the individual members who are suffering the symptoms of addiction able to begin the recovery process but, indeed, all members of the family can start the healing process.  

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Ironically, it is the same strength within a family system that created the initial adaptive behavior (an individual becoming addicted) that ultimately brings freedom from suffering.  To see this, remember that the initial adaptation was an unconscious attempt to ease the pain of the family and keep close family connectedness. By shifting the attention away from the current instantiation of conflict, the ongoing effects of addiction, and instead placing it on the family system as a whole we can address the underlying trauma within the system.  As this work is undertaken by an increasing number of the members of a family, the addiction itself becomes redundant and will no longer be efficacious within the context of the family.

Often there exists the mistaken belief that addiction is a personal challenge to be met by the individual.  On the contrary, research indicates that an addict’s family is an indispensable component of the recovery journey.  A family’s commitment to change is often as significant as the addict’s.

Any member of a family can break the cycle of addiction.  Once decided, bringing the family together is indispensable.  It is ideal to include all members of the family. Doing so harnesses the inherent strength and power of the family support system to heal.  A demonstrable correlation has been shown in studies between family involvement and an increase in treatment uptake rate, and also in individual patients being more likely to complete treatment.  A family’s core strength is in its care, love, and loyalty to each other and it is these strengths that are needed to help the family overcome the cycle of addiction.

It is my sincere hope that this article is informative and encouraging to all who read it.  We at Granite Mountain BHC are dedicated to helping families and individuals break the cycle of addiction.  We are here to help. Please contact us through our website or by phone at 844-878-3221.

Until next  time
Your friend in service,
Rob Campbell


Landau and Garrett, “Family Motivation to Change: A Major Factor in Engaging Alcoholics in Treatment.”  Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. Vol 25, No. ½, 2007. Pgs 65-83


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