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What You Can Do When Addiction Runs in Your Family

“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can’t predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”

~ Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Addiction and alcoholism usually affect those in the closest proximity to the person struggling with a mental disorder, and this is particularly true when addiction runs in the family.

When a child has an alcoholic parent or close family member, it creates a risk factor that they will become an addict or alcoholic themselves. Addiction within the family creates new levels of stress that can, in turn, lead to a whole host of issues within the family unit, from setting up a dysfunctional environment to reducing impulse control for the entire family. Addiction may be a family disease, but that does not mean that this cycle cannot be overcome. The first step to breaking the cycle is to understand how addiction interacts with family, and vice versa. In this post, we examine addiction and the family from several different perspectives, with the goal of helping you understand not only how the two interact, but also what you can do about it. We do our best to answer the following questions:

  • Does addiction run in the family?
  • Is addiction genetic?
  • What environmental factors affect addiction within the family?
  • What does the cycle of addiction mean for the family?
  • How does seeing addiction as a child affect behavior later on in life?
  • Can the cycle of addiction be broken?
  • What can I do about addiction running within my own family?
  • What kind of addiction recovery is available for families?
  • Are there support groups for family members of addicts?

What to Know About Addiction and the Family

First and foremost, there is no denying that addiction can run in families. In other words, if your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins have struggled with addiction or alcoholism, you as an individual are much more likely to have to face the same dependency issues. This is not meant to be discouraging – instead, the knowledge that addiction can often run in the family should only prove helpful in avoiding the same issues in your own life.

“Many of us see our family member struggling with addiction and make the decision to run away as far as we can from that. Others of us, often unconsciously, go down the same path as our loved one by falling into the cycle of addiction. It’s hard to say why people choose the path they do. However, research has shown us genetic and environmental reasons why some may go down one path rather than the other.”

~ Rubin Khoddam, The Addiction Connection

As the quote above highlights, there are psychological, genetic, and environmental factors that play into the cycle of addiction within the family. Addiction is considered a family disease for two majorly different reasons. Addiction and Family Genetics The first and most obvious, reason that addiction and the family go hand in hand is that addictive personalities have been shown to be genetic. In other words, if your parents or grandparents have struggled with addiction, you are likely to have the same genes within you that caused them to struggle with addiction in the first place. The National Institute on Drug Abuse writes about this primary form of addiction as a family disease:

“Genes carry information in your body that makes you who you are and what you look like. When you have mistakes in your genes, you’re born this way – there is nothing you can do about it. And these mistakes can be passed on to babies. It’s like having a greater chance of getting certain kinds of cancer because one of your parents had it. Unlike some cancers, though, there aren’t tests that can tell you if you carry those defects in your body.”

This interaction between family and addiction goes back to the basic understanding that addiction is a chronic mental disease. Instead of creating a stigma around addiction, the knowledge that drug addiction and alcoholism have been shown time and again to be mental illnesses frees up both individuals struggling with addiction and their family members to seek out the help that they need to avoid the detrimental cycle that this mental disorder brings. When you realize that addiction runs in your family because of its psychological and genetic facets, you are better able to release blame from both yourself and those you love. Instead, you can choose to address addiction within your family from a healthier perspective – as we discuss below. Addiction and the Family Environment The second major variable that extends addiction across generations and across family relationships is the normalization of addiction and its related issues within the family. Neither drug addiction nor alcoholism exists in a vacuum; they both directly impact the way that the addict or alcoholic treats others, including their own children and family members. As a response to the dysfunctional environment created by the addiction, children may learn coping behaviors that only serve to reinforce addiction later on in life.

“Children see a parent or family member using drugs and think it’s okay. Or addiction causes a lot of problems in the house, and children don’t get the care or attention they need. Children who don’t feel loved have a greater chance of using drugs and becoming addicted. This can be a problem that continues through many generations. It can happen whether the family is rich, poor, or in between.”

~ National Institute on Drug Abuse

The take away here is clear: when experienced by an adolescent or child, addiction within the family creates the likelihood for addiction and alcoholism to continue later on in life. The stress, emotional baggage, anxiety and even normalization of addiction and alcoholism all work toward creating greater risk factors of addiction for individuals of all backgrounds. Thankfully, addiction within the family does not have to mean the continuation of addiction or alcoholism in later generations. The cycle can be broken – so what can you do when addiction runs in your family?

What Can You Do About Addiction in Your Own Family?

The good news is this: families dealing with disordered behavior can overcome the effects of addiction and alcoholism, and more than that they do not have to go through the detrimental effects and struggles of addiction completely on their own. But what are the specific steps you can take and tools you can make use of when addiction is within your family? While there may be a host of different options available, the easiest way to understand what you can do is to break the steps and resources into three years: educate yourself about the science behind addiction, get the support that you need for dealing with addiction within your own family, and understand the reality that addiction is a complicated, long-term mental, psychological, and biological issue. First of all, you should get a better understanding of addiction science. This includes everything from the various causes of addiction, how addiction grows, why addiction is considered a genetic disease, what mental health factors interplay with addiction, and why relapse is such a common occurrence for those who struggle with both alcoholism and addiction. Knowing these specifics about this form of mental health disorder will help you move forward in helping both yourself and your loved one. The second crucial step you can take is to get support for yourself. Whether you struggle with addiction yourself or have a family member who does (or both), getting outside help and support is key to keeping yourself healthy and stable when dealing with addiction within the family. Taking care of yourself, both emotionally and mentally, puts you in a much better place to help the ones that you love. Thankfully, there are several support groups specifically geared at helping those who struggle with alcoholism, addiction or both. These support groups are completely free and give you the space to share your own story and learn what others have done in similar circumstances. Some of the major support groups include:

  •  Al-Anon: For friends and families of problem drinkers
  •  ACOA: For adult children of alcoholics
  •  Alateen: For teenagers with parents or family members who struggle with alcoholism
  •  Nar-Anon: For family members of drug addicts

Finally, it is crucial to understand that addiction is a complicated disease. While you can get the support you need both for yourself and for a family member struggling with addiction, this is not a guarantee that addiction will be cured or all of the issues surrounding addiction will be solved. Instead, addiction is a complicated road; about half of those struggling with addiction or alcoholism relapse at some point after rehab. More than that, there is no cure for addiction: it is something that they will continue to grapple with for the rest of their life. Don’t be disheartened by this reality. If anything, it allows you to do your best to deal with addiction in your own family without having too high of expectations or returning to a blame game.

Addiction Recovery and Your Family

While distilling all of the knowledge about addiction and family into one post may be difficult, the major takeaway here is that recovery from addiction can be a very real possibility within your family. All that is required is a full understanding of what addiction consists of, what issues it presents to both yourself and your family, and the willingness to take the next steps The above discussion of addiction and the family is based on clinical research and proven approaches to treating addiction, not to mention giving support to family members. If you have any questions about what we cover here, feel free to contact us or leave a comment in the section below. More than anything, we are here to help when addiction and family intersect.