• Blog Post
  • Anna Ciulla

What Rehab Looks Like from the Outside: Guidance for Loved Ones

Photo: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Demystifying the rehab process helps families support their loved ones. 

Pursuing rehabilitation for an addiction takes enormous courage—and not just from the person undergoing treatment. Family members and friends have their own concerns when a loved one is away in rehab. They wonder what rehab will be like for their loved one, and how best to support them and stay in touch while respecting boundaries. By demystifying the rehab process and knowing exactly what to expect, you can feel more comfortable about your loved one’s stay.

Be prepared to limit interactions with your loved one during rehab.

After detox, there is typically an extended period of inpatient rehabilitation for at least 30 days or longer. During this time, clients receive 24/7 residential care, immersing themselves in group and individual therapies that address the roots of their addiction, encourage healthy stress coping skills, and prevent relapse.
In this phase of early recovery, clients are doing the therapeutic equivalent of heavy lifting at the gym, and they need plenty of time and space away from home and its distractions so that they can focus on this critical work of healing.
Therefore, many rehab programs heavily limit the amount of contact clients can have with family and friends during this intensive and particularly delicate phase of treatment. Some rehab programs allow one weekly phone call but no in-person contact, for example. Other programs may prohibit direct contact altogether, choosing instead to notify a client’s family regarding their progress via weekly phone updates from the client’s primary therapist.

Be mindful of what the detox process entails.

The duration of the detox period varies with the substance and can be anywhere from two or three days to one week. During detox, clients receive 24/7 medical monitoring of their withdrawal symptoms, including medications to ease the process.
Even after detox has ended, many of these same clients will experience post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) and/or require ongoing Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for cravings.
Meanwhile, clients are also processing traumatic memories, early childhood events and other stressors (some of them family-related), which may have contributed to their substance abuse.
Risks of relapse are highest during this early stage of recovery, because of the intensity of cravings. Clients are especially vulnerable to drug-seeking behaviors such as contacting a friend or family member who used to supply them with drugs or demanding a discharge from treatment against medical advice.

Let your loved one know you’re there to support them.

Regardless of contact limitations, you can still let your loved one know you’re there to support them by making use of a weekly phone call or sending cards, letters, photos or artwork in the mail. Research shows that clients who enjoy family support during the treatment process achieve better outcomes. When your loved one has the assurance that you are cheering for them and want them to finish rehab, they will be more motivated to stay in treatment and succeed.
This may also mean encouraging them to stick with rehab when they want to drop out. The temptation is quite common and can manifest as expressions of dissatisfaction, restlessness, or discouragement when your loved one is allowed to call home. In these circumstances, do your best to listen attentively, validate their feelings, and remind your loved one of their motivations for entering rehab.
Encourage them to consider how far they’ve already come and what they’ve accomplished in treatment. If they raise issues that are cause for concern—for example, if they ask you to send money—consider calling their primary therapist to voice your concerns. Reiterate how much you love your loved one and are there to support their recovery.

Ask your loved one how you can support them.

You can also encourage your loved one to take greater responsibility for their recovery by inviting their feedback regarding what they need in the way of support. This also conveys your love and care and shows that you value their needs and concerns.


Let go of expectations about your relationship, and focus on what you can control.

Don’t expect, for example, that your loved one will emerge from treatment with all their ducks in a row and your relationship will now be a cake walk. Such expectations can be unrealistic. They set you up for disappointment and, most importantly, distract your loved one from getting the support they need to find recovery. Focus instead on what you can control, which is finding a healthier way forward regardless of your loved one’s choices and behaviors.


If the option is available, consider participating in a family therapy program with your loved one while they’re in rehab.

Some rehab programs encourage supervised family involvement in a loved one’s treatment process. For example, my clients have the option of inviting close family or friends to participate in an intensive weekend workshop in which they can receive family therapy from a licensed clinician. The interactions help clients and their families prepare for life after rehab, by addressing the family dynamics of addiction, improving communication and strengthening their relationship.

Anna Ciulla is the Chief Clinical Officer at Beach House Center for Recovery. She has an extensive background in psychotherapy and clinical management, including more than 20 years of experience helping individuals and families affected by addiction and co-occurring disorders find recovery. Anna is often invited to speak and write for various audiences on issues related to addiction. Anna developed and facilitates Beach House’s monthly Two-Day Intensive Family Workshop, which through therapy and education equips clients and their families for the work of long-term recovery.
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