Shifting the family balance from dysfunctional to functional is a challenge where there is substance or alcohol use. Secrets have to be kept. Crises need covering up. Abuse is ignored. Family members, especially children, feel unsafe, unsupported, and shut down. Denial is king. Imagine a seesaw with one side all the way down.

Can The Family Balance Be Shifted?

Changing a family system that’s been in place for a long time, even generations, happens all the time. People do get healthy, either with or without the addict’s participation. Remember that a user maintains an addiction by manipulation and control of the people around him or her. Changing that dynamic means disruption of those who count on the status quo.

Why The Silence

Silence may have been established to protect family members suffering from an addiction, and to protect the reputation of the family. But the cost of silence and denial is dysfunction that hurts everyone, even the family member(s) with a substance or alcohol problem. When you protect a family member, he or she doesn’t have to take responsibility for his actions. She or he sinks deeper into destruction.

Abuse and dysfunction can only thrive in silence and denial. Silence feeds dysfunction, and awareness is the first step to shifting that balance.

11 Steps To Shift The Family Balance From Dysfunctional To Functional

  1. End the silence by acknowledging the dysfunction brought on by addiction. Get out of the denial by looking at the reality of your situation. Until you acknowledge this, no changes can occur.
  2. Read articles and books about dysfunctional families. Our favorites include work by Sharon Wegsheider-Cruse, Melody Beattie, John Bradshaw, Friel and Friel, and Claudia Black.* Some of this work dates back to the 1980s but is still on the cutting edge of recovery; some of these experts also have newer work as well.
  3. Tell the children Children already know there are problems and that these problems have to do with alcohol or substances. Acknowledging the problems validates their realities.
  4. Tell extended family members such as grandparents if they can be supportive. Breaking the stigma is key to getting help. And the only way to break the stigma is to normalize the problem by talking about it
  5. Tell friends. You are safer when other people know what you’re going through. This helps you to get support for yourself and the family
  6. If you are a parent, listen and acknowledge what your children are going through. Offer them support and compassion and do activities with them and get them help to cope with the problems associated with addiction of a loved one.
  7. If you’re a child, ask the non-addicted parent to listen to you and to do fun things with you and help you with your problems associated with the addicted family member.
  8. Attend 12-step-meetings such as Al-Anon, Al-Ateen, Families Anonymous, and Codependent’s Anonymous. This helps you to not only acknowledge the problems, but to gain support and insight from others
  9. Find other support groups in your community that may help with other issues such as grief support groups and religious and/or spirituality groups.
  10. Seek counseling for yourself and the family. Individual and family therapy can be very valuable in helping you to develop and utilize healthy coping skills.
  11. Set Boundaries Don’t buy alcohol even if you have been doing it for years. Don’t allow substance users into the house when they are using drugs. This is difficult, we know, and you may feel a substance user is safer at home, but that is not the case.  Stay clear of the addict’s dysfunction.

Detach When Necessary

If you have been using all of these techniques and the family is still struggling, it’s time to explore how detachment from the addicted family member can help the family heal. This family member  may be continuing to use or he/she/them may have stopped using, but are still trying to control the family or acting out in other ways such as being verbally abusive. Also, when the family gets healthy, the troubled family member(s) usually does not like this reality and will attempt to sabotage the progress.

When Abuse Is Present

For some, it is difficult to leave is the primary worker and financial issues are, but there are governmental housing options, women’s shelters, homeless shelters, and free food pantries and community meals. If you are concerned that you are breaking up the family, be assured that you are doing the healthy things for your children and seek support.

Finally, while this is not an easy process, it is a healthy process for all involved. Once you begin to get your life back, options will open up for you and your family to continue to heal. There are many others going through the same process; remember that you are not alone and you can live a life of joy and compassion.

On A Positive Note Enjoy Your Life

Often people in crisis shut down and lose all the things about life they had enjoyed before. To break old patterns of silence, denial and enabling, finding ways to enjoy your life is key.

  • Physically get exercise, eat healthy, sleep enough
  • Intellectually read, write, chat with others
  • Emotionally talk about your thoughts and feelings
  • Relationships nurture both alone time and time with friends
  • Spiritually do those things that free your soul such as mediating, spending time in nature, church/temple/synagogue, being creative

* Codependent No More by Melodie Beattie and Family Strategies by Claudia Black and 100 Tips For Growing Up are great resources.

Like it? Share with your friends!

What's Your Reaction?

Funny Funny
More Like This More Like This
More Like This
Helpful Helpful


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.


Weekly newsletter with top 5 articles
Monthly printable calendar: coloring page and recovery tip
Special discount offers
Learn about recovery products

Sign up to receive more!

subscribe to our top stories

Weekly newsletter with top 5 articles
Printable recovery calendar & coloring page
Special discount offers on recovery products

Don't worry, we don't spam