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Addiction: Helping Others

Addiction in the family

​​​​​​​​​​​​Addiction is complicated. It affects everyone in the family and can affect them for the rest of their liv​es. These effects are different for every person and every family.

How does an addiction develop?

Developing an addiction can be a complex process. In the beginning, there is usually no problem. As time goes on, people may start to focus more on their using (like alcohol, drugs, or gambling) than they do in other parts of their lives. They may fall behind on bills, or forget about obligations they have. Many things affect the process, including the person’s culture, genetics, mental health, and their relationships with family and friends.

Addiction is a chronic disease that involves complex interactions between the brain, genetics, the environment, and someone’s life experiences. It can be treated. Approaches to prevent and treat addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases.

How does addiction affect the family?

When someone in the family has an addiction, the whole family usually develops ways to cope with the problems the addiction causes. Often, there is less communication: the family doesn’t talk about it or show how they feel. They may keep the addiction secret from other family and friends. Some family members take on some of the responsibilities the person with an addiction has stopped doing, or may provide financial support to the family member with an addiction.

While these ways to cope may help the family work more smoothly and get along better, they may also let the addiction continue. Unfortunately, family members may also use alcohol, drugs, or gambling themselves as a way of coping with the problems in their family. A person’s addiction usually has a negative impact on the family, which can lead to conflict and fighting between family members. Family members can become stressed or anxious when dealing with the person using, which can negatively affect their own health.

Family members often feel lonely, frustrated, afraid, angry, ashamed, or guilty. They may also feel that the situation is hopeless. It's important for them to know that the substance use or gambling is not their fault. Finding outside help from a support group counsellor, or religious leader often helps them cope with what is going on in their family.

How does addiction affect children?

Substance use and gambling may create an unstable family environment. Parents may not be able to parent as they should or provide basic necessities like proper food and clothing. Children may not be taught basic life skills. Children may feel insecure or unloved, and some may feel that the use is their fault. They may also begin to take on adult responsibilities that aren't appropriate for their age. These children are more likely to skip school, have anti-social behaviours (like being aggressive), or have other unhealthy behaviours (like an eating disorder).

Living with a person who has an addiction isn't easy for a child. Fortunately, most children are resilient and overcome most of these challenges to become strong, healthy adults. They build on their own and others' strengths.

For more information and to find an addiction services office near you, please call the 24-hour Help Line at 1-866-332-2322 (Alberta only).

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Current as of: May 18, 2022

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services