What Addiction Does to Families

Written by Jackie Calkins

Families who have one or more people experiencing a substance use disorder know just how impactful this disease can be both on their loved ones and themselves. They understand the pain, heartbreak, and resentment that can develop in the face of this insidious disease. They also know that as long as a substance use disorder continues, the more difficult it becomes to function effectively as a family.

Not all families respond the same way to the presence of substance use disorders, however many of them experience similar repercussions of their loved one’s addiction. One of the most prominent effects on the family is how the entire family system morphs into one that supports the addiction but destroys themselves.

How the Family System Changes Because of Addiction 

The family systems theory, developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, states that, “human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit.”

According to the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, families tend to share the same “emotional skin.” What this means is that families impact one another’s behaviors, emotions, and thinking patterns so significantly that they almost act as one, whether that emotional skin is healthy or not.

When addiction is present within a family unit, the entire pattern of that family’s function is altered. While written nearly 30 years ago, a professional piece printed in Family Therapy of Drug and Alcohol Abuse describes some of the most common changes the family unit experiences when addiction is occurring. The changes discussed in the 1992 publication still apply today, and include the following:

  • Families that get caught up in the toxicity of addiction often exhibit negativism. This is when all communication between members becomes toxic and changes the mood of the living environment for the worse. In fact, negativism can run so deep that any positive behaviors or achievements can go completely unnoticed, causing members to act negatively just to get attention.
  • Self-medication. All members of the family unit are at risk for turning to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their feelings, thoughts, and problems caused by the presence of addiction. What this does to a family is further complicate their functioning. It is also common to see self-medication in families where addiction occurs because there are strong genetic components tied to the disease of addiction.
  • Parental inconsistency. Often times, the members of the family who suffer most from addiction are children and their parents, especially if it is the child who is addicted. Parents can struggle with setting and upholding rules and boundaries. They can become inconsistent with their parenting, leaving plenty of room for issues to develop. Specifically, children, teens, or young adults who are addicted to drugs or alcohol can act out negatively just to get their parents to set healthy boundaries and rules for them. Often times, this is done subconsciously. However, what ends up occurring is the chaos continues back and forth between the parents and their children.
  • Miscarried expression of anger. Similar to self-medication, miscarried expression of anger occurs when members of the family are resentful of their living environment or their family but have difficulty expressing their anger. Instead, it is common for someone experiencing miscarried expression of anger to abuse drugs or alcohol to cope.

The physical disease of addiction is not the sole cause of the changes that many family systems experience. Instead, it is often a jumble of several other effects that stem from the family member’s active addiction.


How Else Can Addiction Harm My Family?

Since many addicts and alcoholics experience similar consequences of their use, it comes as no surprise that their families do, too. Regardless of if a family member is addicted to opioids or hooked on alcohol, the harm that addiction incurs upon the rest of the family can be extremely destructive. Consider the following potential risks frequently associated with addiction in families:

  • Negative feelings can develop and sustain themselves for the duration of the active addiction and beyond. Some of these feelings often include resentment, anger, and sadness.
  • The mental toll that weighs heavy on families with an addicted loved one can be draining to say the least. It is very common for family members to suffer from anxiety and depression when a loved one is actively addicted to drugs or alcohol.
  • Lack of sleep caused by concern for the loved one, poor diet due to overeating or a lack of eating to cope with the stress, and experiencing little motivation to exercise because of exhaustion puts family members’ physical health at risk.
  • Many families put as much money as possible into helping their addicted loved one go to treatment. Other families constantly give their loved one money to prevent them from stealing or prostituting themselves to afford drugs/alcohol. This can become very expensive and put families into debt and other financial crisis.
  • The families of addicts and alcoholics often withdraw from their social life because of how overwhelmed and upset the addiction has made them feel. They may also feel embarrassed by what is occurring within their family and isolate as a result. This can prevent individuals from obtaining support at a time when support is something they need more than ever.

The potential harm that addiction does or can do to families is never-ending. As long as the addiction continues and the family does not come together to get themselves help, this vicious cycle can continue. Thankfully, there is help for families and their addicted loved ones.

Does Your Family Need Help Dealing with Addiction?

If your family is being impacted by the disease of addiction, know that you are not alone. Millions of families are negatively touched by addiction and can relate to what you are going through.

At our facility, we see families struggle with a loved one’s addiction on a regular basis. Not only can we help provide your addicted loved one with the care that can get him or her sober, but we can also help your family begin healing as well.

Do not be fearful to reach out to us. Call us right now. We can help your family through this difficult time and then some.