How Addiction is a “Family Disease” 

How Addiction is a “Family Disease” 

It can be difficult to pinpoint the definition of a family. In medical terms, family generally refers to those you are blood related to. Socially, however, the idea of family is constantly evolving and changing. Furthermore, family can mean different things to different people depending on a multitude of factors, such as, cultural upbringing, socioeconomic status, gender identity, divorce, and other life circumstances. In other words, family can be a fairly subjective term. The bottom line is we all, most likely, have some people close to us who care about our well-being. Whether these people are genetically related to us, or not, is beside the point when defining a “family disease”. When we talk about how addiction is a “family disease,” we are referring to the way addiction negatively affects the person suffering and their surrounding support network or “family”.

Continue reading for specific examples of the harmful effects addiction can have on your family. Moreover, we will discuss the pathway to healing the family unit. One person alone cannot fix the far-reaching damage caused by addiction, each family member must work diligently to foster self healing and relationship healing amongst the other family members. Fortunately, therapy can help both families and individuals struggling with addiction. 


Codependency and Enabling

If someone you love is struggling with addiction, you may grapple with feeling out of control of the situation. Lack of control can force you into a constant state of being overly concerned with the family member, thus neglecting your own needs and desires. This behavior is often titled as codependency. Codependent family members may have low self-esteem, appear very controlling due to lack of trust, seem overly flexible to avoid confrontation, have oversensitive reactions to problems, and / or stay loyal and dependent regardless of the situation. It is actually quite common for there to be codependent relationship dynamics between addicts and their partners. The codependent partner likely feels that they can help save the other. Yet, by being overly caring, highly-functional, helpful, and supportive you may actually be enabling a loved one’s irresponsible and dangerous behavior. 

Enabling means you are constantly working to protect your family member from the natural consequences of their substance abuse. This includes everything from making up excuses for the family member battling addiction, taking on extra responsibilities at home, paying for their legal fees, and bailing them out of jail. Ultimately, whatever you are actively doing to prevent your family member from fully facing the negative consequences of their substance abuse, is enabling them to continue on the same destructive path. 

Mental, Physical, and Financial Effects

The persistent stress you face when a family member is struggling with addiction can greatly impact your mental health. Anger, resentment, anxiety, hopelessness, depression, shame, and isolation can all worsen when under persistent stress. You may also face physical health issues due to the lack of focus on your own needs. Lastly, it is likely your family will deal with financial issues that stem from your loved one’s addiction. The financial issues could result from supporting a loved ones habit, being stolen from, paying legal fees, or because your loved one can no longer reliably contribute to household costs. 

The Effects on Children

Children are very perceptive and can certainly feel the strain of addiction on their family members. Witnessing the trauma of a parent struggling with addiction at a young age can have long-term effects. The distressing emotions a child may feel when witnessing addiction creates delays in a child’s learning and development, as well as prolonged mental and emotional disorders. 

Children of parents struggling with substance abuse are more likely to develop attachment disorders. If a parent is focused on satiating their addiction, it is likely a child could feel neglected. In fact, children with parents who struggle with substance abuse are three times more likely to be neglected, physically, and sexually abused. The constant battle of supplying an addiction and being intoxicated makes it hard to properly engage and bond with a child. This can cause your child to develop negative behavioral patterns that may result in codependency and trust issues later in their life. Furthermore, an emotionally underdeveloped child may struggle with feeling a lack of remorse or empathy where it should be applied, potentially causing poor decision making. Children may struggle with depression or other mental health disorders due to growing up in an unstable, chaotic environment. 

Additionally, if someone is struggling with addiction in your family, your child may feel forced to become more of an “adult” at a very young age. The extra pressure of having an “adult” role can cause extreme stress and anxiety for your child. Lastly, your child is taking notes and learning from all the actions and coping mechanisms around them. Children of addicts are, unfortunately, more likely to become addicted themselves. If they frequently witness violence and anger around the home, it is likely they will learn to lash out and turn to violence when trying to express themselves. External influences play a huge role in the development of your child’s personality, including everything that goes on in the home. The example you set is the example they will follow. 

Healing the Family Unit

As mentioned previously, the person struggling with addiction cannot repair your family unit single handedly. Sadly, your family member may not be ready to deal with their addiction and you have little control over their actions. Whether they are ready to confront their substance abuse disorder, or not, shouldn’t stop you and your other family members from beginning the healing process. Ninette Turek, member of Meredith O’brien & Affiliates, is a Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor who specializes in areas of addiction, family conflict, stress-management, and more. With over 35 years of experience in the mental health and addiction field, Ninette brings substantial knowledge, training, and truly understands what those affected by addiction are going through. She works with individuals, couples, and families to provide the holistic therapy approach needed to help families heal. Through both self-healing and intentional relationship-healing, you have the power to bring your family together again. 

For more information on Ninette and her approach to therapy, visit her bio on the Meredith O’Brien & Affiliates website. Her dedication to creating a safe, non-judgmental, empathetic, respectful, nurturing, validating therapeutic relationship will help you to fully explore the issues you are facing, and create a personalized path to healing. For any questions, or to book an appointment, click here


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