Brief Strategic Family Therapy Helps Parents, Teens Cut Substance Use

Parents affected by serious drug or alcohol problems can experience a serious decline in their parenting skills and ability to maintain a stable household environment. Potential consequences of this decline include a carrying over of problematic substance use to a daughter or son. In a study published in November 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a group of U.S. researchers explored the potential usefulness of a form of behavioral intervention called brief strategic family therapy in helping parents with substance problems significantly reduce their intake of drugs and alcohol.

Impact of Parental Substance Abuse

Destabilization caused by the substance-using behaviors of a parent can have a range of severely damaging short- and long-term effects on a household, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families reports. For example, child neglect related to substance abuse can lead to meaningful interference with the bonds that normally form between parents and their children. In turn, a child who fails to form these bonds has increased risks for such things as distrustful behavior, poor recognition of social/emotional cues and a reduced ability to empathize with other people’s experiences. Poor supervision in a family with substance-using parents can lead to such things as delinquent behavior in a child or a child’s perceived need to take on the role of parent and shoulder responsibilities and burdens appropriate only for adults. A child with a substance-abusing parent may experience a sense of shame that significantly damages his or her ability to perform well in school or form social bonds with other children. In addition, a child of a substance-abusing parent has statistically increased chances of beginning his or her own pattern of life-impairing substance intake.

Brief Strategic Family Therapy

Brief strategic family therapy (BSFT) is designed to help teenagers and younger children avoid developing problems with substance abuse and certain other problems largely related to antisocial behavior. Therapists can also use this approach to help teenagers and younger children already affected by these problems. One of the basic principles of BSFT is that poor interaction within the family unit often sets the stage for children’s future substance and conduct problems. As the name of the therapy implies, brief strategic family therapy takes place over a relatively short period of time and (ideally) produces fairly rapid positive results. Participants learn to recognize and change family dynamics that contribute to an unstable or antagonistic household environment. Researchers and therapists at the University of Miami originally developed BSFT to help Hispanic families. However, the technique is applicable in a range of family settings and does not depend on racial/ethnic background for its core effects.

Impact on Parental Substance Problems

In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Miami and the Oregon Research Institute used the help of 480 parents and teenagers to determine if participation in brief strategic family therapy helps parents get their own substance issues under control. These researchers also assessed the interactions between teenagers’ substance problems and the substance problems of their parents. Some of the study participants received BSFT, while others received more traditional forms of counseling assistance. The researchers compared the outcomes between these two groups at four intervals over the course of the following year. After analyzing the gathered data, the researchers concluded that the parents who went through brief strategic family therapy substantially lowered their alcohol consumption in the year following treatment. They partly attributed this decline in alcohol intake to improved functioning within the family unit. Prior to treatment participation, the teenagers with drug-using parents engaged in substance use roughly 200 percent more often than the teenagers without drug-using parents. After treatment, the teens with drug-using parents who received BSFT experienced a greater reduction in their own substance use than the teens with drug-using parents who did not receive BSFT. Based on their findings, the study’s authors concluded that participation in brief strategic family therapy can help parents with substance problems significantly lower their alcohol consumption, as well as help teens with drug-using parents reduce their substance intake. Improved communication within the family unit may help account for the observed drop in parental alcohol intake; however, the authors did not definitively determine the underlying reasons for this drop.

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