How Does Substance Abuse Affect Families?

How does substance abuse affect families? The answer is complex, but in short, it has the potential to impact familial relationships in several ways.

In fact, one myth about substance abuse is that it only affects the person misusing drugs or alcohol. Ask any family with a loved one struggling with addiction, and they will tell you how they have all been affected.

Current reports suggest over 20 million American adults have a diagnosable substance use disorder. That means around 20 million families are impacted by a loved one’s addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) reports one in eight children lives with at least one parent with a substance use disorder.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Families?

Whether you are a child, sibling, parent, or extended family member of a person with a substance use disorder, you can be impacted physiologically and psychologically.

Changes Family Roles

Each family member has a role or set of behaviors within the family structure that helps meet the family’s needs. A few common roles include the golden child who can seem to do no wrong, the leader, the troublemaker, and the caretaker. Roles can be functional or dysfunctional.

When a family member has a substance use disorder, the roles are dysfunctional. Roles include the addict or center of attention. Whether they want to or not, this person takes up the most time and focus.

The Caretaker Role

The caretaker, a.k.a. the enabler, spends most of their time trying to keep everyone happy. They keep the addict happy by giving them money, rides, or drugs. They keep others happy by covering up for the addict or minimizing their behavior.

The Hero Role

The hero wants the family to appear normal to the rest of the world. They will try to cover up the addict’s behaviors so the rest of the family is less affected. Heroes are typically over-achievers and perfectionists.

The Scapegoat and Mascot Role(s)

The scapegoat misbehaves to take attention away from the addict. They get blamed for most family problems even though the addict causes more trouble. The mascot is the comedian or clown who tries to make everyone laugh and feel better during uncomfortable situations or high-stress occasions. They use humor to cope with pain.

The Lost Child Role

The lost child stays in the background, going unnoticed by other family members. They spend most of their time alone, not seeking or receiving attention.

Family Members Experience Physical Symptoms

Having a family member with a substance use disorder causes stress for everyone. Yet not everyone knows how to cope with stress properly. They experience stress-related conditions like anxiety, panic attacks, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, tension headaches, and more. Some resort to more physical coping methods, like self-harm or developing a substance use disorder.

Varying levels of abuse may occur in families, including physical, sexual, and verbal. A parent with a substance use disorder is often neglectful and unable to meet the needs of their children. Drug and alcohol misuse by any family member causes arguments with everyone else. Parents fight with one another over how to handle the situation. An addict will fight with anyone when they cannot get their way or feel pressure to change. Arguments can get out of control and quickly escalate to violence, which is never okay.

Family Members Experience Emotional Symptoms

Family members who try to protect their loved one with a substance use disorder may find they have codependent issues. Codependency is sometimes referred to as relationship addiction. It’s when a person enables another person’s destructive behavior. They feel responsible for their loved one’s behaviors. They get lost in meeting someone else’s needs, ignoring their own needs.

You may have codependent traits if you seek approval from others, have trouble expressing your feelings and making decisions, and have trouble adjusting to change.

Mental health disorders exist among family members of an addict. Feelings of depression and anxiety are common, with some living in constant worry, fear, dread, or anticipation of adverse outcomes. Some have thoughts of suicide.

Children Experience Traumatic Symptoms

Studies on children living with a parent with a substance use disorder show they are affected in every area of their life. Below are examples of what a child may experience:

  • Role reversal is when the child must take care of adult responsibilities, like cooking, cleaning, etc.
  • Misusing drugs and alcohol at an early age leads to substance use disorder later.
  • Poor academic performance.
  • Poor social skills, making it hard to fit in with peers.
  • Increased chance of getting into legal trouble.
  • Low self-esteem, leading to unhealthy relationships and poor decision-making.

Living with an addicted parent can be a traumatizing experience. Some may even experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other Effects of Substance Misuse

Unfortunately, drug and alcohol misuse causes a breakdown in basic family functions. For example, most families experience communication problems, increased conflicts, and an unsafe living environment. Child protective services may sometimes get involved and separate the family.

Families must get help to overcome substance use disorder and its effects on everyone. The good news is that help is available.

Treatment for the Whole Family

A family is one unit, but it comprises many parts. If one of the parts is not working, it affects the whole. It can feel like a domino effect, with one problem leading to another and another. Therefore, treatment must include both family and individual therapies. Depending on your family’s specific needs, your treatment plan can consist of the following:

  • Detoxification.
  • Medication-assisted treatment.
  • Trauma therapies (e.g., eye movement desensitization and reprocessing).
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
  • Peer support groups (e.g., Al-anon, Alateen).

Recovery is more successful when the whole family is involved. If someone with an alcohol use disorder enters recovery but the family does not receive treatment, relapse is more likely. They will return home to the same triggers as before.

However, when family members learn how to support their loved ones in recovery and get help in overcoming their own struggles, they become a healthy family unit. Together, you can learn to handle conflicts, learn coping skills, and determine your strengths and how they can benefit your relationships. In a short time, you can experience healthy changes and positive effects of recovery that your family deserves.

For more information about substance abuse and addiction treatment, contact us at the Mental Health Center.