Family, Sociocultural & Psychosocial Models of Substance Abuse

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Addiction is a complex problem, and many things can influence whether a person becomes an addict or not. In this lesson, we'll examine several theories about how a person's environment shapes addictive behaviors.

Substance Abuse

Raina is an alcoholic. She struggles every day to try to keep herself under control, but many times, she ends up falling off the wagon and drinking to help her get through the day.

Raina has an issue with substance abuse, or the abuse of alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse is often associated with addiction, or dependence on something such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, or junk food.

Raina isn't the only one in her family with a substance abuse issue. Both her mother and her brother are also addicts, and Raina wonders if there's something about the way she was brought up that might have to do with her addiction.

To help Raina explore that possibility, let's look closer at family, psychosocial, and sociocultural theories of substance abuse and addiction.

Family Systems Theory

Family systems theory says that the problems of one individual can only be understood within the context of the family as a whole. This is because the family is a system, one that is complex and involves many types of interactions.

What does this have to do with Raina? Well, when applied to addiction, family systems theory says that the ways in which family members relate to each other impact the addiction and recovery of an individual. That is, the entire family has to work together to make recovery work.

One possible reason for Raina's struggles might be the patterns of relationships that she has with her family. If Raina gets sober, her mother and brother might see it as an indictment of their lifestyle, and might lash out or try to get her to drink again.

Even Raina's relationship with non-alcoholics in her family could end up supporting her alcohol abuse. For example, her father is sober, but Raina (and her mother and brother) have always related to him in a way that involved their being drunk and him being the sober, responsible one. Without alcoholism, Raina and her father might not know how to get along.

Because family systems theory sees the members of a family as interdependent (that is, dependent on one another), it views problems of an individual as problems of the family. Likewise, addiction is seen in the context of not just one person, but of the whole family.

Psychosocial Theory

Family systems theory is not the only theory that seeks to explain the impact a family environment can have on a person who struggles with addiction.

Family systems theory is closely related to psychosocial theories of addiction, a model that looks at the impact of psychological and social factors on a person's addiction. There are many psychosocial theories, but the most prominent one is social learning theory, which says that individuals learn behaviors by watching others around them.

Take Raina, for example. When she was growing up, every time something went wrong, her mother would start drinking to cope. As she watched this pattern over and over in her childhood, Raina learned that when things get tough the pain can be dealt with by drinking alcohol. In this way, Raina has learned to become an alcoholic.

According to social learning theory, children can learn behaviors from anyone they observe, but the most common place for them to learn behaviors is from their immediate family, like parents. In this way, like family systems theory, social learning theory often looks at addiction as a result of the family environment.

Sociocultural Theories

The sociocultural theory of addiction views addiction in the context of society at large.

Raina, for example, grew up in a very poor part of the country, where drinking alcohol was considered the norm. Most of her friends were drinking alcohol by the time they were thirteen, and it was considered normal.

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