It’s easy to imagine the negative impact that addiction can have on a family, but it can be difficult to picture the wide range of issues that accompany even one member dealing with drug or alcohol problems. The introduction of new stresses can affect everyone. Substance abuse problems often have a cascading set of results that can reverberate through a family for multiple generations. Whether families are dealing with parents or children with substance abuse, the challenges that need to be overcome can be compounded by accompanying mental health, physical wellness, financial and interpersonal problems.
Domestic life can be stressful just due to the basic conflicts that arise from multiple people living under one roof. Adding drug and alcohol problems to the equation can affect family members even more. Spouses often try to hide addiction issues from their partners, and kids keep problems under wraps. Even if an issue is uncovered, denials and offers to deal with problems are sometimes used to string things along rather than address them.
Before an individual’s substance abuse patterns are uncovered, these stresses can seem out of place. For example, a parent might be expected to pick a child up from school and fail to do so. Initially, this type of problem might be dismissed as a one-off occurrence. As a pattern emerges, however, stress can build up. Once it becomes clear that addiction is contributing to failures, anger can erupt over how things were denied beforehand.
At the base of it, many of the issues that come along with addiction boil down to the fact that drugs and alcohol cost money. Maintaining a joint checking account, for example, can produce conflicts between partners even without someone pulling money out for mysterious reasons. Seeing hundreds of dollars disappear from the account without a good explanation can put a relationship under immense stress.
In many relationships, one partner often handles the majority of financial concerns. If this partner develops an addiction, they’re often well-positioned to hide the monetary hit the family is taking, at least for a while. When bank accounts finally end up drained, the individual may make excuses, such as claiming that a payment was double-billed, to dismiss the shortfall once it comes to their partner’s attention. They may also borrow money from friends and family members to cover the discrepancy, leading to additional stresses down the road.
These decisions often tend to compound. A partner with a substance abuse issue might elect to cancel car insurance to save money in order to buy drugs or alcohol. If an accident occurs, the family can incur an even larger loss without the necessary coverage to replace a damaged vehicle.
Many substances that are consumed pose direct physical health costs to those who use them. Alcohol has been documented to cause withdrawal symptoms that can lead to death. Opiates are known to have effects on respiration, and they can lead to a long-term decline in appetite that leads to extreme weight loss.
Caring for a loved one can have an effect on family members. The stress of coping with a child’s demised physical health due to drug use may lead to a decline in the health of a parent. Sleepless nights take their toll when moms and dads are worried about whether their children haven’t come home because of drug-related issues.
Drug and alcohol problems lead to both direct and indirect mental health issues. Heavy users of alcohol can end up developing serious forms of dementia. This can lead to indirect issues, such as reduced intimacy with partners due to mistrust. The net effect on family members is to poison relationships, making it hard to present the united front that’s often required to support someone once the recovery process is initiated.
Caring for a loved who has a pattern of substance abuse can lead to personality changes. Children are often forced to mature more quickly in order to watch out for parents who are on drugs. Parents often begin to build their self-worth around caring for children with addiction problems, leading to an inability to healthily push their kids into adulthood.
The aftershocks of substance abuse issues often reverberate for several generations. Having an alcoholic father may lead a son to parent in a more aggressive fashion for fear that his kids will run into trouble. Those children may, in turn, respond to strict parenting patterns by trying to bail out of the responsibilities imposed on them, increasing the risk factors for addiction. It’s easy to see how a series of damaged childhoods can chain together to create massive inter-generational pain. In families where substance abuse is rampant, some members even find themselves feeling isolated and left out if they don’t exhibit problems.
Defensive dynamics can emerge in families where a member has an issue with addiction. Young children who watch a mother react defensively to claims about using drugs may learn that aggressively responding to all questions is the best way to go through life. Battles over these problems can become attempts to declare winners and losers, ultimately resulting in increased difficulty in pursuing treatment in a healthy manner.
Relationships with less immediate family members are often strained when drugs and alcohol enter the picture. A child might lean heavily on a grandparent for money in order to prevent parents from learning what’s happening. The grandparent may feel upset when the money isn’t paid back, leading to strife between parents and grandparents. Anything that reduces the general support of a family may prove to have a reinforcing effect as members start preparing for fights instead of attempting to identify and address matters in a constructive fashion.
Families should, ideally, function as support structures for their members. Unfortunately, this inclination toward being supportive can lead to codependency. A partner with an alcohol problem might attach to someone who feels validated in an unhealthy manner by caring for someone whose life is in shambles. Rather than focusing on getting better, a couple may compound each other’s issues. It’s not unusual, for example, for a fun-loving individual to fall in love with someone who makes every weekend a party with cocaine. This makes it especially difficult for both to separate from the drug since there are deep questions about whether the relationship can even function without it.
Addictive tendencies often run in families. It’s known that children with parents who have substance abuse problems frequently forge codependent relationships. A grandfather with a drinking problem might be seen at the bar with his son who also abuses alcohol. Even kids who aim to avoid become entrapped in a cycle of addiction may indulge in codependent behaviors while also keeping clean. Substance abuse and general family disruption can take on such a sense of normalcy that it’s hard for them to function, even as adults, in a family environment without strife.
Drugs and alcohol often lead to lowered inhibitions. The child who might never scream at their parents may, when coping with the combined effects of school stress and Adderall usage, suddenly seem to blow up. A parent going through alcohol-induced dementia might be more prone to sexually assault a child. Sibling abuse can also be compounded by addiction as threats are utilized to keep brothers and sisters quiet. Mental abuse is also common; individuals with problems may try to gaslight family members into believing that no issue exists at all. One of the subtlest forms of abuse is convincing relatives that no intervention is needed because there isn’t really a problem, a common claim made by high-functioning people with addictions.
When individuals deny that substance abuse is a problem, intervention may come from the outside, often after the family member with a drug problem has broken the law. Instead of responding to the circumstances by confronting the challenge and seeking help, they may elect to fight back, often with the support of their partners and even their children. This can prolong legal battles at a time when recovery should be the focus.
Given that many drugs are illegal in most areas of the United States, going to prison is a serious risk. Children can grow up for years without a parent present because of a drug-related conviction or a DUI. Parents may watch their children go to jail or be placed with foster families following incidents. Even after the legal trouble has passed, fears can abound of a relapse.
Working Toward Recovery
A sense of recrimination can create immense problems when trying to get a partner, parent or child to consider a recovery program. It’s critical that a support system is in place. People need understanding in their lives, and it’s frequently the case that family is the only source of support. In settings where multi-generational addiction issues are prevalent, this can prove to be especially difficult. The important thing for those looking at recovery options is to narrow down the people in their lives to the individuals who can be supportive. If a highly defensive alcoholic parent is in the family frame, it may simply be a good choice for a child with their own addiction issues to avoid bringing recovery up to the parent, instead focusing on getting support from siblings, cousins, grandparents or even close friends.
Recognizing that a problem with substance abuse exists is a critical part of the process. It’s wise, however, to try to be understanding rather than confrontational. A person who has developed a painkiller addiction, for example, will likely still have pain management issues long after they’re taken off a drug like fentanyl. A highly confrontational approach may lead to an adversarial response with family members being cast as the bad guys.
At the same time, the effect on family members shouldn’t just be buried in the interest of recovery. Everyone deserves to feel like their concerns have been heard and will be addressed. Including family members in the recovery process, even those who don’t have substance abuse issues, is important. In many instances, counseling options should be explored for partners and children who are trying to address what has happened. Financial counseling may also be worth considering. In extreme cases, partners and children may even have to cut ties in order to stop the losses they’re suffering.
Whenever possible, it’s helpful to keep family units together to work toward a fruitful recovery. For many, moving into the recovery process can serve as a bonding experience. Finding out that someone cares enough to seek help can be very inspiring. By focusing on a long process of recovery, it is possible to begin to mitigate the damage a family has experienced.