Substance abuse and addiction is a substantial problem in America. Of the 21.5 million reported substance use disorders in 2014, 17 million were alcohol use disorders, 7.1 were illicit drug use disorders and 2.6 million were reported to suffer from both alcohol and drug use disorders, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) survey.

The increasing number of people suffering from substance abuse and addiction may influence the way American families operate. Substance addiction is a disease that can impact families in countless ways. Often, individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction do not receive the help they need to address these issues. As a result, addicted individuals and all the people close to them continue to be hurt.

Effects Of Addiction On Different Types Of Families

Family structures have become increasingly complex in America, varying from the standard nuclear family (two parents and a child) to include single-parent, step-, foster, and multigenerational families. When a family member participates in substance abuse, the effects of their abuse may differ, depending on their family structure and several other factors:

  • Living alone or with a partner: One or both individuals will need help. If one person struggles with addiction, it is highly likely that the relationship involves issues of co-dependency or enabling. Parents of small children may try to compensate for the deficiencies of their substance-abusing partner. In these situations, it is common for children to become a sort of surrogate spouse for the substance-abusing parent.
  • Living with a partner and children: When parents have issues with each other, these issues can spill over and affect children. Single parents who abuse substances may push children to act in a manner that is not appropriate for their age to compensate for their parents’ deficiencies. Sometimes, to protect themselves from the reality of their parents’ addiction, children may create elaborate systems of denial.
  • Older parents living with grown children: In most cases, family resources are necessary to take care of an older addicted individual. In some cases, this can lead to elderly abuse.
  • Living within a step-family: Abusing drugs and alcohol can slow the rate at which step-families come together and weaken their stability.
  • Living as a teenager with a family: The general well-being of all but the addicted individual may be put aside for a while, causing others to feel ignored because of the crisis caused by substance abuse. If the parent is the one who is addicted, the children are also at increased risk of physical and emotional conflicts.

No matter the type of family, there are some commonalities between individuals who struggle with substance abuse. Generally, people who abuse substances will increasingly isolate themselves from their families. Often, they will choose to associate with others who also abuse substances, which only reinforces their behavior and makes them more socially comfortable.

Some families may go to great lengths to deny that anything is wrong. They may present a healthy and put-together front on the surface, when in reality, they may struggle with substance abuse and addiction. Different issues concerning how best to treat substance abuse will generally depend on the age and family role of the person who abuses substances.

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Substance Abuse And Family Interactions

There are many ways substance abuse can affect a family. Perhaps the most notable effect is how it influences everyday interactions. According to SAMHSA research, there are several characteristic patterns of communication among families with a member struggling with substance abuse or addiction.

One or more of the following traits are likely to be present in a family that includes parents or children who abuse alcohol or drugs:


Establishing rules is erratic at best and “established” rules are rarely enforced, making the family structure inadequate. Children end up confused because they are not able to determine what is wrong or right. In an attempt to get their parents to set boundaries, children may act out and behave inconsistently.

Without limits, children cannot predict their parents’ responses and adjust their behavior accordingly. The trend of inconsistency remains present whether the parents or children are the ones abusing substances, which creates an overall sense of confusion in the family.

Parental Denial

In families where the children are the ones participating in substance abuse, the parents typically take one of two stances. The first is a total denial of a problem, even with visible warning signs, and in the second, after the issue escalates (usually when the authorities become involved), parents may continue to deny the problem by blaming the authorities.

Unrealistic Expectations

If parental expectations are too high, children may use substance abuse to excuse themselves from the additional responsibility. Alternatively, children may go to painstaking lengths to overachieve despite still feeling like no matter what they accomplish it will never be enough to earn their parents’ approval. Children may joke, or try to laugh it off, when face-to-face with their parents to deflect any pain.

If expectations are set too low, and children are always told that they will never amount to much, they usually become self-fulfilling prophecies unless they can develop meaningful and healthy relationships with other adults who send them positive, reinforcing messages instead.


All communication between family members has a negative tone, which can take the form of complaints, criticism or other expressions of displeasure. The collective mood within the family is downcast, and any positive behavior is ignored. In this type of situation, the only way to get attention is to create a crisis, which can inadvertently reinforce substance abuse.

Misguided Emotions

Any family member who resents their emotionally deprived home and is too anxious to express themselves honestly may abuse substances as an outlet for these feelings.


It is common for individuals struggling with mental health issues to abuse substances to cope with intolerable thoughts or feelings which result from them, including anxiety or depression.

Total family reconstruction is the only way to fix such issues, changing the relationships between each parent and between parents and children. The best way to begin rebuilding family relationships is to seek substance abuse treatment for the people who need it and involve the family in their recovery as much as possible.

The Link Between Abusive Behavior And Addiction

Individuals who are emotionally or physically abused by their spouses are at an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder. In some cases, partners may try to coerce their spouses into misusing alcohol or drugs, or individuals may abuse substances as a way to cope with their negative feelings toward the abusive spouse.

Research has indicated that on days of heavy substance abuse, physical violence is roughly 11 times more likely within abusive relationships. Also, more than 20 percent of male perpetrators reported using alcohol or illicit drugs before the most recent and severe acts of violence they committed.

Frequently, relationship violence and substance abuse are reported among individuals who present additional psychological or substance abuse issues. There is much debate about whether it is substance abuse that causes violence and emotional abuse, or whether the misuse of drugs and alcohol is used to excuse violent behavior.

How Substance Abuse And Addiction Influence Children

When children are exposed to family members who abuse substances, it can affect them in a variety of ways. Research has indicated that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can increase the likelihood of children developing a substance use disorder. The more frequently a child is subjected to the harmful effects of their family members’ substance abuse, the further their risk increases.

The most common adverse childhood experiences include childhood abuse, domestic violence, drug use, substance abuse, and parental drug use. Individuals who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse may forget to care for their children. It’s possible that some children may not have anyone who can help them with basic hygiene or get them to school on time.

Drug and alcohol use may cause parents to have a hard time holding a job or earning money. Without their financial support, kids may go without food, electricity and potentially a home. Family members with substance abuse issues may not be physically able or mentally coherent enough to protect their children and keep them safe.

How Parental Attitudes On Substance Use Influence Children And Teens

Although some parents do not believe it, their attitudes toward substance abuse significantly influence how their children think about abusing substances themselves. A united parental front does matter when talking to children and teens about drug and alcohol abuse.

When a National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse asked parents, “When it comes to using drugs and drinking, how much do you and your child’s other parent agree on what to say to your child?” this was their response:

  • 67 percent agreed completely on what to say to their children about drug use.
  • 53 percent agreed completely on what to say to their child about alcohol use.

Of the individuals who did not agree completely on what to say to their child about drug and alcohol use, 51 percent say they each express their individual views to the child.

The National Survey found that teens whose parents wholeheartedly agreed were two times less likely to abuse substances, compared to teens whose parents disagreed. In fact, teens with parents who disagree on what to say were three-and-a-half times more likely to say they are “very to somewhat likely” to try drugs in the future.

What parents do is also an influential aspect for children and teenagers. The National Survey found that teens with parents who had consumed alcohol in the last 30 days were twice as likely to say they can get alcohol in an hour or less, compared to teens whose parents had not consumed any alcohol.

Adverse environments can be detrimental to a child’s overall health as well. Children and teens who grow up with continual fears and substance abuse problems may have their mental health compromised, which can affect their schooling, self-confidence, social development, and future.

Effects Of Genetics And Chronic Substance Abuse On Addiction

It is possible for individuals to be born with a genetic disposition to be more impulsive, more likely to take risks and less capable of responding to stress. When someone has a family history of addiction, the complex personality traits that can increase the likelihood of a substance use disorder are more common, compared to an individual who has minimal to no family history of addiction.

These personality traits may differ, depending on the stage of addiction someone is in. Usually, the stages of a substance use disorder are classified chronologically as the initiation of drug use, regular drug use, addiction/dependence, and potential relapse. More research is still needed to fully understand the exact influence genetics has on substance abuse and addiction.

Substance addiction generally manifests as a compulsive drive to take substances despite serious negative consequences. Traditionally, this is viewed as a series of voluntary, bad choices made by an individual. However, more recent studies have shown that repeated and chronic substance use leads to long-lasting changes in the brain, which may undermine voluntary control.

The combination of environmental, genetic and developmental factors which contribute to addiction has brought about significant changes in the way addiction treatment is approached.

Finding The Right Family Therapy And Treatment

Family therapy is a useful substance abuse treatment that allows the entire family to work together and understand each other’s perspectives. When possible, the whole family should be involved in the recovery process.

Family therapy may be useful in the following ways:

  • Family support can help individuals find other ways to live without drugs or alcohol.
  • Addicted individuals and their families will be more prepared to deal with the impacts of the recovery process, including detoxification, treatment, and aftercare.
  • Family members are more aware of their own needs and can safely talk about them.
  • The next generation will be less likely to develop a substance use disorder.
  • In cases where parents have lost custody of their children, they will be better able to overcome their addiction and reconnect with their family.

It is essential to find the right family counselor to help with these matters. It is perhaps even more important to be upfront about why the family is attending therapy. Generally, family therapists and counselors don’t screen for substance abuse, and substance abuse counselors need proper training to practice family therapy.

The most likely place to find a professional capable of family therapy which is focused on substance abuse is at a formal addiction treatment center. Contact Vertava Health Ohio to learn about the options available for you and your family.