June 15, 2022

How Addiction Affects the Family System

Read time: 7 minutes

Addiction can be an isolating condition for the individual struggling with it. Fighting off cravings and weathering the effects of a crash can be exhausting, and succumbing to the impulse to use can induce shame. Asking for help may not feel like a safe option when there is the fear of being judged or reprimanded, and it might feel easier to just keep substance use a secret.

Substance abuse does not only affect the individual. The entire family system can feel the effects. Relationships might be strained to the point of breaking, and misunderstandings might run rampant. Family members concerned about their loved one might become frustrated or feel helpless when they run out of ideas for how to help or when their loved one rejects their attempts to aid them. These negative interactions can become cycles that hurt not only the individual struggling with addiction but also the entire family surrounding them.

The Importance of Family

The relationships within families teach individuals how to love and trust and provide the foundation for how people interact with the rest of the world. Stable family situations can provide solid footing as individuals grow and develop independence. Likewise, instability within the family can damage an individual’s ability to form relationships in their adult lives and develop healthy and productive lifestyles.

Two theories that support the importance of family are attachment theory and family systems theory, as described in a 2013 article from the journal Social Work in Public Health. Attachment theory posits that an individual’s early relationships with their caregivers are responsible for providing them with the tools to engage with others throughout their lives. It suggests that the success or failure of these relationships can have positive or negative effects that linger throughout their childhood and into adulthood.

Family systems theory explains that an individual can only be fully understood in the context of their role in their family and that a family is a sum of its members as well as the relationships and interactions that exist between those members.

Both of these theories provide a framework for understanding how deeply connected individuals are to the people in their family and how important those relationships are even once they are grown up. They can also be used to analyze how addiction affects more than just the person abusing substances.

Addiction Can Bleed Into Our Relationships

When someone is struggling with substance abuse, the people closest to them will be affected and, in turn, will affect the person abusing drugs or alcohol. For example, if an adult child has a drinking problem that leads them to drive under the influence and get arrested, their parents might bail them out of jail and pay any associated fees.

In this case, the child’s alcohol use is a threat to the homeostasis or stability of the family system, and the parents are scrambling to balance all of the moving parts, even if seeking stability in the short term may have catastrophic consequences in the long run. This type of behavior is known as enabling and can reinforce someone’s substance abuse, even though the enabler often feels that they are being kind and loving by helping.

Another unhealthy pattern that can manifest in families where drinking or drug use is a problem is a negative feedback cycle. For example, if a husband is highly critical of his wife, she may resort to drug use to numb the emotional toll of this criticism. As a result of the effects of the drugs on her behavior, her husband is even more critical and disparaging, and this reinforces her drug use.

When a parent is the one struggling with substance abuse, there can be devastating effects for the next generation. Children of parents with substance use disorders (SUDs) are more likely to be abused, develop mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, deal with learning difficulties, and become involved in the juvenile justice system. These children are also more susceptible to parentification, where they must learn to rely on and take care of themselves and their younger siblings because of the inconsistency in parenting.

The effects of addiction on the entire family structure mean that professional treatment is necessary to disrupt unhealthy dynamics and reinforce healthier boundaries and feedback cycles for this generation and the ones to follow.

We Need to Work Together

Substance abuse is a family problem, and as a result, it requires a family solution. That is why family behavior therapy is an evidence-based treatment that reduces harmful behaviors and promotes healthier choices that keep the family unit functioning. Family therapy holds each member accountable and teaches strategies to seek homeostasis in a healthy way and avoid enabling.

Perhaps you are struggling to keep your substance use under control and are starting to notice how it is negatively impacting your own well-being as well as the strength of your relationships with those who matter to you. On the other hand, you may be a parent, sibling, or partner of someone abusing substances and you are concerned about them as well as yourself. In either case, you might not know where to turn for help or how to help your family live together happily and safely. That is why we prioritize the family in addiction treatment at Family-Centered Services. We understand that addiction is a systemic family issue and that successful treatment means treating the family unit as a whole with services like individual and family therapy, case management, and intervention consultation and education. Call us at (509) 991-5822 to learn how we can help your family.

Adam possesses a special gift in connecting with families- directing and caring for us while we got our loved one into treatment.

Greg & Jennifer F. San Diego, CA

Sick and tired of being sick and tired?

Pain is a powerful motivator to help one become willing to take action. We understand your pain. Connect with us to re-write your story.