Addiction is complicated. It affects everyone in the family and can affect them for the rest of their lives. These effects are different for every person and every family.
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.
Researchers have looked at genetics, environment, and a combination of these factors to explain how addiction develops. Research suggests that genetics may make some people more likely to become addicted. But, genetics alone aren't enough for someone to develop an addiction. What happens in a person's life plays an important role in whether or not they become dependent. What are they getting out of using? If it’s for stress relief or to relax, over time it can lead to an inability to relax or cope without using.
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 addicted person has stopped doing, or may provide financial support to the addicted family member.
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 an addict, 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 addiction 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.
Addiction often creates 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 addiction 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 an addicted person 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).
Current as of: March 7, 2017
Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services