Addiction and the Family

“Addiction is a family disease.” This observation is commonly made in addiction treatment circles, but what does it mean? Exactly how does addiction affect the family?

The statement does not mean that families are responsible for the addiction; the addict makes his or her own choices.

However, as the addiction progresses, a number of dysfunctional patterns typically occur in the addict’s family. These patterns may lead to self-defeating behaviors and interactions that can interfere with recovery, despite the family’s best intentions. And as long as the addict suffers, the entire family suffers. This is why addiction professionals consider treatment of the family to be an integral part of the treatment of addiction.

The effects of addiction on the family are widespread.

About one out of three people in the United States has a relative with a substance abuse problem. For one out of four, it is a close relative (mother, father, sibling, or child).

When we look at the families of alcoholics and addicts, we see a marked increase in divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, depression, anxiety, and general medical problems.

Spouses of addicts tend to be more depressed than their peers and to have more medical complaints. Children raised in families with addicts exhibit a range of problems: poor conduct and academic achievement, delinquency, low selfesteem and depression. Adults who grew up in such families suffer from depression and social anxiety and have difficulty in relationships. This can be the case even if the addicted family member belonged to a previous generation.

We know that if the addict and the family get into recovery, many of the effects on the family begin to diminish within a couple of years. But it is often the family itself that unwittingly interferes with the process of recovery. Active participation in the companion 12-step programs such as Al-Anon and Narc-Anon, family therapy, or individual counseling help to move the entire family along the path of recovery and to eliminate some of the unseen resistance.

Elizabeth Connell Henderson, M.D.


Appendix A: Regulation of Addictive Substances

Appendix B: Sources of Additional Information

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