Is Addiction a Family Disease?

Written by Jackie Calkins

When someone has a substance use disorder (SUD), their whole family can feel the effects. Often, families are stretched to the breaking point, maybe beyond, in their attempts to deal with the “problem.”

Addiction can cause issues such as manipulative behaviors, fear of judgment, and anguish or guilt over its effects on the family.

Why Is Addiction a Family Disease?

When you’re a part of a family unit, every decision one person makes can impact the other members of the unit. Whether indirectly or directly. When someone in the family struggles with drug or alcohol abuse, the condition will negatively affect all family members and put them in distress.

Feelings of guilt, anger, confusion, sadness, and more can trouble the whole family and lead to increased conflict, isolation, and overall dysfunction.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Use Disorders (SUD)

Everyone experiences the harmful effects of addiction in the family, from immediate family to distant relatives. Potential side effects of family addiction can include:

  • worsening mental health due to extreme stress
  • anger and resentment
  • anxiety and depression
  • hopelessness
  • isolation
  • engaging in risky behaviors like unprotected sex
  • shame
  • physical health issues due to an intense focus on the person abusing substances
  • financial problems caused by supporting your loved one’s habit

Specific risks to children in an addicted household include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • impaired social abilities
  • higher divorce rates
  • increased likelihood of abusing substances
  • violence
  • diminished ability to learn new concepts

Forming Unhealthy Patterns within The Family

The more prolonged substance abuse is, the more likely family members are to attempt to control the addictive behaviors of their loved one. This is the best way they know how to cope with the condition, and it can form unhealthy patterns.

Unhealthy patterns which may develop, include:

  • Negative communication. Complaints and criticisms can be harsh and escalate the conflict in relationships.
  • Inconsistent boundaries. Family members may struggle to set hard limits and exhibit poor follow-through on consequences when boundaries are broken.
  • Poor expectations. Your loved one will likely fall short of the expectations you set for them while dealing with this disease. And you’re likely to be perpetually disappointed in them because their behavior doesn’t match what you expect.
  • Misguided anger. You may struggle to contain your anger about your loved one’s condition to others while in the midst of dealing with it.
  • Self-medication. You may eventually turn to substances to manage the growing stress of your loved one’s addiction.
  • Peace-keeping. You may attempt and fail to keep the peach by ignoring the warning signs or enabling your family members’ behaviors.

It’s crucial to note that some behaviors may already exist within your family dynamic and may not necessarily be caused by your family member’s drug or alcohol abuse.

The Top Two Behavior Patterns To Watch For

The two most serious behavior patterns to watch for are codependency and enabling.

Codependency – this is a state of being overly concerned with your loved one while spending little to no energy on your own needs. Signs of a codependent family member include:

  • low self-esteem
  • extremely controlling due to a lack of trust
  • overly forgiving to avoid confrontation, anger, and, ultimately, rejection
  • oversensitivity to problems or reactions
  • staying loyal to the addicted family member regardless

Enabling – is a state of constant protection of the family member from the natural consequences of substance abuse. They make excuses, bail them out of jail, pay legal fees, and do whatever they can to prevent their loved one from experiencing the actual cost of their addiction.

How Addiction Wrecks Relationships

Due to the inconsistency addiction can create and the lying that surrounds addictive behaviors, one member of the family system can upset the entire balance. In time, addiction can cause relationships with other family members to deteriorate.

Take, for example, a family with an addicted child, an enabling mother, and a father with misguided anger, in this example. The father may take his anger out on the mother for her enabling behavior instead of being upset with the child for abusing substances.

This conflict adds stress and tension to their marriage. The negativity or self-medication of other family members could further break down the closest relationships.

Substance Abuse Stigma Affects the Entire Family

Stigmas are often judgments about how we feel at a societal level and are typically fueled by misinformation. Addiction of one family member can be placed on you or other members of your family.

Stigmas around addiction can be dangerous because they can perpetuate stereotypes and hurtful attitudes. They can also prevent people from finding treatment because they believe their condition is a moral failing, which encourages isolation and disconnection from support.

It’s possible to receive stigmas externally and internally. Thinking family addiction is shameful and should be kept a secret can perpetuate and maintain the stigma. This is problematic thinking because it can lead to enabling, codependency, and other unhealthy patterns.

Because stigmas are based on false information, it’s vital to stay focused on accurate information by depending on reliable sources and speaking with experts in the field.

Ultimately, truth and unconditional acceptance are needed to defeat stigma for good.

Family Support Is Critical to The Recovery Process

It’s crucial to note that one person (the one with substance abuse issues) can’t heal the damage caused by their condition alone. To start the healing process, every family member must initiate the appropriate self-care.

Some recommended self-care options include:

  • asking for and receiving help from others when needed
  • spending time on activities, you love with people you care about
  • adding structure to your life with routines and goals
  • getting adequate sleep
  • eating a healthy diet
  • devoting time to physical activity
  • focusing on being grateful
  • seeking professional help

Support Groups for Families

Another way for families to get involved in the healing process is by attending group therapy or peer support groups. Many 12-step and non-12-step programs exist throughout the country to help, including:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (Al-Anon)
  • Alcoholic Teens (Alateen)
  • Co-dependents Anonymous (CoDA)
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics
  • Adult Children of Anonymous
  • Families Anonymous
  • Co-Anon

These groups can provide support and valuable resources to those who need it for their family member’s addiction.

Encouraging Treatment for The Family Disease of Addiction

If you or a loved one find that the recommended self-help and peer group support isn’t sufficient enough to help you gain positive momentum toward improving your situation, professional addiction treatment is your next best option.

Many professional mental health and drug rehab centers can help improve your communication skills. Contact an addiction treatment specialist via our treatment helpline for recommendations on your unique situation.


National Institute on Health – Biology of Addiction Drugs and Alcohol Can Hijack Your Brain

National Library of Medicine – The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders