Addiction and the Family

Featured Article

Addiction is a family system problem. That is, the problem affects the entire family. What happens to one family member impacts everyone else in the family. People living in families with an addict often live in a constant state of stress and crisis. Their lives focus on the addict’s behavior, whether it is coming home and finding the addict drunk or high and being sick or emotionally volatile, losing jobs and money, not following through with responsibilities, breaking promises, being unavailable physically or emotionally, or embarrassing them in front of family or friends.

There are certain characteristics research has found that are present in the families of an addict. First, the abuser’s object of addiction (ex. gambling, food, pornography, alcohol, or drugs) becomes the most important thing in the family’s life. This is because the abuser’s top goal is getting their addiction fix that other family members must structure their own lives around.

Then it is the rest of the family’s job to keep the family together even when conditions are deteriorating due to the abuser’s behavior. The unknown is scary. The family knows what it is like living with the addict, regardless of how bad the situation really is.

In addition, family members have a tendency to become enablers for the abuser’s addiction. The enablers take on the responsibility of maintaining the family’s functioning and making excuses for the abuser’s behavior. By doing this, the enabler then allows the abuser to stay in their addiction.

Family members have a tendency to feel incredibly guilty. They often think it is their fault the abuser has become an addict. The abuser typically denies responsibility for their addiction, and someone must be to blame, so then it must be the family members’ fault. For example, the spouse often thinks if they were just a better husband or wife then everything would be okay. Children may think if they were just good at school then their parent will get better.

Families with an addict often feel out of control. This is due to the high levels of energy it takes to try and control the addict, family members lose contact with themselves. They are so focused on the addict they lose who they are, how they feel, and think they can’t share how they feel with others. This makes their interpersonal relationships seem empty and alone. Due to this lack of support their problems can escalate out of control. Like you are on a treadmill trying to keep the family together.

Thus family members don’t know what they want. They know what the addict wants. That becomes the family’s focus. The family is often surviving by a thread and there is no time for superficial wishes and wants of a normal family. They only have vague hopes that someday things will get better. They get so used to broken promises by the addict they just don’t listen anymore.

Family members of an addict can also feel worthless. They may feel no one cares and they are unlovable. As if they deserve what is happening to them because they are so inadequate in their familial role. This is the best they can get.

As a result, they frequently do not trust others. They have been disappointed so many times by the dependent person’s behavior they don’t believe things will ever get better. In order to keep the addiction a secret, they feel they can’t trust others with the shame they are hiding.
Communication is another issue. Because the family with an addict learns the credo: “Don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel,” this blocks healthy communication. They don’t feel they can openly talk to each other, extended family, or friends. They are cut off from everyone. If you talk openly, then the truth might come out and the whole family will fall apart.

Children suffer the most in this situation. Their development can be severely impacted. Children need to deal with the same level of stress that the adults experience, but they have less physical, social, emotional, and mental resources than adults. The family situation may lead to a lack of sleep, when it is vital for growth. They may have less social resources because they are afraid to open up to their friends and they feel they can’t have their friends over to the house. Emotional resources are depleted due to the negative feelings they often experience (pain, fear, and embarrassment). Mental resources may be affected by lack of parental help and difficulties with school attendance.
Research has found children growing up in an addicted home are at risk of developmental problems. They have higher rates of:

  1. behavioral problems (delinquency, truancy, aggression, hyperactivity, temper tantrums)
  2. school difficulties (learning problems, reading delays, difficulty concentrating)
  3. emotional problems (negative attitude toward addicted parent, lack of bonding with parents, psychosomatic complaints, self-blame)
  4. problematic adolescence (socially isolated, acting out for attention, leaving home early, risk taking behavior that can lead to their own addiction)

Note that not all children who grow up with an addicted parent will develop these problems. However, there are factors that put them at greater risk. These factors are: 1) single parent household, 2) longer length of time the child was exposed to the addiction, and 3) lack of availability of a parental surrogate (older sibling, close relative, or mentor).

Children need to know it is not their fault. Support is vital. Children need to have people they can turn to for support. The Lord is always available, but when change doesn’t happen children may doubt His existence.

These factors are important to keep in mind in the recovery process. The family has maladapted to the situation and will have a certain degree of difficulty making adjustments to life without an addict. Even though the family has wanted the addict to recover, they will have to take on new roles they are not used to having. The adolescent daughter who had to cook for the siblings and make family decisions suddenly now has a recovering mother who has taken charge. The teenager is put back into the daughter role with less power. She may resent the change.

Just like there are negative emotions to deal with when there is an addict in the home, there are emotions to deal with recovery. Children need to know their parent’s recovery is not their responsibility. Relapse is common. If it happens, it is not the family’s fault. Each family member should be in their own recovery to make the adjustment smoother and to work through their own negative feelings.

Alina M. Baltazar, Ph.D. candidate, MSW, CFLE
MSW Program Director
Department of Social Work
Andrews University