Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach for New Life

Addiction or substance use disorder (SUD) rarely ever affects only the person who is struggling with it. Often, addiction is referred to as a family disease. This is because the consequences of one family member’s substance use tend to spread throughout the entire family unit. Learning about the ways substance use can impact families is essential for recovery and preventing SUD from worsening family members’ mental and behavioral health.

Risk Factors of Substance Abuse Within Families

To better understand how substance use disorder (SUD) can uniquely affect families, one must be familiar with the various risk factors that can increase one’s vulnerability to SUD. A combination of biological, developmental and environmental risk factors can uniquely affect each family member’s likelihood of using substances and/or developing an addiction.

Biological Risk Factors

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that genetics “account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction.” Factors that can influence one’s genes include gender, ethnicity and family history of substance use and mental health conditions. Similarly, the presence of an untreated mental health disorder can increase one’s risk of developing an addiction.

Environmental Risk Factors

Within the family unit, many environmental risk factors can motivate the substance use of family members. Some of these risks include, but are not limited to:

  • Normalization of substance use within the home
  • Access to substances
  • Unresolved trauma, including abuse and neglect
  • Lack of parental involvement and guidance in children’s lives
  • Early exposure to drugs
  • Living in poverty
  • Environmental barriers to SUD treatment

Developmental Risk Factors

NIDA illustrates that genetic and environmental factors impact crucial developmental stages in family members’ lives. These factors inevitably impact addiction risk. For example, although substance use can progress to addiction at any age, the earlier an individual starts using drugs, the higher their risk of developing an addiction. Adolescents’ and teens’ brains are still developing. This makes drug use during these years extremely problematic as drugs interfere with brain areas that regulate self-control, judgment and decision-making abilities. In other words, such drug use can lead to damaging brain changes.

Addiction as a Family Disease

The Office of Early Childhood Development (EDC) believes that “families are children’s first, longest lasting, and most important teachers, advocates, and nurturers.” Additionally, “Positive parenting and strong family engagement is central—not supplemental—to promoting children’s healthy development and wellness.” That being said, when a family member is struggling with substance use, the whole family will experience consequences.

Still, families and each family member is affected differently by the one who has SUD. For context, here are a few examples of how members may be affected:

When a Parent Is Struggling With SUD

If the one struggling with SUD is a parent, it can create a ripple effect within the whole family. Parents may experience an increase in conflict and worsened relationships with one another. The parent may be subject to losing their job, leading to a harsh financial toll on the family and economic hardship. Additionally, due to the complexity of SUD, the parent may prioritize substance use over their relationship with or caretaking duties for their children.

Children of parents struggling with SUD may experience impaired attachment, an increased risk of using substances themselves and unmet developmental needs. Depending on their age, they may also begin to blame themselves for their parents’ inconsistent behaviors or emotional mood swings. This can be traumatic and interfere with how a child interacts with the world around them as they grow older.

When a Child Is Struggling With SUD

As mentioned previously, the age that a child starts using substances can have a significant influence on their addiction risk. Similarly, it can have a direct impact on how family members navigate the situation.

When a teen or young adult struggles with SUD, parents and siblings may blame or shame them due to bias and a lack of knowledge and understanding. They may feel a combination of emotions, such as helplessness, frustration, confusion and anger. As a result, the behaviors of family members can change as they attempt to respond to the changes in the individual using substances.

For example, a particularly common result of addiction in the family is members taking on enabling behaviors. These behaviors may seem like helping behaviors; however, they ultimately keep the person struggling from experiencing the natural consequences of their actions. Examples of enabling behaviors include paying their bills, lying for them, giving them money or not shielding them from the consequences of substance use.

Healing Together as a Family

Many people think that treatment for SUD is solely for the person struggling with substance use. However, all family members can benefit from treatment. Many treatment facilities offer family resources and therapy groups to help families heal together. Family members should be open to receiving education and participating in family therapy and support groups. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that doing so “can improve treatment effectiveness by supporting the whole family.”

New Life Addiction Counseling and Mental Health Services is no stranger to the impact that substance use can have on entire families. We offer a number of treatment services, programs and resources for anyone struggling with substance use and/or co-occurring mental health disorders. Your family deserves peace and healing, and we can help you achieve that. To learn more, call us today at (877) 929-2571.