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The Family Systems Approach to Working with Addiction

This training program aims to provide a new perspective on understanding and working with families with addiction problems.  Case studies will be used throughout the sessions.

This course will enhance understanding of the emotional functioning of families facing addiction issues by using the Bowen family systems perspective, so as to facilitate conceptualization and treatment of these cases.


Currently, addiction is still commonly treated as an individual problem.  Treatment is largely based on the medical model that the focus is on treating the individual addict.  Family members may be involved to render support and assistance to the addict, but the addict is often considered to be the main client.


Bowen family systems theory advocates taking a broad view, and see the family, and not the individual, as the unit of conceptualization and treatment.  This approach promotes understanding of the mutual influence of people’s behaviours on each other, and the part that each person participates in co-creating the dysfunctional interaction patterns.  Thus, this approach also promotes family member’s self-responsibility, in that if he/she can identify the part how he/she contributes to the problem, and works on changing his /her own behaviour, then change in the family system can be effected, even though the symptom-bearer may not be cooperative or willing to receive treatment.  Bowen theory views that addiction as the symptom or a reflection of a dysfunctional family system.  The addict is viewed as the person having the largest share of anxiety in the family.  Working with the whole system and not just focusing on the addict or the symptom-bearer is the key to improvement.  This theoretical approach aims to restore the family’s natural capacities.  It is a useful tool in guiding individual family members and families onto thoughtful and rational behaviours and optimum emotional functioning.

Course Objectives

  1. To enhance understanding of the emotional functioning of family systems.
  2. To promote conceptualization and treatment of substance abuse cases.
  3. To promote workers’ awareness and management of self in the interaction with clients.

Course Content

Session 1:

An overview of the systems perspective about substance abuse – 

  • an individual problem? Or a family relationship problem?
  • Who is the client? The Addict? Or the Family system?
  • The development of the symptom of addiction –
    • the imbalance between the need to maintain autonomy vs. intense attachment and the need to get approval
    • how anxiety affects the family system.
  • functions of addiction in a family – addiction as regulator of distance and over-involvement, a way for the addict to assert his/ her independence which unwittingly and paradoxically heightens his/her dependence on the family.
  • sibling positions


Session 2:

Triangles in families with addiction. The multi generational transmission of relationship patterns.

  • How addiction regulates triangles in families. The addict’s role(s) in the triangles.
  • Common relationship patterns transmitted over the generations – Care taking and dependency, over involvement and distancing.
  • The flip-flop patterns in families across generations.


Session 3:

Differentiation of Self

  • Symptoms of low differentiation
  • Scale of Differentiation of Self
  • Steps to enhancing differentiation of Self.


Session 4:


  • From pre-occupation with or focus on the defined problem to adopting a wider lens on the relationship system.
  • Family research – having a broad view of the relationship patterns in self and in family members over the generations.
  • Be a neutral and objective observer.
  • Defining the emotional processes, finding the functional facts.
  • The therapist – managing own anxiety and defining self in relation to the clinical family, not to become a part of the client’s emotional system.
  • The clients – to manage anxiety and define self.  Allow more thinking energy.

Course Details

Course Code:   AD 02/22
Date & Time:  Sep 6, 13, 20, 27, 2022 (Tue)
7:00 pm – 10:00 pm
(4 evenings, total: 12 hours)
Fee: HKD $3,000  (COF Membership: HKD $2,850)
Venue: International Social Service Hong Kong Branch, 6/F, Southorn Centre, 130 Hennessy Road, Wanchai, hong Kong.
Target: Helping professionals and anyone interested in personal and family betterment
Instructor: Mrs. Peggy Chan, M. Ed., R.S.W.
Language: Cantonese supplemented with English



Mrs. Peggy Chan    B.Soc.Sc., M.Ed., R.S.W.

Mrs. Peggy Chan is presently Director of Programme, ISS Family Institute, International Social Service Hong Kong Branch. Mrs. Peggy Chan started her study of Bowen theory in the early 1990s in Vancouver. She continues her study of Bowen theory through attending the Postgraduate Program on Bowen Family Systems theory and Its Applications at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, Washington DC, U.S.A. from 2008-2013, and the Bowen Center’s Research Seminar group since 2013. She is a member of the Bowen Center’s Network Program for the Advancement of the Bowen Theory since Nov. 2014, and collaborates with other Bowen theory training centers around the world to promote better teaching and learning of Bowen theory. She was a plenary speaker of the First International Conference on Bowen Family Systems Theory, Pittsburg, U.S.A. in August, 2015.  She was the chief organizer of the 2nd International Conference on Bowen Family Systems Theory held in Hong Kong in May, 2018.   Besides conducting training programmes on Bowen theory in Hong Kong, she has presented at conferences and workshops in China, Taiwan, and U.S.A. Working closely with non-governmental organizations, she conducts programmes for parents of school children and parents of substance abusers based on Bowen theory.


Mrs. Peggy Chan was trained as a social worker (B.Soc.Sc., HKU), and counselor (M.Ed., U. of Toronto) prior to her family systems training. She has over 20 years of experience in counseling individuals and families, conducting clinical supervision, and training professionals. Her areas of specialization include marital and women‘s issues, loss and grief, parent-child relationship difficulties, and cultural adaptation. She is Adjunct Assistant Professor of the University of Hong Kong, teaching and supervising M.Soc.Sc. (Counselling) students since 2002. She is Fellow and Approved Supervisor of the Hong Kong Professional Counselling Association, and also Approved Supervisor of the Hong Kong Marriage and Family Therapy Association.

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