Family Therapy for Drug Abuse

It is difficult enough for teens to respond to peer pressure and frequent changes in emotions; addiction only complicates the journey.

When teens with drug abuse problems seek treatment, research indicates therapy that involves the whole family may be the best approach.

Called multi-dimensional family therapy (MDFT), research studies suggest the practice may be linked to higher rates of improvement for everyone involved.

What Is MDFT?

MDFT is an outpatient treatment approach for teens, involving the whole family in counseling sessions. The practice has emerged during the last two decades and is the focus of federal research toward reducing teen drug abuse. One distinguishing factor of MDFT is acknowledging that teen drug abuse is influenced by several factors – friends, homelife, and community – and thus a multidimensional approach is needed to resolve the problem.

Another element that makes MDFT unique is that it is organized into phases, based upon knowledge of what is considered normal adolescent cognitive and emotional development. Providers do not progress to the next phase until the current phase has been successful, and should have knowledge of teen development.

Three Stages

The first stage is building a foundation; the second stage is called Work the Themes; and a third stage, Seal the Changes and Exit. In addition to the stages of MDFT, five types of interventions can occur during treatment. These are one-on-one interactions with the teen, interventions with only the parents, or activities that modify the ways the teen and the parents interact. Sessions can involve additional members of the family, or work with the school or community-based entities that influence the teens’ drug behaviors.

Treatments can occur at home, at school or other community places. Themes may include helping parents deal with feelings of being powerless to provide influence to their teen, and ways to address conflict successfully.

During sessions where the teen works with the therapist without the family, themes like how to make decisions and talk about feelings are the focus. Ways to solve problems and reduce stress are also addressed, as are plans for acquitting career skills or training. Simultaneously, the parents learn about parenting styles that may be more effective at discouraging drug abuse – such as the difference between exerting guidance instead of just control.

An Effective Approach

A San Francisco-based study worked with 95 teens involved with drugs to explore the success rate of MDFT alongside therapy involving several families at once, and therapy involving several teens in a group setting. The teens’ drug use habits were assessed at the beginning of treatment and one year after, including their success at school and the way the family functioned. Teens and their families who took part in MDFT showed more improvements in behavior and school/family success than teens in the other treatment programs – and these positive changes continued beyond the treatment duration.

While a variety of approaches may be utilized to counteract teen drug abuse, the Center for Treatment Research on Adolescent Drug Abuse describes MDFT as successful because it pinpoints the highest risk factors connected with teen drug abuse. The treatment simultaneously improves the systems and processes that can generate successful teen development, both independently and within the family unit.

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