The National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health shows that over 23.5 million Americans suffer from a substance use disorder. Addiction naturally has the largest impact on the addict. It’s important to consider the widespread effects of addiction on the people surrounding the addict. Substance abuse has a significant impact on families, both as individuals and the family system as a whole. It changes dynamics, hierarchy, trust relationships, and even methods of survival. This is especially pertinent for children, who suffer from changing relationships, increased risk of domestic violence, emotional absence, and trauma.
Changes to the family homeostasis can permanently affect its members and its future. It forces individuals into roles they are unready for. The families of substance abusers suffer from the abuser. Substance abuse has long-term impacts on family and family systems. To this extent, therapy for addicts with family is increasingly involving the family.
Changing Hierarchical Roles in the Family Structure
A person with substance abuse problems will often change their patterns, may quit work or earn less, may rack up large bills, may be unable to perform chores or tasks inside of the home, or otherwise be unable to fill their traditional role inside of the family. This can result in greatly changing hierarchical structures. For example, a primary caretaker may be forced to take a job to substitute income from a substance dependant provider, a provider may be forced to care for children or take up home care roles as a substance-dependent caretaker fails their responsibilities, children may care for themselves or a parent, and so on. These shifts in hierarchy change family dynamics, forcing someone to take up the responsibilities or role of the substance-dependent person. In most cases, even after the substance abuser has sought out treatment, roles never return to their pre-substance abuse status.
Effects of Substance Abuse on Children in a Family Structure
Children typically suffer the worst in any family with substance abuse problems. Most studies show that any substance abuse will negatively affect development, trust, discipline, grades, personal motivation, anger, anxiety, and even the ability to enjoy childhood. Children may be forced to come to terms with the fact that their parent(s) behavior is wrong or immoral, and possibly illegal. They may even be forced to follow through on illegal activities for their parents. Parental substance abuse interrupts normal development in children at any age, putting them at higher risk of trauma, emotional health problems, mental health problems, and physical health problems. This can result in mistrust, fear, substance abuse, shame, personal guilt (children think they are responsible for their parent’s substance use), insecurity, ambivalent emotions (love/hate relationships), and an inability to form positive relationships with others.
Even in loving relationships with a substance-addicted parent, children often develop complex structures of denial and compensation, to both ignore the issue and to compensate for it as much as possible. Here, they are forced into roles outside of their age group and exposed to trauma and stress. Children may act as surrogate parents, caring for, cleaning, and even cooking for addicted parents. This is especially true in single-parent households, where no other adult is available to take on responsibilities.
Influences on Children’s Substance Abuse
Children who grow up in families where substance abuse is common are more likely to abuse substances themselves. This can result from a lack of guidance, from anger, or from escapism. Substances are a way to avoid emotional dissatisfaction and self-blame. Many children of substance abusers also suffer from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. 40-80% of all child abuse cases are linked to substance abuse by a parent. Children with substance-addicted parents are six times as likely to be a victim of sexual abuse.
In addition, children in families with substance abuse are more likely to see a parent being abused or battered, which translates to trauma and long-term anxiety disorders and trust issues. Because children are interrupted at a developmental age, many of the problems caused by substance abuse go on to affect them for life, even through therapy.
While substance abuse has the largest impact on nuclear family extended family members are also affected by guilt, anger, fear, concern, embarrassment, and other emotions. In some cases, a substance-addicted person may cut ties with extended family all together. This is especially true if they are prone to using manipulation to fund their habit. Because extended family rarely have the same strong ties with family members as a nuclear family, the guilt reflex is not typically enough to sustain a relationship while a substance-addicted person is abusing that relationship. As a result, people who abuse substances often find themselves isolated, forcing them to spend time with others who use, which both supports and reinforces their addictive behavior.
Codependent relationships often develop inside of families where one or more person is substance dependent. This can lead to harmful behavior from multiple family members. Substance abuse typically creates economic, emotional, and physical problems. It translates into one or more family members stepping into new roles to be caretakers, to earn money, or to care for a person who has incapacitated themselves. In some cases, this form of care may become addicting. This means the person caring for the other feels that the other person needs them. They, therefore, continue to support harmful behavior and substance abuse to provide for that person or to prevent them from seeking care elsewhere.
In this case, the caretaker is as much in need of help as the substance user, because codependency invalidates the person’s own sense of self in favor of caring for the person who chronically needs high levels of care. Codependent persons exhibit multiple symptoms including:
- Controlling the behavior of the other person, because they believe the other person is incapable of taking care of themselves.
- Low self-esteem
- Show a tendency to compromise their own values to avoid anger
Multiple 12-Step and non-12-step groups exist to help codependent persons. These programs include CoDependents Anonymous (CoDA), Adult Children of Alcoholics, Families Anonymous, Co-Anon, Al-Anon, and Alateen.
Emotional Relationship Changes to the Family Structure
Most family structures show a series of similar emotional and homeostasis changes. These are present depending on the family member with the substance abuse problem, and the family relationship and structure before the substance abuse. These problems may be visible at different levels depending on the social standing of the family. The extent to which they present a healthy face to friends and extended family.
The family communicates negatively, taking anger, and displeasure out on other family members. Here, criticism, complaints, and crisis are the only form of communication and we often ignore positive behavior. This behavior often reinforces substance abuse by reinforcing stress and anxiety – but is a symptom of substance abuse.
Adults and children with substance abuse problems typically attempt to avoid feelings of inadequacy by avoiding responsibility. This can result in a family member who simply contributes nothing. Or it can result in a family member who tries very hard while depreciating themselves and claiming that others cannot expect anything of them because they are a substance user.
Children and adults who feel that their substance-abusing family is not giving them emotional support will show anger, substance use, and destructive behavior such as vandalism.
Parents and children often self-medicate, either to deal with stress and anxiety, to cope with feelings of inadequacy in a relationship. This is where one family member is emotionally withdrawn and substance dependent, or to cope with intolerable thoughts and feelings.
One or both parents are substance users and are therefore inconsistent as parents. This can affect rules and enforcement, eroding the family structure until children are unsure of what they can and cannot do. This often results in children pushing boundaries or behaving badly, in and outside of the home. This is an attempt to define what they can and cannot do. While resulting in negative behavior, children are often confused and unable to predict parental responses. This leads to them experimentation to get parents to ‘care’ enough to react.
Both parents and children will frequently deny substance abuse in a family member. Young children will deny that substance abuse is a problem. This often creates complex structures of denial, where parents will simply ignore warning signs. These relationships manifest themselves in different ways depending on the substance abuse in the family but always affect the entire family system. Restructuring the family system to correct these problems is important. Substance use dramatically impacts the entire family. It changes structures, damaging every member of the family, and impacting the future mental and psychological health of all family members. This can affect family members long-term and can lead to additional family members seeking out substances as a form of escapism or denial.
Getting Help from Oceanfront Recovery
In all cases, seeking out family therapy alongside substance abuse treatment can be essential to beginning to rebuild trust, deconstruct negative family relationships, and helping the family to move towards a healthy new beginning. The Oceanfront Recovery Addiction Treatment Program can help you or your loved one through the process of recovery from addiction to any substance. Some of these programs include:
- EMDR Therapy Program
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program
- Dual Diagnosis Treatment Program
- PTSD Treatment Program
Our clinicians focus on bringing the underlying causes of addiction to the surface with a modern and effective recovery program in a beautiful beachfront setting. Contact Oceanfront Recovery today for a confidential assessment, and begin the journey of recovery today.