Addiction, better known as substance use disorder (SUD), affects millions of Americans. This means you likely know someone suffering from this debilitating disease. In fact, that could very well mean that someone in your family suffers from SUD.
If someone in your family suffers from SUD, you may already know how this disorder can affect the whole family. However, especially if that individual is a grandparent, parent, or other close relative, you may wonder if SUD can be passed down genetically, or if substance misuse is a learned behavior. Does your family history play a role in your risk for SUD?
What Is SUD?
First, it’s important to define what SUD really is. Substance use disorder occurs when repeated misuse of a substance—either illicit street drugs, prescription medications, or alcohol—causes negative effects on the life of the individual in question. This can manifest as a failure to meet social, occupational, or educational obligations, and often negatively affects the physical and mental health of the individual.
Some common SUDs include:
- Opioid use disorder (OUD)
- Hallucinogen use disorder
- Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
- Stimulant use disorder
SUDs and Mental Health
SUD is itself classified as a mental health disorder, but it often co-occurs with other mental health disorders. Like the name implies, co-occurring disorders are those mental health and substance use disorders that occur alongside one another. For example, those with mental health disorders are significantly more likely to develop an SUD than those without mental health disorders. In turn, SUD can make it more likely that other mental health disorders may manifest.
Some mental health disorders that often co-occur with SUD include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety and mood disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Major depressive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
How Does Addiction Affect the Entire Family?
While those experiencing co-occurring disorders can benefit from dual diagnosis treatment, it is important to recognize that families may choose to handle SUD very differently from one another. Some encourage the affected individual to seek professional treatment while others ignore the issue, or even cut ties with the person with SUD. However, when SUD occurs within a family, it can affect every member of the household, as well as family members living outside the house.
Unfortunately, not enough focus is placed on how SUD can affect the whole family. In many cases, those handling the care of a loved one suffering from SUD can also suffer from elevated levels of stress that lower their overall quality of life. Outside of treating the individual experiencing SUD, families need to learn coping strategies so they can manage the stress of the situation.
In addition, each member of the family may be affected differently by SUD. Here are some common effects SUD can have on a family.
In many situations, family relationships can suffer severe harm, or even become broken. No matter which of these situations occur, broken relationships can irreparably fracture the family.
Individuals experiencing SUD may be more prone to lying, stealing, and other dishonest behavior, either in pursuit of their substance of choice, or to hide their SUD. When these behaviors are discovered, they become less trustworthy to other family members. This broken trust can create defensive or aggressive behavior from either party.
Depending on which family member is experiencing SUD, the resulting strain on the relationship can result in estrangement of a parent from a child, siblings from one another, or even separation and divorce of two spouses.
Over time, managing the stresses caused by one individual’s SUD can cause that individual and their family members to reach a breaking point. Emotional distress over broken relationships, lies, abuse, or even worry about safety can severely damage mental health.
Generational trauma is one of the more severe effects for children with parents suffering from SUDs. When they witness traumatic events because of a parent’s SUD, they may become affected in such a way that leads them to experience their own mental health issues. Some of these children may go on to repeat their parents’ actions to self-medicate or cope with their trauma.
Any Family Member Can Be Affected by a Loved One’s Addiction
While children are especially susceptible to the effects of a family member’s SUD, anyone can be affected by this disease. For example, parents often experience extreme stress and trauma when their children struggle with SUD. Spouses or domestic partners often struggle with codependency and the desire to “fix” their loved one experiencing an SUD, or they may be physically, emotionally, or verbally abused by an inebriated partner. Children can experience generational trauma, as mentioned, but their parents may also be suffering from generational trauma from their own parents.
Some of the ways family trauma from SUDs can manifest itself in family members include:
- Poor school or work performance
- Financial issues
- Running away from home
- Theft of property or money
- Reckless behavior
Is Addiction Genetic or Learned?
Behavioral traits are those traits that are inherited by children from their parents. These can include such things as personality traits in addition to mental health disorders and SUD. While SUD is not an easily traced heritable disorder like sickle cell anemia, for example, researchers believe there is a genetic component.
That means that while having a parent with SUD does not mean that you will automatically have SUD, too, you may be more at risk for the behavioral traits that can lead you to misuse a substance. In addition, if you experienced trauma as the result of a family member’s SUD, you may be more likely to address the resulting mental health implications with a substance. If you never witnessed healthy coping mechanisms at work, it is more likely that you could resort to self-medicating with a substance.
It’s important to reiterate that SUDs aren’t a simple genetic trait. They can often be influenced by peer pressure, the presence of other mental health disorders, generational trauma, and relationships with family members. These environmental factors influence the formation of habits, coping mechanisms, and the level of positive support you receive from those around you. When you are consistently exposed to individuals with SUD, those are the behaviors you become used to. However, when you grow up with healthy coping habits and have the love and support that you need, you are less likely to experience an SUD. In this way, both nature and nurture affect the family members of people who struggle with SUD.
For many people with parents who are suffering or have suffered from an SUD, one of the best choices they can make is to avoid addictive substances.
How Exactly Does Family History Play a Role in Addiction?
As mentioned, family history can certainly play a role in SUD. So, how does this manifest when children affected by a parent’s SUD grow up to have their own children? Adults who grew up in a household with SUDs are more likely to display behaviors can have a detrimental effect on their future children.
Aside from the potential to develop SUD themselves, adult children of individuals with SUD may experience the following.
Adults that were surrounded by their parents’ SUDs learned to hide their own emotions so as not to draw the potential wrath of their unpredictable parent. They may shut down or show a limited range of emotion to protect themselves.
Often, these adults grew up learning to justify the actions of their parents or hide them from others. In adulthood, they may have a challenging time with logical reasoning.
Anxiety or Depression
Because these adults may not have learned healthy coping skills, they may develop anxiety or depression because of childhood trauma. Lack of positive coping skills may also prevent these individuals from seeking mental healthcare.
Inability to Trust
Children of parents suffering from SUD are often unable to trust their parents to provide a stable, healthy, or safe environment. Others are unable to trust their parent to be truthful. Many of these adults still have a difficult time trusting those around them.
Overly Cautious Behavior
Trauma can lead people to remain vigilant to keep themselves safe, one of the key components of PTSD. Now, they may try to stay prepared and protected against any disasters.
Recovery From Addiction Is Possible for the Entire Family
If you or a loved one has experienced SUD, all is not lost. It is possible for the entire family to heal from SUD. By dealing with each of the issues SUD can cause in the family and not just sweeping them under the rug, all involved have a chance at recovery. However, during this process, families must be careful to avoid judgment or enabling.
When families interact with their family members suffering from SUD, they may pass judgment rather than offer support. Unfortunately, this can lead to worsening SUD issues. Refraining from judgment does not mean you should approve of SUD or associated behaviors. Instead, it simply means that you accept that the person with SUD has encountered a mental health issue and needs effective treatment to begin recovery.
On the other end of the spectrum, families may enable SUD-related behaviors to continue by trying to help or preventing the individual from experiencing the consequences of their actions. When families enable the SUD, rather than helping to treat it, they’re causing more harm than good. They may think that they’re maintaining a healthy relationship or showing them proper love and support, but instead they’re preventing healing and may be worsening the addiction. Both habits can be incredibly damaging. With family support groups, individual therapy, and official family programs, the whole family can learn to grow together and develop more healthy relationships.
Family Programs Can Help
When families choose to support each other through SUD issues, they are making the effort to end a cycle. Leaving an SUD untreated or simply ignoring the issues SUD causes can create unhealthy relationships and a poor environment for all involved. Access to a family program can help you break the cycle generational trauma and SUD have caused.
If you and your loved ones are struggling with SUD, help is available. To learn more about SUD treatment and family recovery, contact the team at Stairway Resource Center today.
Michael D. Stone, MD has been in practice for over 30 years. He graduated from Medical School in 1986 and attended LA County/USC Medical Center Residency in the field of Emergency Medicine. He is a practicing E.R. doctor at 2 hospitals in the Southern California area. Dr. Stone also has a Specialty in Chemical Dependency and Addiction Medicine for 22 years. He is the Medical Director of numerous Residential and Outpatient Facilities in the Los Angeles area. Dr. Stone’s interests outside of medicine include a commercial pilot, all outdoor activities including skiing, fishing and boating.