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Addiction as a Family Disease

Addiction is a chronic, yet treatable medical disease caused by persistent brain changes that occur due to ongoing substance misuse.1 It is not a personal or moral failure but a condition that can affect not just the individual with the disease but everyone in their life.1 Addiction is often called a family disease because it has an impact on the entire family unit.2

When a loved one has an addiction, family members can struggle with a range of emotions and their lives can be affected in different ways.1 This article will help you understand addiction and the family disease model, and also cover the following topics:

  • Is addiction a family disease?
  • The effects of addiction on family.
  • How does addiction run in families?
  • Helping loved ones with addiction.

Why Is Addiction a Family Disease?

Experts view addiction as a family disease because the family is typically the main source of attachment, nurturing, and socialization.2 When one family member has an addiction, it affects all family members and has a detrimental impact on every aspect of family life, including emotional, physical, and financial components.2, 3

Researchers have developed several theories for the impact of addiction on family members, including the stress-strain-coping-support (SSCS) framework, which explains that addiction is stressful for family members and can put them at risk for many different problems.3 Additionally, researchers have determined that attachment theory and family systems theory can provide two possible explanations for the impact of addiction on families.2

Attachment theory is based on the idea that caregivers provide the primary sense of safety and security within families.2 Someone with an addiction cannot provide these fundamental needs to another because they are distracted by substance use, experience associated mood changes, and are dealing with a variety of impacts of substance misuse on their entire lives.2 A caregiver’s addiction deprives children of the opportunity to form a secure attachment to their parents, which serves as the basis for establishing healthy relationships for the rest of their lives.2

Family systems theory involves the idea that the family is one single and interdependent unit; there is a dynamic and complex interplay where the needs of each family member can be impacted by the needs of others.2 Three key concepts in family systems theory include:2

  • The family’s need to maintain homeostasis, or balance.
  • Feedback, or the way communication occurs and how each person’s behavior impacts others.
  • Boundaries, or the limits and rules that each person sets for themselves.

Family systems theory can help explain maladaptive behaviors that family members engage in as a way of trying to maintain balance and family functioning, even if it is unhealthy and inadvertently perpetuates the addiction.2

How Addiction Affects Family Members

Addiction can be a burden in many ways for family members. The effects of a loved one’s addiction on family members can be:

  • Family members may feel a range of personal or shared feelings, such as anger, guilt, sadness, frustration, anxiety, or embarrassment.4
  • The money that a person spends on drugs or alcohol, or the loss of income because of their addiction, or the money that family members provide to that person, can impact the financial well-being of all family members.4
  • Research indicates that families can experience increased physical health problems due to a loved one’s addiction.4 One study found that spouses and children of people with addiction had higher rates of medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, asthma, lower back pain, injuries, and hepatitis C.5
  • People can experience a range of relationship issues, including increased dysfunction, conflict, isolation, or tension.4
  • People with addictions tend to have more legal problems, such as DWIs, child abuse and removal of children from the home, or domestic violence reports, which can negatively impact the entire family.2, 4

Family members may develop different coping mechanisms as a way of dealing with their loved one’s addiction and as a way of trying to maintain homeostasis within the family.2 This can include:

  • Codependency, or compulsive, self-sacrificing, caretaking behaviors that perpetuate the addiction.6
  • Enabling, or behaviors that protect the person with addiction from fully experiencing the consequences of their substance use.2 This can include a husband calling in sick for his wife, giving an adult child money to pay rent, or bailing them out of jail.
  • Caregiver stress, or the emotional and physical strain that occurs due to taking care of a loved one with an addiction.7

These effects of addiction can impact parents, children, adult children, spouses, and partners in different ways.

Help a family member break free from addiction. Call to connect with a compassionate admissions navigator today. Together, we can help your family rediscover a life of joy, fulfillment, and hope.

How a Parent’s Addiction Impacts Children

A parent’s addiction can have a detrimental impact on children throughout the lifespan.2

When a parent has an addiction, the family environment can involve a wide range of negative feelings and harmful experiences, including secrecy, loss, conflict, violence or abuse, emotional chaos, role reversals (such as parentified children), and fear.2 Children can suffer from disrupted attachment, anxiety, depression, and failure to thrive, among other issues.2

Even before birth, a woman’s use of substances can lead to negative health consequences for the unborn fetus, including a risk of fetal alcohol spectrum syndromes and birth defects, which can lead to physical problems and issues with learning and behavior.8

School-aged children and teenagers can struggle with attachment issues, behavioral problems, abuse, neglect, and mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, physical problems, poor impulse control, poor emotional regulation, conduct or oppositional disorders, and poor academic performance.2, 4

Adult children can experience a wide range of issues with interpersonal relationships, such as conflict, an inability to form healthy attachments to other adults, issues with independence, or cutting off their parents and an unwillingness to allow their children to have relationships with them.2

It’s also important to understand that children with parents who have addictions may have an increased risk of developing addictions themselves.2

It’s not easy to know how to help your parent with addiction, but it’s never too late to start the process of recovery. Treatment that includes family counseling can not only help your parent recover but can also start the process of repairing and rebuilding family relationships.

How a Child’s Addiction Impacts Parents

Addiction in a teenager or adult child can impact parents and families in different ways. An addiction that develops in the teen years can carry over into adulthood, leading to a wide range of negative consequences.9

Teens who use substances at an early age can have a higher vulnerability to addiction because their brains are still developing, and substance misuse can result in serious and persistent brain changes that can impact them for the rest of their lives.10

Teens with addictions also have an increased likelihood of engaging in violent, criminal, or risky behaviors, which could lead to legal consequences.4 Parents can suffer from emotional and psychological issues, such as increased worry, guilt, feelings of helplessness or fear, anger, or depression.4 Addiction in a child may also increase the economic toll on parents due to the costs of treatment or other associated expenses.4

You can learn more about how to help your child with addiction so they can get the help they need to stop the cycle of substance misuse, learn healthier coping skills, address family issues, and deal with other co-occurring problems.4

How Spouses and Partners Are Impacted by Addiction

Intimate relationships are often negatively affected by a partner or spouse’s substance use and addiction. Addiction can lead to increased dissatisfaction with the relationship, conflict, domestic violence, anger, a lack of communication, overall psychological distress, and health and behavioral problems.3, 4 A spouse or partner’s addiction can also impact the financial health of the relationship, such as when the person with the addiction spends more money on drugs and alcohol, or when a spouse/partner needs to pay legal expenses or bail.3

Spouses may also be at risk for substance misuse and developing an addiction themselves; studies have shown that a husband’s drinking before marriage strongly predicts a wife’s drinking a year into marriage, a female partner’s drinking influences the male partner’s drinking in the next year, and relationship distress and alcohol use disorder (the diagnosis for alcohol addiction) are highly correlated.3

Codependency, enabling, a lack of self-care, and caregiver stress can all affect the spouse and partner of someone with an addiction. The spouse or partner may have good intentions but can perpetuate the addiction by caretaking or self-sacrificing their needs in a misguided attempt to create intimacy or maintain homeostasis (such as calling in sick for their partner/spouse or covering for them in social situations).6

Seeking help is an important step in helping yourself recover from the effects of a partner or spouse’s addiction and can help set the stage for a healthier and happier future. You can learn more about how to help your spouse with addiction.

Does Addiction Run in Families?

Addiction involves a complex interplay of a variety of factors, and there isn’t just one reason that a person develops an addiction.11 While there are risk factors that influence addiction, including genetics, families can also increase the chances of addiction based on the environment they create.2

Some of the factors that play a role in the development of addiction include:10

  • Genetics.
  • Having a mental health disorder.
  • An unstable home environment.
  • Having parents or other family members who use substances or engage in unlawful behavior.
  • Associating with peers who use substances.
  • Difficulties in school.
  • Poor social skills.
  • Early substance use.
  • Abuse.

As people who grow up in the presence of addiction can have a higher risk of developing addiction during their lifetimes, it is important to identify and treat addiction as soon as possible.11 Even when it comes to helping a family member who doesn’t want help, there are always steps you can take, such as learning about addiction for family members, to help your loved one get into rehab.

How to Help a Loved One Get into Rehab

Talking to a family member about their drinking or substance use isn’t easy, but it can be an important way to help them take the next step. Addiction is a treatable disease, and treatment can help people recover from substance misuse and regain control of their lives.12

Family-focused services, such as family therapy and counseling, can help reduce harm to individual family members and the entire family unit.13 Family involvement can help people enter and continue with treatment and has been shown to improve treatment outcomes for the person with the addiction.13 Family therapy and counseling can promote change in a variety of areas, improve the functioning and strengths of the family, and may prevent substance misuse from spreading to the family and children.14

Addiction treatment can involve different components, such as:

You might start the process by asking your family member to make an appointment with their doctor in order to have an evaluation and discuss treatment options. You can do an online search for rehabs that meet specific criteria using the treatment directory or call our free, confidential helpline at to speak with an admissions navigator about getting into rehab. You can also learn more about using health insurance to pay for rehab, and instantly check the coverage offered by your health insurance provider.

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