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Section 2
Family Approaches to the Problems of Addiction

Question 2 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed the three tools addicts use to control their families and keep them involved in the addiction. These three tools are manipulation, misdirection, and mistrust.

In this section, we will discuss the "threaten, punish, and relent" cycle.

2 Results of Family Imbalance
As you know, addiction creates unmanageability and imbalance in the family. As a result, all of the family members, including the addict, work to bring things back to "normal". This equilibrium is always disrupted again by the addict, and two things happen as a result. These are:
-- 1. Families try harder to create balance, and
-- 2. They grow more accustomed to being off balance.
As you are aware, these families rarely look outside themselves for help, instead believing that they can handle it alone.

3 Common Family Traps
-- Trap #1 - Try to Improve the Addict's Circumstances
A common belief among families coping with addiction is the belief that improving the addict's circumstances will render the addiction unnecessary; they believe that the addict's problems are causing his addiction, not the other way around. Angela, 45, gave her brother-in-law a job at her computer repair business. She told me, "I was worried about my sister's kids… they never had enough money. For a while, things were great, but then a few weeks later he started coming in reeking of alcohol, unable to do his job properly! He screws up jobs and insults my customers. I don't understand. He was doing so well."

-- Trap #2 - "Threaten, Punish, and Relent" Cycle
Families of addicts often get trapped in the "threaten, punish, and relent" cycle. Stan, a 39-year-old father of two, is married to an alcoholic. Last week, he came home from work and found his wife Wendy drunk, screaming at the children about a toy they had not put away.

Stan said, "They were terrified. She's done this before. I calmed them down and sent them to their rooms, and then I told Wendy that if she didn't stop treating the kids that way, I'd move out and take them with me. It seemed to work, for a couple of weeks she was a great mom, and she drank a lot less. But then it started up again. I was going to move out… but if I did, who would take care of the kids while I'm at work? I can't afford daycare or a babysitter." Stan relented and stayed with Wendy.

Leo was in a similar situation with his 17-year-old son Craig. Craig would often stay out all weekend, coming home bruised from fights, and smelling of beer and marijuana. Leo said, "Every weekend, I warned him that if he came home like that, I'd take his car away. So he'd go out, come back trashed, and I'd take his keys. Then he'd be so good… and I'd have to give his car back. How was he supposed to get to school on time without it?"

Both Stan and Leo were training the addict in their family not to believe what they said. Their pattern of relenting empowered Wendy and Craig's addictions. Stan and Leo underestimated the strength of their family member's addictions. Many families run into the trap of thinking that addiction is a bad decision or an unfortunate turn down a bad road. Family members therefore think that a little prodding, admonishment, or punishment will make the addict "get back on track", and that their efforts will be sufficient to solve the problem.

-- Trap #3 - Makeshift Interventions
As you know, families sometimes try makeshift interventions. Ellen's daughter Faye had become addicted to pot in high school. Ellen got the idea to sit Faye down at her computer, and make her research pot online. Instead, Faye found a number of pro-marijuana sites that reinforced her decision to smoke pot. Ellen blamed this backfire on her daughter's insolence, and refused to accept that the poor design of her plan hindered Faye more than it helped.

Ellen's mistake is a common one. She put the focus on changing Faye's behavior, rather than on healing herself and changing her own behavior. Do you have a client who keeps using the "threaten, punish, and relent" cycle that would benefit from being asked: "Is what you're trying working, or does it just feel that it should work?"

"My Daily Needs" Exercise
I encouraged Ellen, Leo, and Stan to change their focus from trying to change their family members behavior, to changing their own behavior in small ways. With Leo, I used a technique I call the "My Daily Needs" exercise. I asked him, "What's the one activity you know you need to do every day that would strengthen your relationship with yourself?"

Leo told me, "I used to go for a thirty-minute jog every day. It gave me time to think, and made me feel really physically good. Nowadays, I feel like I can't go out. Craig might come home at any time needing first aid or a trip to the hospital." Leo and I agreed that he would start taking his jogs again, giving him a block of time where he only had to take care of himself.  He made a daily schedule for his jogs, and posted it on the fridge. Being caught in the "threaten, punish, and relent" cycle had made Leo feel like nothing would ever change. After two weeks of taking his jogs, Leo felt like he was making progress for the first time in months.

In this section, we have discussed the "threaten, punish, and relent" cycle. Would it be helpful to play this section in your next session with the family member of an addict

In the next section, the three main reasons families cling to old habits of coping and become highly resistant to change: being locked into recycling past habits; relegating themselves to the sideline; and "feeling comfortable".

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Acheson, A., Vincent, A. S., Cohoon, A., & Lovallo, W. R. (2019). Early life adversity and increased delay discounting: Findings from the Family Health Patterns project. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 27(2), 153–159.

Ariss, T., & Fairbairn, C. E. (2020). The effect of significant other involvement in treatment for substance use disorders: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 88(6), 526–540

Church, S., Bhatia, U., Velleman, R., Velleman, G., Orford, J., Rane, A., & Nadkarni, A. (2018). Coping strategies and support structures of addiction affected families: A qualitative study from Goa, India. Families, Systems, & Health, 36(2), 216–224. 

Rehbein, F., & Baier, D. (2013). Family-, media-, and school-related risk factors of video game addiction: A 5-year longitudinal study. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 25(3), 118–128.

Sorenson, J. L. (1989). Family approaches to the problems of addictions: Recent developments. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 3(3), 134–139.  

What is the danger of the "threaten, punish, and relent" cycle? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 3
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