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Fighting Addiction in the Family

addiction in the familyFamilies are made up of individuals, all of whom may have their own hopes and dreams, but families are also organisms that function as one unit. When one person in a family makes a choice, the rest of the people in that family are impacted by that choice. Sometimes, these are positive changes. When a family member gets a promotion, for example, the whole family can celebrate the added money that might flow into the household. But there are times when one person’s choices can have a devastating impact on the health and well-being of the rest of the family. Addiction is one such issue. Untangling the damage, helping both the family unit and the individual family members to heal, can take time.

But when the process is complete, the group will be stronger and better able to handle family-related stress in the future.

Sharing Habits and Genetics

Families that share blood ties may share genetic propensities for addiction. The University of Utah reports that there are 20,000 or so genes, and many of these genes have been associated with a propensity to develop addiction. Some genes influence the action of drugs, making the substances seem even more pleasurable and even more powerful, which could cause an addiction to take hold. Other genes might dampen the negative sensations people feel when they attempt to withdraw from drugs, which could keep these people locked into addictions as they don’t experience frightening sensations when they try to stop. While genetics don’t tell the whole story of addiction, some families do seem to have long histories of addiction, with multiple affected family members.

Living in these families can be difficult, providing children with the mistaken notion that substance abuse and addiction is a normal part of adult life.

woman fighting addictionNot all families share genetic information, however. Some families are made up of just a husband and wife, for example, and other families are made up of adopted family members. These families can also pass addictions to one another, through the influence of habit. For example, couples might become accustomed to sharing a bottle of wine with dinner, or children might learn that adults take drugs at the end of a “bad day,” and they might be tempted to do the same as they age.

Families can exert an immense amount of control and power over one another, and one person’s habits could quickly become the habits they all share.

Typical Damage

Much of the research conducted on addiction in the family has focused on children who grow up in addictive families. Therapists suggest that children who grow up in families touched by addiction tend to accept assigned roles, such as:

  • The hero
  • The scapegoat
  • The silent follower
  • The mascot

These children may subsume their own personality traits in a desperate hope to keep the family from falling apart due to the damage caused by addiction. The spouse of an addicted person goes through similar changes, attempting to exert control by any means necessary in order to keep the addicted person from inflicting major damage on the rest of the members of the family.

mother and daughterDamage like this happens quite slowly, in a step-by-step fashion, and the people may not even realize that they are changing, even as the patterns become more and more ingrained. In time, all the members of the family are solely focused on the addiction, and since they have defined their lives around that addiction, they may not know what to do if the addiction disappears.

Subconsciously, all these family members may work to keep the addiction in place, as solving the addiction might throw the family into chaos.

The personality changes people endure due to an addiction can stay in place for the rest of the person’s life, even if the child grows up and leaves home or the spouse leaves the marriage and finds a new partner. The changes just seem to be part of the person’s new way of living.

Studies suggest that family therapy can help addicted people to learn new habits and break free of their addictions. For example, a study of the issue in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy found that family therapy was slightly more effective than individual therapy in helping an alcoholic to stop drinking. This is a remarkable achievement, and it’s easy to understand why family therapy could help addicted people to leave their poor behaviors behind. When their families aren’t keeping the addiction in place, they’re free to heal. But, family therapy techniques can also help individual family members cope with the damage an addiction can cause, and those benefits might remain even if the addiction recurs.

Breaking Patterns

addiction pattern

Children are profoundly influenced by their parents, and living in a home wracked by addiction can cause a severe amount of damage to a developing child.

For example, many homes with addiction contain elements of physical or emotional abuse, and sometimes, that abuse is heaped upon the child in the family. A study conducted in Texas followed children who lived in abusive homes like this, and in the 3.5 years that followed, five of the children developed depression and four developed substance use disorders. This means that the maltreated children developed problems at three times the rate seen in children who did not have an abusive background. These children could have gone on to have their own children, and they may have abused their own children as well. It’s a cycle of abuse that can be hard to see, but therapy can make it stop.

Understanding Therapy

In an article describing family therapy techniques, presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1989, authors suggest that family therapy progresses in four stages:

  • Getting started, or learning more about the family’s history and goals
  • Strengthening ties between family members
  • Confronting the addiction issue
  • Learning to thrive as a family


Family therapy is designed to help the group deal with the addiction that is tearing them apart, but the therapy is also provided to help people learn how to survive independently of the families they live in.

People can learn how to express their own feelings, speak out when they’re feeling ignored and set their own goals for happiness and fulfillment. As all members of the family begin to look outward for happiness, and all members of the family begin to feel more relaxed and at peace, the entire tone of the family can change and the addiction issue may lessen.

If the addicted person returns to substance abuse, the family might still benefit from therapy, as they’ll learn how to co-exist with the substance abuse without nurturing it. They’ll have the tools available to define their own happiness without leaning on the addiction. Therapists sometimes refer to this concept as a move toward independence, allowing people to live their own lives and find their own happiness, no matter what the other members of the family might choose to do. Therapy might not ever make family members feel happy about an addiction, but therapy can help people learn how to live with an addiction, if the person simply will not get better.

At The Orchid, we believe that families have a unique and important role to play in the healing process. We provide family origins therapy, which helps clients learn how to deal with the patterns they picked up from their parents during childhood, and we also provide traditional family therapy techniques to help the group to heal together. To learn more about our approach, please call our toll-free line.

Further Reading

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