Addiction effects on Family

Addict’s Family


4- Addiction Effects on Family


When there is an addict in the family, each member is affected in his or her own way. Devastated by the effects of addiction and its consequences on them, each changes and uses coping mechanisms in an attempt to preserve the integrity and safety of the family unit. Yet these coping mechanisms are often unhealthy and invariably adversely impact the health and well-being of each family member.


  • Family rules
  • Emergence of unhealthy rules
  • Emotional effects of addiction
  • Effects of addiction on spouse & parents
  • Effects of addiction on children
  • Other adverse effects of addiction


Family rules

Each member of the family unit learns to behave and think in ways expected of them, according to established family rules. These rules are learned over time and are largely unspoken, but they play a vital role in providing a sense of stability and safety. Understanding how family rules evolve in response to circumstances is vital to understanding how addiction impacts the family and how family members may respond in unhealthy and unproductive ways.

Addiction often occurs gradually, beginning as isolated episodes that over time become more frequent and serious. Very often the person starting to abuse drugs does not realize they are headed for addiction. Family members too are often unaware of what is happening to their loved one. Part of the problem is that they may tend to minimize or deny the mounting evidence that the person is getting into serious trouble with drugs.

As the drug abusing family member falls deeper into addiction, they devote more time and energy to acquiring and using drugs – and to recuperating from them. In a very real sense, another relationship – that between the addicted member and his drugs — has become part of the family unit. The other family members may be vaguely aware that things have changed but are often unable to identify exactly what is happening. They only know that home is no longer a safe place; that tension and stress have replaced safety and predictability; and that the person they once knew has changed and is now chronically irritable, short-tempered, or too tired or disinterested to interact in a healthy way with the rest of the family.


Emergence of unhealthy rules

In response to having an addicted family member whose behaviour has become erratic and unreasonable, family members develop coping strategies that over time become an integral part of the emotional and behavioural fabric of the family. The non-addict spouse, parents, or children are often forced to ignore their own needs, as well as the needs of other members, as they seek, for example, to avoid confrontations with the addicted family member, to excuse or cover up their problematic behaviours, or to deal with the financial consequences of it.

Family rules that formerly provided safety and predictability are no longer working, and new rules gradually emerge. Family members consciously and unconsciously develop behaviours and coping mechanisms to adapt to and soften the impact of the addiction on the addict and themselves. These rules, which grow out of desperation to keep the family unit together, are usually unhealthy. Yet even though these new rules are adversely affecting the wellbeing of family members, they eventually become a central organizing feature of the family system.


Emotional effects of addiction

Addiction creates a complex network of unhealthy actions and reactions in the family unit. Each member is affected in his or her own way and will, in turn, affect others both in and outside the family. For example, the wife who has taken on added family and financial responsibilities feels guilty about having to ignore the needs of her children, who are themselves showing signs of lack of parental attention. Or the mother whose son abuses drugs is constantly anxious and who isolates for fear others may find out.


Families living with addiction experience a range of destructive emotions, which affect their mental health, their behaviour, and their quality of life. Among these are:

Addiction effects on family - Emotional effects of addiction


1. Guilt

Very typically, family members feel responsible for the drug problem in their midst. They believe they did something that led to the loved one’s addiction. This is particularly true of parents whose children abuse drugs. But children of addicts also fall prey to this false belief. Note, though, that addicts are very adept at picking up on these feelings and will use them to manipulate family members. The addict may also use a parent’s guilt as justification to continue abusing drugs. These irrational guilty feelings usually lead family members to act in ways that do harm to themselves and to the addict. One main response to guilt is enabling behaviour, which clears the way for the addict to continue down the path of addiction. The mother who believes that her grown child’s addiction is the result of her failure as a parent will go to great lengths to cover up for that child. She will lie for that child, will pay for lawyers, will give that child money when the child should be supporting himself. What she is doing, though her guilt prevents her from seeing it, is preventing her child from experiencing the consequences of his addiction.


2. Anger

Exasperation and frustration are constants in households where addiction exists. When faced with the never-ending challenges of addiction, one typical reaction is anger. You are angry because a loved one is struck with addiction. Frustrated that no matter how hard you try, you cannot make them see the truth of their condition, and so you are angry. Overwhelmed with the damage their behaviour is causing the family, you are angry. Despite your many attempts, you have been unable to pull them out of their addiction, and so you are angry. Exhausted by your efforts to clean up the mess the addict creates, you are angry.


3. Denial & shame

With addiction comes shame and denial. There is a lot of stigma attached to addiction. Many view it as a moral failing, a sign of weakness. Though the medical establishment recognizes addiction as a disease that can affect anyone, families afflicted by addiction usually experience painful feelings of shame. Not knowing where to turn, family members may go into a state of denial. Because it is too painful and humiliating to face the reality that a loved one is an addict, family members turn their faces from the evidence. In effect, they are trying to keep the fact of the addiction a secret from themselves and others.


4. Stress

Living with an addict is very stressful. While the addict sails along oblivious to his behaviour and actions, family members are forced to confront the consequences of his addiction. The family is always on edge, never knowing how the addict will behave one minute to another. They feel lost, confused and stressed, as the addict goes on his manipulative, lying way. When the addict resorts to crime to buy his drugs, when he has an accident because he was high and out of it, when he becomes violent and gets into a fight, family members may feel forced to go to the rescue to save him and save the good name of the family.


Effects of addiction on spouse & parents

Spouse or parents of the addict typically react in a variety of unhealthy ways. They may:

  • Take over chores or duties that were previously the responsibility of the addict
  • Cover up for the addict, and even try to deny there is an addict in the family
  • Focus exclusively on the addict and start to believe that everything in the family would be fine if only the addict got better
  • Feel guilty or responsible that the family member became and addict
  • Develop feelings of resentment and anger toward the addict
  • Withdraw socially and reduce contacts with friends and colleagues outside the family
  • Lose a sense of self-respect and self-worth.


Effects of addiction on children

Children of an addicted parent become adversely affected and use unhealthy ways to cope.  They may:

  • Avoid activities with friends, especially in the family home, out of shame or fear
  • Stay away from the family home because of the unpredictable behaviours of the addict: for example, when he is sober, he is kind and loving, and when high becomes violent
  • Feel deprived of emotional and physical support because the addict parent is only concerned with finding and using and using drugs
  • Develop counter-productive ways of dealing with life, such as acting out to get the attention they crave
  • May resort to drugs or other addictive behaviours to escape from and or to cope with the unhealthy family atmosphere
  • Feel torn between parents, feeling loyalty toward one and anger toward the other
  • Feel a diminished sense of self-worth and value
  • Experience confusion and a sense of loss
  • Develop an inability to trust others


Other adverse effects of addiction

Other adverse effects of living with an addict on family members can be:

  • Irrational beliefs
  • Feelings of losing one’s mind
  • Disabling guilt
  • A sense of personal insecurity
  • A fear of being vulnerable
  • Fear of failure and success
  • An inability to let go and accept
  • An inability to have fun, and trust others
  • Immobilizing fear
  • An inability to manage stress
  • An inability to accept personal responsibility
  • Living in denial of life’s problems
  • Unresolved anger
  • Inability to handle loss
  • Problems accepting change
  • Problems in sexual and interpersonal relationships
  • Problems in handling conflict and problem solving
  • Fear of rejection
  • An insatiable need for approval
  • An inability to be assertive
  • A tendency to play the victim or be a martyr
  • Problems with power and control issues
  • Problems with intimacy and competition
  • An inability to forgive and forget
  • A tendency to develop an overactive fantasy life
  • Problems in communication
  • Compulsive behavior, e.g., perfectionist, very orderly, meticulous, rigid

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