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The Impact of Substance Abuse and Addiction on Families

photo of three set of shoes from dad, mom, child with the floor beneath child's shoes cracked in half and separated

Substance Abusers and Families Suffer Together

In this article, we will examine the specific impact of sustained substance abuse and addiction on parents, spouses and children in the home. We will review previous studies into the short and long-term effects and also explain the unique role that each family member plays in both addiction and recovery.

illustration of a family home with a large weighted iron ball and chain attached to it with the words drugs and alcohol inside of the iron ballAlcoholism and drug addiction have obvious and well documented effects on chronic substance abusers. Prolonged abuse of drugs and/or alcohol will deteriorate a person’s physical health, impair his or her mental functioning and damage the spirit. But how will these adverse effects impact the addict’s immediate family, and how will the damage manifest itself?

A Family Disease

Every single person in an addict’s immediate family (and at times extended family) is affected in some way by the individual’s substance abuse. Addiction impacts a family’s finances, physical health and psychological wellbeing 1.  In recent years, our society has moved further and further away from the traditional nuclear family. There are single-parent homes, blended families and homes headed by grandparents, just to name a few family unit variations. Each of these family structures and more will affect the addict’s overall impact on the family.

If young children are a part of the family, their ages must also be factored into the effect of substance abuse. The same can be said for older adults who have adult children. The severity of addiction and the type of substance dependence also factor into the overall impact of addiction on a family. 

Addiction impacts a family’s finances, physical health and psychological wellbeing

Lastly, each addict’s situation is different, which means that each family’s situation is unique. This makes it impossible to assign a universal causal relationship between substance abuse and family functioning. It is worth noting that in most families, the impact of addiction is overwhelmingly negative, with few exceptions.

Addiction and Family Roles 

In every family unit, each person plays a role (or multiple roles) to help the family function better and to maintain a level of homeostasis, stability and balance. When substance abuse is added to this dynamic, the family roles naturally shift to adjust to the new behaviors associated with drug or alcohol use, and to continue maintaining order and balance.2

Including the addict, there have been six roles developed to understand how the family functions around the substance abuser. They are “the enabler,” “the mascot,” “the hero,” “the scapegoat,” “the lost child” and “the addict.”3

  • The Enabler: This role is often assumed by a non-addicted spouse or an older child in single-parent homes. The enabler takes care of all of the things that the addict has left undone, including taking care of finances, ensuring children get to school and making justifications for the addict in social and business situations. The enabler is frequently in denial about the severity of the addict’s problem and will continually make excuses for him or her. 
  • The Hero: This role is generally assumed by an older child in the family who overachieves and appears confident and serious. Heroes takes on responsibilities in the home that seemingly exceed their developmental stage, often assuming parental roles. The hero is obsessed with perfection, which makes the role increasingly difficult to maintain as addiction progresses and responsibilities continue to mount. 
  • The Scapegoat: This is the child in the family who habitually misbehaves and displays defiant tendencies in the face of authority. These individuals often get into trouble in school and at home. As these children move toward adulthood, many get into trouble with the law as well. These behaviors are reflective of a poisonous and chaotic atmosphere in the house. 
  • The Mascot: In an uncomfortable home environment, some individuals assume the role of the mascot and use humor as a coping mechanism. The mascot is aware that his or her comedy may be bringing a momentary sense of relief to the family and will continue to maintain this role in order to achieve balance and comfort in the home. 
  • The Lost Child: The person in this role is isolated from other members in the family and has trouble developing relationships as a result. The lost child has difficulty in social situations and often engages in fantasy play to distract themselves both emotionally and physically from the negative home environment.
  • The Addict: Many chronic substance abusers feel great shame, guilt and remorse about the pain and distress they’ve caused their families. However, there are also many addicts who do not want to cease their substance abuse, causing great anger and resentment throughout the family. 

When these roles are established during childhood, they become behavioral patterns that continue to play out and evolve throughout adulthood.

The late development of an addiction (when adult children are present) creates another set of issues, as many family roles have already been firmly set. The blurred line between parent/child relationships and parent/friend relationships also make the situation more difficult to remedy. 

Children of Alcoholics and Other Substance Abusers

silhouette of five generic looking people with one of the five in a different color symbolizing one in five people have lived with an alcoholic relative

Among all of the family members who are impacted by an addict’s disease, perhaps no one suffers as much as children. The effects of living with an addicted parent can be felt long after childhood and well into adulthood. Parental alcoholism and drug addiction can create poor self-image, loneliness, guilt, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, fear of abandonment and chronic depression in children4.  Maternal substance abuse during pregnancy can also lead to a host of behavioral and developmental disorders in children.4

illustration of generic looking parents and children showing parents with alcohol glasses and their children having a higher rate of becoming alcoholics compared to those who don't have alcoholic parents

One in five adult Americans lived with an alcoholic relative at some point during their childhoods. Overall, these individuals are at a greater risk for behavioral and emotional problems when compared to children of non-alcoholics. Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than individuals who were not raised by alcoholics. They are also more likely to have difficulty dealing with stress and highly likely to marry an alcoholic or abusive spouse later in life.6

The financial damage of an addiction can also lead to a child being undereducated and malnourished.

Children of alcoholics and other substance abusers are also likely to grow up in a highly unstable home. Children in these situations are unable to determine which parent they will get (sober or intoxicated) on a moment to moment basis, and are often left to fend for themselves at times when adult supervision would be considered necessary. The financial damage of an addiction can also lead to a child being undereducated and malnourished. Going to school and having three meals a day is not as important as an addict’s next score. Basically, a person who grows up in a home with one or more addicts is often robbed of important aspects of his or her childhood.

When illicit substances are involved, children are often unfairly exposed to illegal activities and may in some cases be asked to aid in these activities by lying about what their parents are doing. Additionally, parents abusing any substance are more likely to be involved with divorce, mental illness, unemployment and legal problems, severely compromising their abilities to effectively parent.4 

Spouses of Substance Abusers

Substance abuse and committed relationships do not make for a very cohesive mix. Especially in relationships where only one partner has a substance abuse problem, alcohol and drugs can ruin a marriage or long-term relationship. Alcoholism has been linked to higher divorce rates, and one partner’s addiction can lead to the other partner having to shoulder an unfair share of the household responsibilities.7

illustrated of a family photo of a dad, mom, child with the photo torn into two and symbolically attached by a chain to the word alcoholism

A relationship with two addicts allows each partner to feed off of and enable the other. 

When both spouses are equally addicted to drugs or alcohol, it may not increase the chance for divorce, but the household’s atmosphere will become much more toxic as a result 8.  One sober partner can at least try to keep the house in order and encourage the substance abuser to see help. A relationship with two addicts allows each partner to feed off of and enable the other. This too will likely lead to the slow deterioration of the relationship, as both addicts will be primarily focused on feeding their addictions rather than cultivating the relationship or handling any household responsibilities. 

Codependency is also an issue that often arises in spouses of substance abusers. The concept of codependency became widely popular during the 1980s. Broadly, it refers to an individual who is overly involved with another person to the point of dysfunction. When discussing codependency in addiction, the term refers to individuals who put the needs of the addict before their own, even when it is detrimental to their own wellbeing. Codependent people will often defend and make excuses for the addict and will do anything to remain in his or her good graces, being sure not to raise their ire.9

Early on, the term was often reserved for the wives of alcoholics and drug addicts who relied on their husbands for financial wellbeing. Though codependent people are usually spouses, anyone who has an established relationship with an addict can become codependent. 

Parents of Alcoholics and Drug Addicts

No matter how old a parent’s kids are, discovering that your children have an addiction problem can be an unpleasant, rude awakening. It may cause mothers and fathers to question their parental abilities or decisions they’ve made. Parents of addicts, much like children of addicts, often blame themselves for the development of the substance use disorder. 

illustration showing generic grandparents with a young grandchild with statistics that since the year 2000 twice as many children are being raised by their grandparents

For teenagers and adolescents struggling with addiction, the problem can be perceived as being potentially more dangerous, with the child not evenly fully matured and so much of his or her life left ahead. This is also a critical time for addiction to be stopped before its grip is too strong. 

  • Nine out of 10 Americans who meet the criteria for addiction began smoking, drinking or using other drugs before age 18. 
  • 75 percent of all high school students have used an addictive substance. One in five of those students meet the criteria for addiction. 
  • 46 percent of all high school students currently use an addictive substance, with 33 percent of them meeting the criteria for addiction.10
  • 10 percent of all youth aged 12 to 17 are current illicit drug users. 
  • An estimated 6 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds and 17 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds reported driving under the influence of alcohol within the last year 11

At least when parents have teens and adolescents who have substance use disorders, they have some level of power in that they control the finances and the household. This power can be wielded to get them to accept treatment and cease substance abuse. With parents of adult addicts, however, the ability to impose consequences for substance abuse or the unwillingness to seek treatment is greatly diminished. This holds even truer when the parents live separately from the addicted daughter or son. 

When the addict has young children, the grandparents or other extended family members are often the ones who pick up the slack in parental duties.

According to the U.S. Census, the number of children being raised by their grandparents skyrocketed from 2.4 million in 2000 to 4.9 million in 2010 12.  Two of the primary causes of this are addiction and mental disorder 13

Domestic and Sexual Abuse Are Linked to Substance Abuse

There is an unfortunate and tragic cycle that includes substance abuse, sexual abuse/rape and domestic/child abuse. Several studies have found that a large percentage of child abuse and domestic abuse cases involve use of drugs or alcohol. Other studies have found that individuals who were victims of abuse were more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. 

This means individuals who grow up in a home with substance abusing parents are more likely to experience some sort of domestic or sexual abuse leading to trauma, which will then make them more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol themselves. If they have children as well, the cycle has a strong chance of continuing.

A Disturbing Connection

As many as two-thirds of all people in treatment for drug abuse report that they were physically, sexually or emotionally abused as a child.

  • A woman is beaten every nine seconds in the United States 14
  • More than three million children witness violent acts against their mothers each year.15
  • Between 30 and 40 percent of children who witness or experience violent acts will be at an increased chance for becoming involved in a violent relationship in adulthood 16
  • Between 25 and 50 percent of men who commit domestic violence also have substance abuse problems.17 
  • As many as two-thirds of all people in treatment for drug abuse report that they were physically, sexually or emotionally abused as a child. 18
  • One in four women have been a victim of rape, sexual assault or domestic abuse. 19
  • As many as 80 percent of child abuse cases involve alcohol or drug use.20
  • More than half of defendants accused of murdering their spouses (as well as nearly half of the victims) had been drinking alcohol at the time of the incident.21

A person who experiences or witnesses abuse, sexual assault or rape has a high likelihood of struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome and/or depression. Both conditions often lead individuals to use drugs or alcohol as a means to cope. This pattern then potentially leads to the development of tolerance and then full-blown addiction. 

Discussion and Conclusion

Nearly every person in contact with an addict is impacted in some way. 

It’s rare that the impact of an addiction is limited solely to the addict. Everyone around him or her is affected in some way. Frequently, the people who spend the most time around the addict are friends, family and co-workers – these are the people who are likely to be most impacted by drug addiction or alcoholism. 

Family members, especially non-addicted spouses, are forced to pick up the slack for the addict, make excuses for his or her behavior and potentially endure sexual, physical and emotional abuse. In many cases, extended family members and close friends have to help financially and in other ways to account for the ignored responsibilities by the addict. Children suffer in school and socially and are more likely to be involved with drugs and alcohol as adults. Coworkers are not always as close to the addict, but they may also be affected by having to increase their workloads to make up for diminished job performance. 

Nearly every person in contact with an addict is impacted in some way. This is why addiction recovery is most successful when the friends and family members closest to the addict are involved. Since addiction damages the whole family, addiction recovery needs to heal the whole family. 

This article was written by addiction care experts at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches. We are committed to offering the most comprehensive addiction treatment services in the nation and being thought leaders in the addiction recovery community.