Counseling for family members of drug addicts: What to expect?

Is your family struggling with drug addiction? Are you afraid of how addiction will affect you or your family? In this exclusive Q&A with Expert Family Counselor, Flicky Gildenhuys, we discuss how family counseling can help you and what you can expect during the process.

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Healing from addiction in the family

Family counseling can help families recover and heal from addiction. How?

Today, we speak with Flicky Gildenhuys, an educator in the field of parenting and author of the book “Blending Families” about the effectiveness of family counseling on treating drug addiction. Her enduring passion for helping families spans three decades. In addition to an active clinical practice, she has produced innovative parenting programs and has supervised many successful family interventions.

Today, she’ll help us answer questions like:

  • How does drug addiction affect the whole family?
  • What does family counseling typically look like?
  • How long does family therapy last?
  • What are some ways parents can/should address drug or alcohol problems?

More here on how counseling can help you address addiction in the family. Then, if you still have questions, we invite you contact us in the comments section at the end. In fact, we try to respond to all questions personally and promptly.

ADDICTION BLOG: Thanks for joining us Flicky!

We imagine that families entering counseling for addiction problems have not been exposed to psychotherapy. Is this true? How much do/should families know about counseling before they begin the process?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: The nature of substance and alcohol abuse is such that very often the problem is hidden, either by the user themselves or by the family who feel shamed by the user’s behavior.

An example is the wife, who phones in to her husband’s work to say that he is sick when in fact he has yet another hangover. Help is often not sought until a crisis occurs:

  • the loss of a job
  • an arrest
  • or relationship breakdown

Professional therapeutic intervention allows the family the safety and containment to begin addressing the myriad of problems that addictive behaviour creates.

ADDICTION BLOG: What are some good basic goals a family can have coming into family counseling for addiction? What can they expect?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: Substance abuse affects the whole family and very often the family have become organized by their interactions around the substance abuse.


1. One family member may be able to be identified as “The User” – s/he may be feeling victimized and blamed for the family’s problems

2. Another may be identified as “The Main Persecutor” who punishes and judges “The User”.

3. Whilst another family member may be identified as “The Enabler” who unwittingly helps “The User” to continue their using by protecting them from the consequences of their behaivour.

So, a basic goal would be that each member of the family be prepared to examine their own unhealthy behaviour and be prepared to make the necessary changes. This can be a very challenging process and can feel very overwhelming at first.

ADDICTION BLOG: What happens during the first meeting with a family counselor? What does that first session typically look like?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: During the first meeting, the therapist will begin building a trusting relationship and develop an understanding of how each family member sees the problem. Some goals will be set and a time frame put in place for the length of treatment. The therapist will suggest ways to reduce the impact of the substance abuse on the family and ensure that every member has the necessary support.

ADDICTION BLOG: Is it normal to fear or be skeptical of the counseling process?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: Most of our behavior is driven by some form of anxiety, as is our avoidance of other behaviours. It is often hard to accept that we are not able to solve our own problems and difficult to trust that others can do it for us.

Usually, the benefits of a therapeutic intervention can be felt after one or two sessions and this builds trust and hope for the way forward.

ADDICTION BLOG: What kinds of issues do family members usually deal with when their loved ones first begin treatment?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: The family of the using addict have a difficult role as initially essential collateral with regards to the destructive behavior of the needs to be presented to their loved one. This greatly assists in narrowing the discrepancy between the substance abusers view of the world and the real impact of their addictive behavior.

ADDICTION BLOG: What kinds of emotions or feelings are common among different family groups you’ve worked with? How does counseling address these?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: The safety of knowing that ones loved one is safe for now and receiving treatment often allows for deep seated unexpressed feelings to emerge:

  • fear
  • shame
  • sadness
  • anger
  • resentment
  • guilt

The feelings may feel overwhelming at first but provide a useful vehicle for moving forward and producing change in the family system. Anger at being taken advantage of for so long, can energise the family member to put up boundaries with the using addict. Crippling anxiety can ease as a constructive solution to the problem emerges.

ADDICTION BLOG: What happens over the course of a typical 3-6 week (or longer) family counseling engagement?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: After providing information and working out a time frame for dealing with the problems in the family, later sessions will focus on inter-personal problems and identifying how family dynamics and addiction roles need to shift in order for the family to move in recovery.

New boundaries and rules about the ways of relating will be set up together. The therapist will urge the family to use their strengths and resources to deal with the family problems. The family are then helped to move towards becoming the cheerleader and important support system of their loved ones recovery.

ADDICTION BLOG: What can family members do/learn about addiction to prepare for counseling?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: Family members inevitably adapt to the behavior of the person with a substance abuse problem.

It is important to acknowledge how one’s own behaviour may have contributed towards the problem by putting up too rigid boundaries or perhaps having no boundaries at all. It may be helpful write down how the behaviour of the using addict has affected each family member. These damages may be:

  • physical (injury or ill health)
  • emotional (stress and inability to cope) or perhaps even
  • financial

There are many books available to help families cope with the devastating impact of substance abuse.

ADDICTION BLOG: What if a family member refuses to participate in the family treatment? What kind of techniques do you use to make a change in that family system?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: It is of vital importance for families to go ahead and seek help… even if one family member is not willing. One healthy change in the family system allows for other healthy changes to be made.

Very often, the unwilling family member can be drawn into the process as they feel tensions in the home environment ease over time.

ADDICTION BLOG: What is your advice to parents if they find out that their child is a drug addict or has problems drinking? How should they address this issue?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: Many parents suspect their children are abusing alcohol or drugs and struggle when their attempts to confront their child are met with denial, anger and rejection. Keep in mind the following:

It is important that the child feels safe enough to share with the parent if they are struggling with peer pressure and are unable to keep to the family rules.

Don’t confront your child when you think they may be drunk or high and ensure you are feeing calm and level headed.

Take care not to ask direct yes/no questions but rather to state facts e.g. you came home smelling of alcohol, or your exams marks are dropping.

Should you find that despite your best efforts, your child has been abusing drugs or alcohol it is important to take immediate action. Find a therapist who is qualified to work with this age group and insist that your child attends an assessment. Boundaries may need to be put in place with regards to your child’s social life to restrict their access to unhealthy environments.

Do not be afraid to be unpopular – your task as a parent is to protect your child until they are able to make wiser decisions for themselves.

ADDICTION BLOG: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

FLICKY GILDENHUYS: Therapeutic intervention is not always available to families due to cost or access problems. Free support can always be found at Al Anon or NarAnon 12 Step meetings. A list of meetings is available on:

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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