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Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children

Understanding how substance use disorders impact drug addiction and families can inspire the choice to seek treatment.

Stopping the Cycle of Drug Addiction Within Families 

Substance abuse in families is a serious social issue, and it’s only getting worse. In the U.S., one in eight children lives in a household with at least one parent who has a substance use disorder.[1]

Together, families and drug addiction form a vicious cycle. Ending the relationship between families and substance use disorder means becoming educated about the impact of substance abuse on families and taking the steps needed to heal and change.

Understanding Substance Use Disorders

The impact of drug addiction and families brings many serious negative consequences. Healing drug addiction and families begins with understanding substance use disorders.

What Are Substance Use Disorders?

Substance use disorders happen when the repeated use of a substance begins to cause problems at work, school, or home. Substance use disorders bring pervasive negative consequences for physical, mental, and emotional health.[2]

A substance use disorder is typically characterized by a growing physical or psychological dependence on a substance. Substance use disorders are usually characterized by increased tolerance and compulsive use of the substances of choice. 

What Are the Signs of Substance Use Disorders in Families?

The family of drug abusers soon notices the many negative changes that occur due to prolonged substance use. Signs of substance abuse in families include:

  • Lethargic or erratic behavior
  • Physical changes, such as weight loss, pupil size, and new sleeping habits
  • Emotional changes, such as anger, suspicion, and paranoia
  • Secretive behavior
  • Unexplained disappearances
  • Missing money or prescription medications
  • Bruising or needle marks on arms
  • Presence of drug paraphernalia

This partial list highlights some critical signs that family members are most likely to notice when considering drug addiction and families. A family member with a substance use disorder will likely demonstrate many of the above signs. 

What Is the Relationship Between Drug Addiction and Families?

The relationship between drug addiction and families is important for a few reasons. 

Unhealthy family dynamics often lay at the center of the mental and emotional health concerns that contribute to developing a substance use disorder. How a family has healthy coping and communication skills can impact how a person learns to handle conflict, stress, trauma, and challenging emotions.

The effects of addiction on family members also bring many short and long-term negative consequences.[3

Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families

The impact of substance abuse on families reduces the overall quality of family life. Studies have shown that between spouses, common outcomes produced by substance abuse in families include:[4]

  • Poor communication
  • Decreased physical and emotional intimacy
  • Increased conflict 

Another impact of substance abuse on families is that spouses are likely to experience decreased levels of trust. The home environment becomes one that can be both physically and emotionally unsafe for all family members, especially children.

Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Children

Children are most impacted by drug addiction and families. Children are physically and emotionally reliant upon their parents. When parents cannot provide physical and emotional safety and focused presence, the developmental needs of the children aren’t adequately met. 

Risks of Children of Parents With Drug Addiction

The impact of substance abuse on families begins at birth. Infants and toddlers are more likely to develop an insecure attachment to caregivers when those caregivers are not present. Because of the dependence level of babies and young children, children of parents with drug addiction are at higher risk of:

  • Neglect
  • Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
  • Child Protective Services (CPS) involvement
  • Removal from family

Older children are more likely to model the example set by their parents, potentially developing a substance use disorder. Experimentation with substance use can quickly develop into a substance use disorder, and research shows this is a likely outcome for the children of addicted parents.[5]

Drug Addiction and Family Roles

Family roles in addiction are a helpful framework for understanding the dynamics that develop to cope with the behaviors involved with families and drug addiction. Examining these family roles in addiction can provide insight to all family members, helping them understand their responses and choose new, healthier ones.

The Addict

The dynamics of drug addiction and families begin with the person with the substance use disorder. The actions and behaviors of this person can contribute to dysfunction, conflict, and resentment. 

The Caretaker

The caretaker, also called the enabler, often makes excuses for the person with the substance use disorder. They often act in ways that enable ongoing substance use – for example, by giving the person money to buy substances.  

The Hero

The hero is the “fixer” in a family unit. This person seeks to resolve or avoid conflict among other family members. 

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat acts out, breaking the rules or behaving defiantly. Resentment or anger inspired by the person with the substance use disorder is instead taken out on the scapegoat.  

The Mascot

The mascot uses humor to alleviate family tensions and distract the addict.

The Lost Child

The lost child copes with the family dysfunction by isolating and avoiding family interaction. 

Treatment for Drug Addiction in Families

Drug Addiction and Families

Family systems are deeply intertwined. When one family member changes, it impacts all others. This is good news for those seeking drug addiction help for family members. 

The decision to seek addiction and family counseling impacts the whole family. When family members are involved in treatment, it increases recovery outcomes and provides healing for all those impacted by addiction in the family.

Family Therapy

Several forms of family therapy address the impact of substance abuse on families. What all types of family addiction counseling have in common is that they help family members understand and heal from the impact of substance abuse on families and establish healthy ways of relating to and supporting a family member in recovery.[6]

Al-Anon Family Groups

Alcoholics Anonymous (AL-Anon) offers a support group for families of addicts. These groups provide an understanding, supportive environment for addressing drug addiction and families.

Get Help at Genesis Recovery

Genesis Recovery offers addiction treatment programs that target family addiction and the impact of substance abuse on families. If you’re ready to begin healing from the effects of addiction on the family, contact Genesis Recovery today. 


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