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How Does Multidimensional Family Therapy for Addiction Work?

By Jennifer Daluro
Specially developed for adolescents, multidimensional family therapy helps teens end substance abuse and improve relationships with their family and community.

Adolescent substance abuse affects brain development as well as memory, learning, and other cognitive functions—according to a 2018 study published by Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Drug use can also negatively impact teens’ relationships with their family members, partners, and friends. If your teen is contending with substance use disorder, multidimensional family therapy could help. But what is the multidimensional family therapy model, and how does it work?

What is a multidimensional family therapy model?

Multidimensional family therapy is a specially-developed addiction treatment for teens and their family members. According to youth.gov, multidimensional family therapy is designed to address both drug issues and delinquency in teens. While it’s typically used in outpatient settings, it can also be used as a component of inpatient treatment. 

“The two main goals of this therapy relate to the adolescent’s relationships within and outside of the family system. With regard to the family, the treatment goal is to help them have healthier and developmentally-appropriate relationships with their family members, including parents and siblings,” Sabrina Romanoff, clinical psychologist, shares with WebMD Connect to Care.

“Outside of the family, the treatment goal is to help the adolescents create strong relationships and be successful in other systems beyond the family group, including extracurricular activities, friend groups, religious groups, and other social support networks," Romanoff continues.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, studies have found that multidimensional family therapy works just as well as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). However, evidence also shows that adolescents who participate in multidimensional family therapy have longer-lasting gains. In addition, these adolescents experience an improvement in their academics, decreased delinquency, fewer arrests, and reduced mental health symptoms, such as those that occur with anxiety and depression.

What will our experience using multidimensional family therapy be like?

“This is an intensive and immersive type of treatment. Unlike any other typical therapy model, it concurrently and thoroughly links treatment methods in the domains of the adolescent’s life, the parents' functioning, the family system, and the community. This treatment is demanding and requires a significant amount of buy-in and commitment by all individuals involved in the work,” says Romanoff.

According to youth.gov, trained therapists work with the individual teen, his or her parents, as well as other family members during this form of treatment. The length and intensity of therapy sessions are tailored to each participant’s needs. Treatment sessions may occur 1-3 times per week, typically over 4-6 months. 

Multidimensional family therapy has three phases, and each phase comes with distinct objectives and goals.

  • The first phase focuses on building motivation for change in your teen. It will also establish multiple therapeutic relationships and involve the assessment of your teens’ and family members’ lives and relationships.
  • The second phase, considered to be the most intense, will make requests for changes in relationships, problem solving, and other important life areas identified during the first phase of treatment. Your teen may be asked to complete tasks that emphasize healthy decision-making, communication, and problem-solving skills. Parents will focus on improving their parenting styles and patterns within family interactions. 
  • The third and final phase focuses on maintaining positive changes. It will teach your teen and the family at large how to use their new skills while confronting new situations and challenges after treatment and outside their circle.

Outpatient therapy sessions are usually done in the family’s home or a clinic. Some sessions may also be held at community locations. These include juvenile detention or jail centers, religious youth centers, or drug treatment facilities.

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