According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) and the Mental Health Services Administration, addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, and impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics. For this reason, treating addiction in families is essential for lasting recovery.
It is no surprise that addiction can cause major damage to the individual abusing alcohol and/or drugs. It can quickly go from innocent experimentation and fun with friends on the weekends, to something more consuming, chronic, and long-term. Persistent abuse of drugs and alcohol slowly chips away at one’s emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental health, not to mention the impact that it may have on holding a job, financial stability, and other legal issues.
Addiction is frequently referred to as a “family disease”, as it affects each member of a family unit. This is especially true for young adults who live at home with their family, as their substance use disorder becomes front and center. Understanding addiction and family recovery will help the family heal as a whole, which provides the necessary support for the individual struggling with addiction to achieve meaningful long-term sobriety.
Signs that a loved one is addicted
- Difficulties at school, disinterest in school-related activities, and declining grades
- Poor work performance, being chronically late to work, appearing tired and disinterested in work duties, and receiving poor performance reviews
- Changes in physical appearance, such as wearing inappropriate or dirty clothing and a lack of interest in grooming
- Altered behavior, such as an increased desire for privacy
- Drastic changes in relationships
- A noticeable lack of energy when performing daily activities
- Spending more money than usual or requesting to borrow money
- Issues with financial management, such as not paying bills on time
- Changes in appetite, such as a decreased appetite and associated weight loss
- Bloodshot eyes, poor skin tone, and appearing tired or run down
- Defensiveness when asked about substance use
- Consistent or sporadic symptoms of mental illness or mental health problems such as depression or panic attacks
- Missing prescription drugs that are kept in a medicine cabinet at home
How are loved ones affected by addiction?
There are many ways addiction affects families. Just like the individual struggling with substance abuse has a mental and physical obsession with drugs and alcohol, the family can develop a similar obsession to stop the destructive behavior of the addict. The entire family can begin to feel anger, resentment, confusion, shame, failure, sadness, depression, fear, loneliness, and jealousy.
As a drug user transitions from recreational use to full-blown addiction, family members often get trapped in the middle. Seeing their carefree loved one turn into a completely different person brings up a lot of emotions in fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends alike. Stuck in a whirlwind of confusion, hopelessness, and regret, immediate family members often do not know what to do. These effects can create a toxic family environment leading to emotional distress and insecurity in the home.
Younger and impressionable siblings may be the category of family members affected most by addiction. If an older sibling struggles with substance use disorder and sets bad examples for a younger sibling, this can have a profound effect on the child’s perspective on life. In fact, there is substantial evidence suggesting that younger siblings are more likely to abuse substances or get involved in deviant behaviors when influenced by an older relative. If the older sibling is abusing drugs, acting poorly, and setting a bad example for a younger sibling, this can have a profound effect on the child’s perspective on life. In addition, the likelihood that he or she will end up using drugs themselves.
Other problems an individual struggling with addiction can induce in a sibling are excess stress and worry, pushing them away emotionally, and creating conflict within the household. Younger children within a turbulent household environment may turn to fantasy play and isolation in order to escape the chaos in the house. They may also start to defy authoritarian figures and get in trouble at school by inciting rebellious behavior.
Parents are not always aware that their children are abusing alcohol and/or drugs. As the negative effects of the substances begin permeating into the different areas of the abuser’s life such as school, physical health, family, and friend relationships, the signs become more obvious. The process begins with a suspicion that they are abusing substances, knowledge once the evidence becomes clear, followed by normalizing by denying the drug abuse or characterizing it as a phase in their adolescence that would pass, and ending with confrontation (ref). Throughout these developments, there is often a strong sense of “shame, blame, and guilt” (Ref).
Relationships and marriage are intended for us to feel love, support, and happiness. When addiction is in the mix, these relationships can quickly become a source of chaos and conflict, violence, negativity, and emotional outbursts. Addiction is often paired with neglect, a lack of responsibility, and a change in priorities that shift a heavy share of household and financial responsibilities to the partner. Addiction causes a loss of trust, resentment, regret, and guilt. As stress continues to increase, the relationship will begin to weaken and eventually collapse. Alcoholism and addiction are a leading cause of divorce. (Ref)
The slippery slope of addiction slowly whittles away meaningful friendships in several ways. At first, friends may often feel like they are pressured to partake in alcohol and drugs in order to relate. As it progresses, friends might perceive a change in the dynamic of their friendship To some, this added struggle will be too much to cope with ultimately leading to loss of trust then estrangement.
Family Dynamics in Addiction
Another way to consider addiction in families is through the framework of “roles”. Oftentimes, as a result of the behaviors that an individual with substance abuse problems exhibits, each member of the family tends to fall into a role that makes them feel as comfortable as possible while they work to cope with the impacts of this disease. Understanding your family dynamic can highlight the work that needs to be done to work towards a healthy family system. These roles are as follows:
The hero of the family is the family member who is fully focused on perfectionism and success. This person strives to continually make strides at school, work, and home in an effort to distract from the addict/alcoholic and to give the family a member to be proud of.
The enabler of the family is the individual who behaves in ways that enable the addict/alcohol to continue using. They may provide money, transportation, shelter, etc. to the addict/alcoholic in an effort to keep them safe, but these behaviors only make the situation worse.
Every family has a family member with a good sense of humor. Families with addicts/alcoholics are no different. However, the mascot of the family uses humor to deflect their feelings regarding the addict/alcoholic and help distract others from focusing on the severity of the situation. Because of utilizing this improper coping skill, the mascot of the family is more likely than some others to also develop a substance abuse problem in the future.
The Lost Child
The lost child is the child in the family that gets lost in the mix. They may be socially withdrawn, not talk much, or even participate in hobbies or activities that they used to like. The chaos surrounding the addict/alcoholic overwhelms the lost child to the point where they feel forgotten in their family unit. Similar to the mascot, the lost child is also at greater risk for abusing drugs or alcohol in the future because of their role.
The scapegoat is the family member who is always being blamed for the bad things that happen within the family. This person also creates unfavorable situations as a means of attention-seeking.
The addict/alcoholic is the person in the family who is actively abusing drugs or alcohol. Their behaviors set off a chain reaction within the family unit that can impact each member significantly. The addict/alcoholic continues to use despite the repercussions to the family.
Ways family and friends can help an addicted family member
It’s entirely normal to feel a strong desire to support a family member struggling with substance abuse or drug addiction. Addiction affects the whole family, not just the person with the substance use disorder, and the emotional toll of addiction will inevitably impact other family members.
While the instinct to help is commendable, it is crucial to approach the situation in the right way. Providing support and empathy without enabling the addiction is vital. By seeking professional guidance and education about addiction, family members can learn to navigate the complexities of their role and understand the increased risk of codependency. Each family member plays a crucial role in the recovery journey, and with the right approach, they can become a pillar of strength and a catalyst for positive change. Here are some steps that family members can take in order to curb drug and alcohol abuse:
Educate yourself about addiction
Understanding exactly what they are going through physically and mentally is an important first step. If you lack the knowledge and expertise regarding addiction and your child’s/partner’s/friend’s drug of choice, you will not have the information necessary to assist them. Do not try to rescue them; this will lead to resistance and resentment. Substance abuse requires specialized treatment and support, and the decision to enter treatment must be voluntary on the part of the addict.
Confront the individual and stage an intervention
Staging an intervention is usually the first step for families or friends who want to help someone battling an addiction. Interventions are common and, in many cases, quite effective. However, the concept is daunting, and it can be difficult to know how to mount one effectively. A proper intervention can take a lot of preparation and tends to be more successful with professional assistance. There are professional intervention specialists out there who can help you plan and guide the conversation before it takes place in a way that will minimize offense and mistakes. They are also more effective the more people you can get involved, so rally friends and relatives who are worried about the person.
Some key points to keep in mind:
- Show care and concern. A loved one should know that the intervention is because they are loved. Make sure they know this is happening because there are people who genuinely care for them and that they are not alone.
- Help them make the connections. Many addicts do not realize how much their behavior and lives have changed. Maybe they previously enjoyed playing sports or hanging out with old friends, but now spend all their free time with drugs, alcohol, or new friends with bad influences.
- Research options. Come to the conversation with facts about the drug itself, treatment options, and how these treatments work.
- Listen just as much as you speak. The goal is for them to know they are being heard, too.
- Set limits. When they still deny and refuse treatment, make sure they understand the consequences that come with that.
Using encouragement and optimism builds a sense of teamwork and cooperation while reducing conflict and negativity.
Lend support throughout the treatment process but set clear boundaries
Set boundaries during periods of calm when one can think rationally about what they will accept and what they won’t. This will help avoid inconsistency during times when boundaries are tested. Encourage them to:
- Try new healthy coping skills.
- Engage in new activities.
- Foster more supportive peer relationships in recovery.
- Face challenges.
- Practice self-care
- Offer emotional support
- Set healthy boundaries
Taking care of oneself is one the most important things someone can do when a loved one is struggling with addiction. Self-care comes in many forms: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and social. When practiced regularly, self-care can build resilience toward stressors in life that will follow you around. When the mind, body, and spirit are aligned and healthy, one can devote the energy needed to support their loved one.
Seek out support groups for yourself
Many support groups are available for the friends and family members of people with substance use disorders. In recovery, we emphasize the importance of a strong support system built of like-minded peers. Family members don’t always have the resources or energy to provide this crucial support, but there are support groups out there. Parents struggling to find direction related to loved ones struggling with alcoholism and drug dependence can benefit from several resources. Here are some examples:
- Parents of Addicted Loved Ones
- Families Anonymous
- SMART Recovery Family & Friends
Research substance abuse treatment options for your family member
There are several levels to addiction treatment, each have varying degrees of intensity and support:
Family therapy and family addiction treatment are the best options for those family units with a recovering addict/alcoholic. That is because, through family therapy, all members of the family can benefit, especially in the case of parental substance abuse. Some of the most important aspects of addiction and family recovery are taught during family therapy. They can include, but are not limited to, the following:
When addiction occurs within the four walls of a home, it becomes easy for all members of the family to stop communicating effectively. Family therapy helps families recognize healthy ways to communicate with one another so that everyone can feel heard and can say what they want without chaos ensuing.
Everyone, including the addict/alcoholic, harbors resentments in the early stages of addiction and family recovery. Working with a therapist allows family members to identify those resentments, speak about them, and develop ways to properly heal them. This can include working directly with the family member who the individual has a resentment for.
Addiction often causes families to function in survival mode. This makes it complicated for family members to be accountable for their actions, as they are just trying to survive it all. Accountability helps families build respect for one another and keeps everyone as honest as possible.
Trust tends to be the first thing broken when it comes to addiction, as well as the last thing to be repaired. Addiction causes everyone in the family to do, say, and behave in ways that break the trust of others. Family therapy allows the family to engage in trust-building exercises designed to help one another start earning that trust back.
Addiction and Family Recovery
Being a part of a family is unlike any other relationship you ever have in your life. For the most part, we don’t get to choose our family, yet, it is very difficult to escape the “orbit” of your family relationships, even in adult life. When someone in a family unit struggles with addiction, the effects of addiction spread quickly through the family and, without careful attention, can make the addiction both last longer and have more serious consequences.
The interconnectedness of a family system is why treatment professionals say that we treat families in our line of work, rarely individuals. This is fairly obvious in the treatment of adolescents, who, by and large, still live under their parents’ (or parent figures’) roof; however, it is vital in the treatment of adults as well. While there is always some individual work to be done on the part of the person in treatment, substance abuse affects the whole family, and there is almost always some family work to be done as well.
If you or a loved one are experiencing addiction in the family, reach out to Clear Behavioral Health for help. We have a long-standing reputation in the Los Angeles recovery community with nearly two decades of experience helping our clients rebuild their lives. Our skilled and passionate clinicians, many of whom are in recovery themselves, are dedicated to providing clients with the tools they need to live a life free from addiction.
From detox, withdrawal management and residential treatment for stabilization to outpatient treatment programs and aftercare, our evidence-based clinical programming is designed to deliver compassionate and individualized treatment to clients and their families. Call us today to find out how to seek treatment and heal the entire family from the effects of a loved one’s addiction.