Addiction is a serious mental health issue that can affect every area of one’s life. Not only does a substance use disorder take a toll on your own well-being, but it can also tear families apart. If someone in your family struggles with addiction, you probably know firsthand the effects that it can have on everyone involved. Understanding how and why addiction affects families can help you protect the health and wellness of your own loved ones.
Understanding Family Roles in Addiction
All families are different, so the role that addiction plays in your life can vary depending on the relationships and personalities in your family unit. However, there are some common roles that people often take on when someone in their family has a drug or alcohol addiction. Each one creates unique problems for the person who embodies the role.
An enabler is a person who allows the addicted individual to continue their behavior. They might make excuses for the addict, financially support their habit, or try to deny that something is wrong. In many cases, the spouse or partner of the addict is the enabler, but parents and children can also take on this role.
The hero of the family is the person who strives for perfection and normalcy. Often the eldest child, the hero may work tirelessly to get good grades or excel in sports or extracurriculars. Their goal is to bring their family together by providing a sense of hope and pride, but the amount of pressure they put on themselves to succeed can be unbearable.
The scapegoat is the individual who is constantly blamed for the family’s problems. Scapegoats often act out as a way to cope with the pain of having an addicted family member, but this behavior can turn the family against them. They may be the object of the addict’s anger, but they can also receive harsh criticism from the rest of the family. By pinning all their frustrations on the scapegoat, the family can ignore or deny the addiction, which is the true cause of the stress.
The mascot of the family always tries to lighten the mood or ease the tension. When the struggles of addiction start to build up, they use humor to distract their family and help everyone cope. While the mascot may seem like they’re handling the family problems well, they likely feel lost or hopeless on the inside.
The lost child is the family member who withdraws from the family and whose needs may be forgotten. Usually the middle or youngest child, the lost child may prefer to spend time alone and engage in daydreams or fantasies to escape their family trauma. If the addiction issues start while the lost child is very young, they may become socially stunted and have a hard time connecting with others as they grow up.
Effects of Addiction on Family
In addition to creating these complex and painful family roles, addiction can lead to interpersonal problems and other mental health issues within the family. The following are some of the most common effects of drugs on family members:
Children of people with substance use disorders can experience lasting mental and emotional repercussions. Your childhood experiences play a major role in shaping your personality, behaviors, and emotions in adulthood, so the trauma of growing up with an addict can be devastating.
Kids thrive on structure, routine, and expectations. When a parent or other close family member is struggling with drugs or alcohol, the home environment can become chaotic and erratic. This is stressful for everyone, but it can be particularly difficult for children. They may become anxious or withdrawn, or they might act out in school because they feel so overwhelmed and dysregulated.
Loss of Trust
Substance use disorders completely take over your mind, and you’ll say or do anything to get access to drugs or alcohol. Even though a person with an addiction doesn’t want to manipulate or lie to their family members, they feel powerless to stop their behaviors. This can lead to a total lack of trust among the family, which can cause anger, stress, and emotional distance. In children, the loss of trust could lead to long-term trust issues with others, too.
Drug and alcohol use disorders can make you act impulsively and irrationally. Emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive behaviors are unfortunately common in people with addiction. Even a small disagreement could escalate into a major fight, especially if the conversation is about the individual’s substance use habits. This results in extreme stress and tension among the family, and you might feel like you’re walking on eggshells to prevent a conflict.
Shame and Guilt
Life with an addiction can be messy, and it’s common for family members to feel a deep sense of shame and guilt about their loved one’s disorder. The addict’s spouse might feel nervous to talk to friends or extended family about what’s going on, and their children may not want their friends to visit the house. Your home should be a place you’re proud of and take comfort in, but addiction can make it a source of shame.
Guilt is another uncomfortable emotion associated with substance use disorders. Although it’s ultimately the responsibility of the addict to seek help, you might feel guilty when they struggle or relapse. You may wonder if things would be better if you’d taken a different course of action or if you should be doing something else to support your family member. It’s important to remember, though, that your loved one’s addiction is not your fault and that dealing with addiction is an incredibly difficult and complicated experience.
Addiction can affect families financially as well as emotionally. Drugs and alcohol are expensive, but they become a priority in the eyes of the addict. Your loved one might spend a considerable amount of money on their drug of choice, and you might suffer a financial setback if they lose their job because of their addiction. Financial troubles can add even more stress to your life, which can make it harder to overcome the other emotional obstacles you face.
Children of addicts are more likely to become addicts themselves. Researchers have identified a few genes that are associated with addiction, but growing up around someone with a substance use disorder can also increase your likelihood of facing the same issue later in life. Kids learn by watching, and if you grew up seeing your parent abuse drugs or alcohol, you may think it’s normal to copy that behavior.
The childhood trauma associated with a parent’s addiction could also cause an individual to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. Additionally, children of people with addiction may find drugs or alcohol to be especially tempting or interesting because they saw how much power the substances had over their parents.
How to Protect Your Family From the Effects of Addiction
Having a family member with addiction is intensely challenging. You can love the person entirely and want to help them, but their drug-seeking behaviors can dramatically affect your relationship.
Addressing enabling behaviors and offering firm support are two of the best ways to help a loved one recover from a substance use disorder. You can communicate to your family member that you love them and want them to get better while also setting clear boundaries so that you don’t enable them or allow them to hurt you or the rest of their family. Forcing someone to seek treatment by giving ultimatums or making threats is rarely effective, but you can encourage someone to seek help by working with them to look up treatment centers or mental health professionals.
You should make sure the rest of your family has the support they need, too. Someone in active addiction often uses up all the attention and resources a family has to offer, leaving the other family members to feel abandoned or ignored. It’s better to protect your own emotional wellness first and foremost than to sacrifice yourself for your loved one. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your emotions, take time for yourself, and give yourself space to heal.
Therapy is a valuable resource for anyone affected by addiction. Marriage or family counseling can help families heal and move forward as a unit, but individual counseling can be impactful for family members as well. This is an opportunity to process what has happened, express your emotions, and learn how to cope with the challenges affecting your family.
If you feel like addiction has drastically changed your family dynamic, you’re not alone. Substance use disorders cause extreme stress, anxiety, grief, and frustration both for the individual themselves and for their family. What’s most important is that you seek out the support you need to make it through these difficult times. Therapy, family counseling, and professional addiction treatment resources can help your family heal and maintain your connections with one another.