A common misconception about addiction is that it only impacts the individual. In reality, addiction can impact everyone, especially in relationships, family, and even society at large. Children are often among the most compromised in when someone in the family, especially a parent, struggles with addiction. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, “alcoholism and other drug addiction have genetic and environmental causes. Both have serious consequences for children who live in homes where parents are involved.” They estimate that more than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics, and they note that this figure is actually magnified by the number of others “affected by parents who are impaired by other psychoactive drugs.”
How Addiction is a Family Problem
Not only is addiction harmful to families in the short-term, in the long-term children who come from addicted families are more likely to struggle with addictions themselves. NACOA notes that “children of addicted parents are the highest risk group of children to become alcohol and drug abusers due to both genetic and family environment factors.” Moreover, when someone in the family is addicted, family interactions become defined by that addiction. In other words, addiction can lead to increased conflict within family dynamics. For example, according to NACOA, “families affected by alcoholism report higher levels of conflict than do families with no alcoholism. Drinking is the primary factor in family disruption.” They add that “the environment of children of alcoholics has been characterized by lack of parenting, poor home management, and lack of family communication.”
And that’s just with drinking! Overall children who come from families with substance abuse problems have been shown to be more likely to run away to escape their toxic home environment or even to be abandoned at birth. Children of addicted parents also tend to demonstrate higher rates of anxiety and depression than do children who come from more functional households, and they are at higher risk for developing psychiatric and psychosocial dysfunction.
This is likely because families are more than just a collection of individuals: families are a support system. Without this system, the entire familial infrastructure collapses. The personality styles of each family member are shaped by the interactions within the family dynamic. Thus, if conflict is avoided rather than managed, and feelings are withheld rather than expressed, or expressed in an overly negative fashion, these factor will ultimately determine how the individuals within this family communicate with others.
The Part Affects the Whole
This means changes in any part of this family system will affect the whole family. Each part helps comprise the whole. Therefore if one family member becomes primarily responsible for the whole family, say, one parent becoming the primary controlling agent, then the rest of the family including the other parent consequently become less responsible. A similar pattern emerges when a family member struggles with addiction. The irresponsibility of this family member makes it so that the rest of the family must essentially compensate. In the case of parents abusing substances, the children must inevitably become responsible not only for themselves but usually for their parents as well. This role reversal puts a lot of pressure on children and can ultimately be detrimental to their self-esteem and ability to manage stress.
Furthermore, addiction is an emotional roller coaster for all those involved. Family members of addicts may struggle with conflicting feelings of painful emotions. In children, these feelings are magnified, and they can include shame, guilt, self-blame, frustration, depression, anxiety, fear, sadness, and anger. In this way, no one in a family is truly immune from addiction or its effects, even if they, themselves aren’t abusing drugs. Addiction is a chronic disorder that can impact anyone regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, income, religion, sexuality, or community. Not knowing how to addiction or facing a situation where someone isn’t willing to seek help can make things especially challenging for the family that wishes to support their loved one but is unable to successfully do so due to the interference of substances.
Healing is Possible
Because of this, recovery can be a healing process not only for the afflicted individual but for the whole family. During this process, the family can become aware of how addiction has impacted their relationships and communication. Through this understanding they can better repair at least some of the strains that addiction had formerly placed on the family. All of this will take time, of course, and some scars might not heal. However, through effort, dedication, and support, a new sense of normality and balance may be achieved without the destructive influence of addiction.