Addiction a family disease

Addict’s Family


3- Addiction a Family Disease


Addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics. Addiction can totally disrupt family life and cause harmful effects that can last a lifetime. This is why addiction is referred to as a family disease.


  • Effects of addiction on children
  • Effects of addiction on spouses
  • Codependency & enabling
  • Recovery despite addiction


The disease of addiction affects the family on several levels. The addict is afflicted with a soul-killing and life-threatening illness that is guaranteed to rob him of his dignity, material possessions, and personal relationships before eventually ending in insanity, incarceration, or death. Meanwhile, members of the addict’s family – the wives, husbands, young children, grown children, brothers, sisters, parents, and so on – are profoundly affected. With the disease of addiction, the survival of both the addict and family members is at stake.


Effects of addiction on children

  • Children raised in households where one or other parent is addicted to drugs suffer from emotional and behavioural problems that may last a lifetime. It is well-documented that such children are prone to problems like low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, guilt, feelings of helplessness, fears of abandonment, and chronic depression. Young children of addicts exhibit a wide range of symptoms due to the stress of having an addict as a parent. Among these are frequent nightmares, bed-wetting, and uncontrolled crying.
  • The children of addicts may also find it hard to form friendships, and they are often anxious about attending school. As these children grow older, they may exhibit such depressive symptoms as perfectionism, hoarding, isolating, or suffer from debilitating shyness and self-consciousness. Studies show that children of addicts feel that they are different from others, not as good as others – and in this way they closely resemble their addict parents. As teenagers, these children may develop phobias.
  • Children of addicts often have problems in school. The stressful environment at home prevents them from studying, from focusing on tasks. They find it harder than their classmates to manage their time, to approach projects in a step-by-step fashion. Their school performance may also be affected by an inability to express themselves. They tend to have difficulty establishing relationships with teachers and classmates. The result is they often have to repeat the academic year and are more likely to drop out of school.
  • Some children of addicts develop behavioural problems; they act out by lying, stealing, fighting, and truancy. The stress of live in unstable home environments manifests itself in self-defeating behaviours. Children thrive on orderly routine in the home, but these children never know what to expect from their addict parent. Because they are unable to predict what mood their parent is going to be in, these children are denied the steady loving care and guidance required for healthy development.
  • It’s a paradox, though, that while some children of addicts act out in anti-social ways, others try to control their worlds by throwing themselves into their schoolwork, or by over-compensating in any of a number of ways. They yearn to prove their worth, to prove to themselves they are in control. They become over-achievers, but are denied the satisfaction that should accompany success. They may try people pleasing as a strategy to feel good about themselves. If others like them, they can turn their thoughts away from the fact they don’t much like themselves.
  • At a deep, irrational level children of addicts feel responsible for their parent’s addiction. This leads them to believe they can stop their parents from using drugs if they behave in a certain way, such as performing better at school. This misapprehension is rooted in the child’s unconscious wish to exert control in a world that appears out of control. The child wants to believe he can fix his parent, and that by fixing the parent the child will finally get the loving attention and guidance he craves. Most children of addicts feel guilty for their failure to save their parents from the effects of drugs, and they spend their lives trying to assuage that guilt.
  • Crime and violence are associated with addiction, with incest, abuse and battering common in such families. Sadly, incest and battering victims often blame themselves. Because they feel guilty, ashamed, and helpless, they themselves may turn to drugs to escape the pain. And so the cycle continues. Children of addicts are people who have been robbed of their childhood. Left untreated they will carry their problems into later life in some form or other.
  • Adult children of addicts often fail to recognize that the root of their problems is their upbringing in a family with an addict parent. They suffer depression, aggression, or impulsive behaviour – and they have no idea from where these problems sprang.
  • Studies show that the child of an addict is much more likely to abuse drugs himself. In fact, adult children of addicts are four times more likely than children of non-addicts to develop addiction. Genetic factors play a major role in the development of addiction. Another factor is an inability to deal with stress in a healthy way. Using drugs may be their way of addressing the very consequences, such as depression, that resulted from growing up with an addict parent.
  • They are frequently failures as parents themselves, often make poor career choices, and almost always have a negative self-image. Adult children of addicts often have feelings of worthlessness and failure. They also may have problems with family responsibility, repeating the behavior of their addict parent who was irresponsible and never provided for them.
  • Many adult children of addict parents have problems with intimacy and find it hard to establish healthy relationships. Their previous experience has taught them not to trust others. They learned while growing up that if they love someone, that person will hurt them, just as their addict parent did. Research has shown that many of these same children of addicts choose addicts as mates.


Effects of adiction on spouses

  • The husband or wife of an addict is under tremendous stress, which can lead to feelings of hatred, self-pity, and isolation. Living with a spouse who is an addict is exhausting, and can result in physical and mental problems. The responsibility for the home, including caring for any children, falls on the non-addict parent. All this tension may lead that parent to act unreasonably, to become demanding and irrational.  Often the result is that the children are neglected.
  • Financial difficulties are common. The family may have to give up certain privileges because money is being misspent on drugs instead of going to the household.  The irresponsibility of the addict puts him at risk for joblessness, which is another worry added to those of his spouse.
  • Addiction often ends in divorce. Not surprisingly, many family and marital problems can be traced to addiction in the home. Family members are rarely equipped to deal effectively with the addict in their midst and may make the situation worse by trying to help. Some families allow the addict to continue abusing drugs rather than confronting him, because they believe that is the best way of keeping the family together.
  • It is difficult for those addicted to drugs and for family members to face up to the problem. Family members use denial to justify or rationalize the addict’s drug dependency. In the beginning, denial is understandable because every family loves and wants to protect its members, but there comes a time when denial does real damage to all concerned. When they deny the obvious and refuse to look for help, problems multiply.


Codependency & enabling

  • Members of addict families often become slaves to the addiction themselves, in a condition called co-dependency.  In short, co-dependency is an unconscious addiction to another person’s abnormal behaviour – and it is very common. Most addicts have periods when they stop using drugs and seemingly are doing well, leading the co-dependent person to grab onto to false hope that the problem is at an end. Secrecy and keeping up appearances is important in these families. The addict’s co-dependent family members do everything possible to hide the problem, preserve the family’s prestige and project the image of a “perfect family”. The spouse and children may avoid making friends and bringing other people home. Co-dependent members often forget about their own needs and desires. They devote their lives to attempting to control or cure the addict, which is pointless and counterproductive. A saying in the 12 Step fellowships described below is: “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it.”
  • Family members often become “enablers”. An enabler is a person who unknowingly helps the addict by denying the drug problem and helping the addict get out of troubles caused by his addiction. Out of a misguided sense of love and responsibility, the enabler will clean up after the addict – figuratively and literally — and make excuses to his or her boss, teacher, or friends. Without meaning to, the enabler paves the way for the addict to continue using drugs.


Recovery despite addiction

  • Just as there are 12 Step recovery programs for drug addicts like Narcotics Anonymous, there are 12 Step programs for family members, with Nar-anon and Families Anonymous two of the most successful. There are also 12 Step Fellowships specifically for children of addicts. These Fellowships sprang up in recognition that the thinking and emotional lives of family members suffer damage right along that of the addict. All these family support groups’ philosophy is based upon Alcoholic Anonymous’ Twelve Step Recovery Program. The main goal of these Fellowships is to help family members understand that they are not responsible for an addict’s drug problems and that family members’ recovery does not depend upon the addict’s recovery.
  • Addiction affects each member of the family – from the unborn child to the addict’s spouse. Its far-reaching effects result in physical problems for the addicts, but also in physical and psychological problems for members of the family. Recovery from the devastating effects of addiction is a process for the addict but also for the family. Fortunately, there are many who have been able to heal and restore their lives through the support and program of recovery of 12 Step Family groups.
  • For information on how to recover from the effects of addiction on your lives, please refer to: Family Recovery

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