Addiction is a terrible disease that unfortunately strikes very close to home. Addiction in the family, drug abuse, and alcohol addiction are more common than most people think, with at least 17.3 million Americans meeting criteria for an alcohol abuse disorder and 24.6 million Americans using illicit drugs each year (drugabuse.gov). This means that there are millions of family members, friends, and loved ones who are also facing the consequences of an addicted relative or friend. If you are concerned about a family member or friend who you believe might have a substance use disorder disorder, know that you are not alone. The following resources can help you navigate the complex world of addiction, treatment, and recovery.
Addiction is a Family Disease
In most cases, addiction doesn’t only impact the one using drugs or alcohol. In fact, there are profound and serious effects of addiction on family and friends. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence states that addiction is a family disease, affecting every family member. For example, children of addicted parents have a high risk of being neglected or abused, possibly leading to removal from the house, loneliness and a risk of using drugs. They may also experience one of the parent losing custody of the child in cases of split parenting. Families facing addiction also are at high risk for financial difficulties and poverty and social deprivation.
Families with an addicted member also tend to develop unhealthy coping strategies in an attempt to deal with the addiction and consequences. This can lead to dysfunctional communication styles and behaviors leading to less acceptance in society.
Often, the best course of action involves a family treatment program to address not only the addiction, but also the resulting impact on the family unit. Treating only the family member with the addiction won’t address any underlying issues that triggered the addiction, nor the resulting consequences or resulting trauma.
Living with an Addict
Living with an addict, whether that person is your parent, child, spouse, or sibling, can be incredibly difficult, and at times, even scary. You might be wondering “How does addiction affect family and friends?” The truth is that a loved one’s addiction can impact you in many ways: financially, socially, physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
Enabling and Codependency
There can be significant family roles in addiction activities. For example, family members might develop unhealthy coping strategies as a way to keep the peace in the family, to keep those outside the home from discovering the addiction, and appease the addicted family members, preventing his or her anger, aggression, or further self-destruction. Two of these unhealthy coping strategies are enabling and codependency.
Enabling means any behavior that supports a family member or friend’s addiction, even inadvertantly. This happens because the natural consequences of addiction are removed. For example, if your child is arrested due to underage drinking, but you bail your child out and fight the charges, you might be enabling your child’s drinking.Many times enabling comes from a place of love. You deeply love and care about your family member or friend and you don’t want him or her to be hurt. You might believe you are protecting your family member from harm – a job loss, the loss of a scholarship opportunity, a criminal conviction. However, the truth is that when the consequences for substance use disorder are removed, there is no reason for the individual to quit using.
Some behaviours are enabled because of fear. For example, if the person with the addiction is the primary breadwinner of the household, you might fear the loss of that job, and the resulting financial consequences, due to the addiction. You might also be afraid that if you confront someone about their addiction, they might get angry and retaliate. In cases of child abuse or domestic violence, enabling often happens because it feels safer than being abused if the addict retaliates. Finally, enabling can happen out of fear of your or your family’s reputation being tarnished if other people find out about the substance use disorder problem.
In doing so, you might begin to neglect your own health or safety. You might develop your own form of “addiction” to cope, including overeating, spending hours a day online to escape, or excessive shopping. Some people with codependency put their own careers at risk by missing work or allowing thoughts about their loved ones to consume them to the point where they are unable to function at work leading to stressful life.
Money and Access to Drugs
The friends and family member of an addict can have specific concerns regarding money. Living with an addict often means that the money you earn or the money that is supposed to be used to help run the household and meet the needs of family members is instead being used to support the addicted family member’s habit. There may be times where you can’t grocery shop or pay the mortgage because the addicted family member has used the money for alcohol or drugs hence leading to a poverty which can impact health of the family.
Living with an addicted family member often means that you need to find a way to restrict access to your family’s money. If your family member doesn’t have access to the family finances, he or she may not be able to buy more drugs or alcohol. If possible, you might need to open a separate individual bank account and have your paycheck diverted to that account to ensure you have money to pay for necessities and bills.All these leads to a psychological stress such as finding a way to save money and also hiding this from the addicted member.
Family Addicted to Drugs
Parenting an Addicted Child
Despite our best efforts to keep our children away from drugs or alcohol, sometimes our children still begin using and develop a substance use disorder disorder. Whether your child is still young enough to live with you or your child is grown and on their own, learning that your child has an addiction can be a heartbreaking experience.
The most important thing to do if you suspect that your child has an addiction is not to panic and to seek help immediately. This is especially true if your child is still under the age of 18 and is living with you. Children and teens are especially vulnerable to the consequences of substance use disorder because their brains and bodies are still developing.
Recent statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) state that about half of all teens who use drugs or alcohol have an underlying psychiatric disorder. Therefore, if you suspect that your child or teen is using drugs, seeking mental health treatment is the first step.
If your child is still school-aged, there are treatment options that will help reduce the impact to the child’s education. Some rehab facilities and inpatient mental health treatment centers offer academic programs and tutoring to help your child keep up with school while also getting much-needed treatment. Rehab centers for children and teens also put a significant emphasis on healthy recreational and peer-group activities to allow teens to establish healthy friendships, develop safe coping strategies, and learn to make better choices.
Child or Teen of an Addicted Parent
Unfortunately, one problem that children and teens of addicted parents often face significant consequences that other family members or friends don’t experience. In some cases, children experience abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse. This is especially true for children living in houses with multiple addicts or in situations where there are frequently guests with substance use disorder disorders.
In addition, some parents with a drug or alcohol addiction understand that the consequences of admitting their addiction or seeking treatment might include their children being removed from their custody. This can make a parent reluctant to seek help early in the addiction and instead, they only admit to their problem years down the road when the child has experienced years of witnessing their parent’s drug or alcohol use.
- Low self-esteem
- Poor grades or school performance
- Being bullied at school
- Absenteeism or truancy from school
- Anxiety, depression, or other emotional or mental health concerns
- Behavioral issues and “acting out”
- “Growing up too fast” or acting too mature due to caring for a parent
- Sexually transmitted diseases due to sexual abuse
- Neglect, maltreatment, or physical and emotional abuse
- Living in poverty
- Unsafe living conditions
- Increased risk of being placed in foster care
- Exposure to domestic violence
- Increased risk of engaging in risky behaviours resulting in teen pregnancy, life-threatening behaviours, or their own substance use.
One of the most startling consequences is that children of addicted parents often turn to drugs or alcohol as teenagers or adults. Unfortunately, addiction can span multiple generations, with children learning to use from their parents, and ultimately passing down addiction to their own children.
Adult Child of an Addicted Parent
If your parent didn’t become addicted to drugs or alcohol until after you reached adulthood, you may not experience all of the consequences that younger children or teens might, but your parent’s addiction will likely still have a profound impact on you. For example, while you might just be getting into your career or raising your family, having to care for your parent might pose significant challenges or disruptions to your life. You might also have to care for any of your siblings who are not yet adults.
In any family, children expect that their parents provide stability and security. This expectation is there even after a child grows up and begins their own family. When your parent is struggling with addiction, your sense of safety and security can still be upended, filling your life with uncertainty and chaos. This might make it difficult for you to maintain healthy relationships, fulfill your work responsibilities, or parent your children. Even if you are not living with your parents, you might feel that you need some support to cope with the stress and anxiety of your parent’s substance use disorder.
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Intervening and Finding Help
If you believe that a family member or friend has a substance use disorder, it is important for them to get the help they need to overcome their addiction and live a clean and sober life. Approaching your loved one about their addiction can be scary and intimidating, however. You might fear that approaching them will make them angry or violent, or you might worry that they will leave you. Sometimes, having a priest or other religious leader, friend, or family member with you when you approach your loved one can help you feel safer.
While you might be tempted to bring up the need for help when your loved one is high or drunk, doing so at this time will make it difficult for him or her to understand the importance of the situation and to react calmly. If it is safe to do so, waiting until your family member or friend is sober can make the discussion more productive.
One thing to keep in mind is that your loved one will likely deny that he or she has a problem. Many people with an addiction have a distorted sense of reality. They don’t believe they have a problem and they feel like they can control it at any time. They may also divert blame for their addiction to you, their job, their other family members, or their financial situation. It is important to remember that your loved one has a disease, and that disease makes it difficult for them to see the reality of the situation.
You might also find that you have a lot of anger, sadness, resentment, and frustration about the situation. Before you approach your loved one, you might consider speaking to a counselor, religious leader, or trusted friend about your feelings. This might help you be able to be more calm when you approach your loved one.
When you do decide to intervene, be sure to present some options for family treatment programs that your loved one can call and then follow up to make sure they do so. Having an intervention script could be helpful as well.
Support Groups for Family and Friends
Often times, a treatment center for recovering families will offer support groups for family and friends of those who are recovering from addiction. Being around others who have been in a similar situation can help you feel like you aren’t alone. There are options for both children and adults and can be a good way for you to find the healing and support necessary during this time.
Supporting a Loved One in Recovery
Family and friends of individuals with a substance use disorder disorder can play a key role in the recovery process. There are many ways you can support your loved one in recovery.
Holidays and special occasions can be difficult for families and friends in recovery. In our culture, celebrations often involve alcohol, in addition to changes in routines and stress that can make it difficult for some people to cope. Encourage family of friends or loved ones in recovery to have sober celebrations that focus on good food and conversation rather than alcohol.
One tip for friends for the recovery period is to experiment with mocktails or unique non-alcoholic drinks for toasting and celebrations during special occasions. Co-workers and friends of families healing from addiction should also understand if your loved one in recovery turns down invitations in an exchange for self-care or to avoid temptation, you should encourage them.
Healing from the Past
Friends and family of addicts often have their own emotional and physical needs that need to be addressed. Having a family member or friend with an addiction can shake you to your core, filling your life with fear, anxiety, trauma, and uncertainty. It’s a journey you didn’t ask to be on, but one that was thrust upon you.
While you might feel ashamed of your loved one’s addiction, understand that nothing you did caused this. Addiction is a disease and neither you nor your loved one deserve what is happening. It is important to reach out for help because you, too, need to heal and recover.
Being a family member or friend of someone with a substance use disorder disorder can be traumatic. You might have some strong feelings, including fear, anger, anxiety, or depression. You might be ambivalent or even feel like your loved one asked for it. You might feel like you are being robbed of the family or life you dreamed of. You might be scared of a relapse or that your loved one will overdose. Each of these feelings is normal, natural, and acceptable. It is important not to judge your feelings as being right or wrong – you have the right to any and all of your feelings. Be gentle with yourself and understand that you have been through a lot and deserve to take the time to heal and recover and you can do it.
Family Therapy & Treatment
Many family treatment centers offer a family and friend day program or therapy option to help you and your loved ones develop effective communication while learning to set boundaries for going forth as a family.
As part of a family treatment program, you can also use family therapy as a safe place to discuss your feelings about how the addiction has affected you. The counselors can assist your loved one in hearing what you have to say and responding without being defensive. The counselors can also help you process how your loved one responds. This can help you both begin the process of mending the damage to the relationship.
Besides family therapy, many family members and friends of addicts find that seeking a therapist, counselor, or social worker can be helpful for their own mental health. What you have been through can be traumatic, so talking with a counselor that has experience in working with families of addicted individuals can help you process your experiences.
Below are a few of the resources we recommend. Part of Alcoholics Anonymous, Alateen is designed to support teens who have a loved one with alcohol addiction. Teens can access in-person support groups, as well as a online chat room where they can meet with teens from around the world to discuss their experiences and offer support and hope to others. Adult Children of Alcoholics is a 12-step program for adults who grew up in a home with alcoholics or in other dysfunctional situations. ACA offers in-person support groups, as well as daily meditations, newsletters, and information on recovering from a dysfunctional childhood due to a parent or sibling’s alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous. This long-standing group offers a 12-step treatment protocol for those with addiction, as well as support for family and friends. Narcotics Anonymous offers similar support for those with an addiction to opioids or other narcotics.Families Anonymous uses a similar 12-step model to AA and NA, offering support for adult friends and family of those with substance use disorder or other addictions. Recovering Couples Anonymous is specifically for spouses and partners of those with addiction or other forms of relationship dysfunction. Learn to Cope is a non-profit organization that offers peer support, education, and resources for family members of people addicted to opioids or other drugs. Local chapters of Learn to Cope offer weekly meetings, while the main organization hosts an online moderated support forum. National Association for Children of Alcoholics offers information and support to all children who have parents with alcoholism. There are separate teen and child portals that can be accessed that provide age-appropriate and judgment-free guidance, information, and support. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence offers a wide variety of help and support for people in recovery, as well as their family and friends. NCADD provides fact-based information to help break stigma, while also encouraging people to share their experiences to those going through the process, in addition to policy makers and community leaders as a way to help combat addiction and develop community-based support. Parents of Addicted Loved Ones offers in-person support meetings and online information for parents of children with substance use disorder disorders. The organization also provides ways for parents to connect with others who have gone through a similar situation.
Essential Resources for Family and Friends
Below are a few of the resources we recommend.
Part of Alcoholics Anonymous, Alateen is designed to support teens who have a loved one with alcohol addiction. Teens can access in-person support groups, as well as a online chat room where they can meet with teens from around the world to discuss their experiences and offer support and hope to others.
Adult Children of Alcoholics is a 12-step program for adults who grew up in a home with alcoholics or in other dysfunctional situations. ACA offers in-person support groups, as well as daily meditations, newsletters, and information on recovering from a dysfunctional childhood due to a parent or sibling’s alcoholism.
Alcoholics Anonymous. This long-standing group offers a 12-step treatment protocol for those with addiction, as well as support for family and friends.
Narcotics Anonymous offers similar support for those with an addiction to opioids or other narcotics.Families Anonymous uses a similar 12-step model to AA and NA, offering support for adult friends and family of those with substance use disorder or other addictions.
Recovering Couples Anonymous is specifically for spouses and partners of those with addiction or other forms of relationship dysfunction.
Learn to Cope is a non-profit organization that offers peer support, education, and resources for family members of people addicted to opioids or other drugs. Local chapters of Learn to Cope offer weekly meetings, while the main organization hosts an online moderated support forum.
National Association for Children of Alcoholics offers information and support to all children who have parents with alcoholism. There are separate teen and child portals that can be accessed that provide age-appropriate and judgment-free guidance, information, and support.
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence offers a wide variety of help and support for people in recovery, as well as their family and friends. NCADD provides fact-based information to help break stigma, while also encouraging people to share their experiences to those going through the process, in addition to policy makers and community leaders as a way to help combat addiction and develop community-based support.
Parents of Addicted Loved Ones offers in-person support meetings and online information for parents of children with substance use disorder disorders. The organization also provides ways for parents to connect with others who have gone through a similar situation.
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.