How Families Can Understand Addiction
Addiction is a lifelong disease caused by dysfunction of the brain system involving reward, motivation, and memory. Typically, those with addiction crave a substance or behavior obsessively regardless of the consequences. The reward of using the substance or doing the addictive behavior can be so consuming that no reasoning or rational argument alone can stop the addict.
It is important to note that addictive behavior is the disease, not the abuse of a particular substance alone. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) both define addiction as a “brain disease,” and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists criteria for classifying addiction as a mental health condition.
How Addiction Impacts the Family
While some family members struggling with addiction may manage to hide their activities at first, others within the home will likely begin to realize something is going on. Even children are often not oblivious to a parent’s changed behavior and will be able to sense the tension between others.
As the addiction worsens, family roles may change, finances may get tight, and children may begin to copy a parent or sibling’s risky behavior. An addict’s actions will undoubtedly affect the entire household, and the impact can look different depending on who in the family is struggling with addiction. A family with an addicted adult will have unique struggles that differ from an addicted child and vice versa.
Spouses and Partners
When a partner struggles with addiction, the most significant blow to the relationship is the loss of trust. Since relationships are built on trust, addiction can be a heavy blow to a couple, leading to serious marital issues or divorce.
The breakdown of trust can cause poor communication, impairment of emotional intimacy, and increased conflict. Rebuilding trust is an integral part of recovery.
The effect of substance use disorders on children can be profound.
Research has shown that children with an addicted family member are at an increased risk of experiencing child abuse or neglect and having few resources, especially when substance use creates financial instability. Children are also more likely to have higher rates of mental and behavioral disorders, including substance use disorders.
When a child or teen struggles with addiction, some parents may feel they’re at a loss of how to fix the behavior. Often parents will feel angry and punish their child, while others will feel they have failed their child somehow and be unsure how to help.
Many children and teens who succumb to addiction lack good communication with their parents, and parents may feel incredibly stressed and overwhelmed in addressing substance abuse. Still, it’s vital to intervene as quickly as possible because substances can have lasting effects on children’s still-developing brains.
When an older child struggles with substance or alcohol abuse, it can be especially harmful to a younger sibling in the household. Often younger children will look up to and emulate their older siblings.
If they witness their sibling abusing a substance, they may want to join them to look cooler or bond with their older sibling. Conversely, an older sibling may start withdrawing from the younger sibling as their substance abuse intensifies, thus damaging their relationship.
Other Family Members
Many families have more than parents and children living in the home. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives may be present and affect the household’s dynamic. A relative in the home or struggling with addiction who often visits can raise many concerns, especially if children are present.
Parents may worry about the influence an addicted relative may have on younger children and easily-pressured teens. This concern can often lead to tension and conflict, especially if drug paraphernalia is left around and easily accessed by children in the home.
Does Addiction Run in the Family?
Research has shown that addiction tends to run in families. Specific genes may contribute to someone’s likelihood of developing addiction, as well as growing up around parents and relatives who abuse drugs or alcohol. Awareness of addiction patterns in your family tree and having honest discussions about those risk factors can be essential tools to address current addiction and be on the lookout for warning signs.
Genetic testing for specific genes can be helpful, but that’s often not accessible to everyone. Speaking with parents, grandparents, and other relatives and asking if there’s a history of addiction in the family can be just as helpful.
Look for patterns (i.e., all the fathers in the family are alcoholics, women in the family struggle with gambling) and be on the alert for warning signs in yourself or other family members.
Statistics of Addiction’s Effect on Families
The effect of addiction on families has been well-documented over the decades, allowing many organizations to study the impact on each generation. The following statistics highlight how broad an influence addiction can have on family members.
- Based on data from the combined 2009 to 2014 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 1 in 8 children (8.7 million) aged 17 or younger lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year of substance use disorder (SUD).
- According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a parent with a SUD is three times more likely to physically or sexually abuse their child.
- The children of a parent with a SUD are 50% more likely to be arrested and 40% more likely to commit a violent crime.
- According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 25-50% of men who commit domestic violence also have substance abuse problems.
The path to recovery for the addict and the family can be challenging, but treatment centers are ready to help address you or a loved one’s unique needs. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for family members, so it’s best to speak with a licensed professional to discuss the situation and formulate a treatment plan that will be most successful.
Additionally, treatment centers often have resources for family members affected by their loved one’s addiction.
Some substances will require medical supervision when going off them, as withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous if not treated or closely monitored. Medical detox provides much peace of mind for the family while their loved one goes through the process.
Medical detox may include medical intervention or the careful tapering of the drug. For example, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can present life-threatening symptoms when helping an alcoholic get sober, so doctors may utilize medications like benzodiazepines to prevent seizures.
The most common types of rehab are inpatient and outpatient programs.
Inpatient programs involve you or your family member living at the treatment facility for a specific time (typically 30-90 days). This type of program may be ideal for someone with severe addiction, and while it may be upsetting for a family member to be away for a few weeks or months, that separation can be vital to success and sober life.
Outpatient programs include Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) and Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP). An IOP will consist of the same treatments as inpatient rehab, but you or your family member will go home at the end of the day.
A PHP is ideal for addicts that will require some medical help with detoxing but doesn’t include a residential stay. These outpatient options can be suitable for patients who are sole caregivers for the family or have children whose lives will be severely disrupted without them present.
Therapy During Recovery
Therapy is an integral part of the treatment process, and all treatment options include therapy. The most common types of therapies in treatment are one-on-one and group therapy sessions. Many treatment centers will offer family therapy and one-on-one counseling for family members experiencing trauma due to their loved one’s substance abuse.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of addiction therapy. CBT focuses on improving the patient’s awareness of negative thought patterns and how to handle them in the future to avoid self-destructive behavior. Learning these skills will not only help the addict but will help the entire family by improving healthy communication when stressful situations arise.
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) provides recovering addicts with specific medications to help them avoid relapse and handle withdrawal symptoms. Some examples of MAT include Antabuse for alcoholism, making the addict physically ill should they ingest alcohol, and Suboxone and Methadone for opioid addiction, which blocks the addict from experiencing the “high.”
These medications can give family members peace of mind that the addict physically cannot easily partake in these substances if they slip and relapse.
Family as a Support System
Addiction can tear families apart, but the truth is that addiction is best defeated when the whole family works together to support the addicted loved one. Resentment and distrust are common emotions for family members, but openly discussing these feelings and finding constructive ways to move forward is essential to the addict’s sustained recovery.
Pointing fingers, making accusations, and punishing addicts can create a toxic environment that only sets a loved one up for failure and relapse.
Family therapy and supportive dialogue can make a big difference and help a wounded family rebuild even stronger in treatment.
How Family Members Can Help
Communication and unconditional love and support are the best ways you can help a loved one dealing with addiction. Ensuring that conversations are judgment-free will encourage them to feel safe talking about difficult moments when they experience cravings or intense emotions that historically led to substance abuse.
Asking your loved one why they abuse a substance is ultimately not a constructive question. There may be an obvious answer, but trying to justify addiction isn’t helpful for the addict or their family.
Remember that addiction is an illness, and your loved one is likely not intentionally trying to upset you.
Staging a Family Intervention
An intervention is an intimate meeting planned by concerned family and friends to confront an addict and get treatment. Some families may conduct interventions that help addicts understand the impact of their addiction on their loved ones. You can also consult a doctor or trained professional interventionist to supervise and mediate the meeting.
Often these meetings are deep heart-to-heart conversations where emotions may be high, but participants build them on a foundation of love and concern for the person struggling.
It’s essential to plan for all intervention outcomes.
- What will you do if the addict refuses treatment?
- Is the treatment center ready to admit them if they accept?
Having “next step” information available can help the intervention succeed.
Resources for Family Members of an Addict
It’s not uncommon for family members of an addict to put a lot of focus and energy into finding treatment for a struggling loved one but forget to take care of themselves. The stress and uncertainty can take a significant toll on those around an addict, so getting support is essential for taking care of yourself. After all, you can’t best support your loved one if you are also struggling.
Therapy is an excellent option for processing your loved one’s substance abuse, and it’s often available for an addict’s family during treatment.
In addition, support groups, both in-person and online, are great options for connecting with others who have watched a family member struggle with addiction. Al-Anon and the teen-oriented Alateen are excellent resources for those battling addiction.
You can find various support groups on social media, through religious organizations or community outreach programs, or at a doctor’s suggestion.
Getting Help for Yourself or a Loved One
Finding treatment for you or a family member can seem overwhelming, but healthcare professionals can help you find the best options for your situation. SAMHSA’s online treatment locator can also help you find treatment programs in your area. Visit https://findtreatment.gov/ or call 1-877-726-4727.
FAQs on Addiction in Families
How does drug addiction affect a person’s family?
Drug addiction can do a lot of damage to the trust within a family. When a parent figure deals with addiction, it can create uncertainty for children and potentially dangerous situations. A child struggling with addiction can damage relationships with siblings and cause a lot of anxiety for parents.
Does family history play a role in addiction?
Research has shown that specific genes make an individual more likely to experience addiction. In addition, a child raised by an addict can increase the chances of developing addiction later. Knowing any history of addiction in the family can be a powerful tool to avoid or treat any future addiction issues.
What is the most common form of addiction?
According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 85.6% of people over 18 reported they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. The same study showed that 14.5 million people over 12 had alcohol use disorder, the most common form of addiction in the US.
What are three ways people can help someone with a drug addiction?
- Stage an intervention
- Attend family therapy to understand their experience better
- Use supportive, non-judgmental language when discussing your loved one’s addiction
What is it like for a family to watch their loved one struggle with addiction?
Seeing a loved one in pain is incredibly difficult, and addiction is often a story of pain. Addressing the behavior and finding treatment can be a long, complicated process, so it’s essential for the surrounding family members to also manage their trauma from watching a loved one deal with addiction.
This trauma is why treatment can and should be a healing process for the entire family to rebuild trust and ensure love is at the core of every step of the process.