You may have heard addiction described as a “family disease.” What this means, in its most basic sense, is that while the addict receives much of the attention for their sickness, their family also plays a significant role in the development and continuation of the addiction. Long-term addiction recovery is therefore more achievable when family members are actively involved in the process.
How Is Addiction a Family Disease?
Addiction is not a solitary disease. Hundreds of research studies indicate that substance abuse disorders and psychiatric illnesses evolve from the complex interaction of family dynamics, genetics, and environmental factors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 25 percent of children grow up in a home where substance abuse is common. Other studies have shown that this often predicts whether a child eventually starts using drugs as a teenager and becomes an adult addict.
Children who live in homes where they see family members abuse drugs or alcohol regularly are victims of Adverse Childhood Experiences. ACES are events that induce childhood trauma. Studies reveal an undeniable linke between ACES and addiction and mental disorders later in adulthood.
Not all ACEs are a function of family dynamics. (For example, emotional or sexual abuse by a non-family member can cause early trauma.) But the majority of ACES do come from the behavior of family members, such as:
- Growing up in a violent household
- Being victimized by a contentious divorce between parents
- Being raised in a home where drug use is common and visible
- Emotional, sexual, or physical abuse by parents, siblings, or other members of a shared household
- A parent’s engagement in criminal activity
- Having an incarcerated parent or guardian
- Being raised in foster homes
Families are a system, and more than that, they’re most people’s first system. Your family is there from the moment you are born, often through childhood, adolescence and even into early adulthood. If your family shapes who you are initially in life, this can pose complications when addiction is involved.
The Family Dynamics of Addiction
No family is prepared to deal with a loved one’s addiction. When a family is distraught, confused, and desperate, they may inadvertently hamper the addict’s recovery and even support that family member’s addiction. Often, as part of this process, family members will assume different roles.
Of course, a central role is that of the addict. Substance addiction severely impairs their capacity for thinking rationally. Cravings for their drug of choice cause addicts to lie, steal and do things they would never do when sober.
Unfortunately, family members tend to excuse this behavior because they truly love the addict and do not want to see their loved one on the street or in jail. Once an addict recognizes certain family members as enablers of their addiction, though, they will take advantage of this enabler as long as their addiction continues.
Enablers may be mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, and other family members who may be well-intentioned but ultimately help the addict continue in their addiction. Enablers are the ones who give the addict money to buy drugs, drive them places to get drugs, bail them out of jail, give them a roof over their head, and defend them when they steal from other family members.
Enablers are just as addicted to their behaviors as the addict needing professional help. An enabler may have been supporting the addict for years because they feel sorry for him or feel guilty over the possibility they may have encouraged the addiction. During an intervention, the mediator will address enablers by telling them that they are the ones who can make the intervention successful. Other family members who are not enablers will also be asked to take a firm stance towards the addict’s expected resistance, by constantly reminding the enabler of the consequences if the addict is not forced to enter a treatment program.
The Hero and the Mascot
These roles involve common coping mechanisms that people tend to conform to when their family is in conflict due to addiction. The hero is similar to an enabler because they try to assume responsibility for the addict’s actions. However, heroes do not enable the addict financially or otherwise to support their addiction.
Alternately, the mascot attempts to downplay the crisis with comedy or sarcasm. Mascots often feel they aren’t strong enough to participate in assisting their family or simply don’t want to use their time or energy to help.
Scapegoats are family members who receive most of the blame for addiction problems (and probably other problems) in the family. Since scapegoats often perform poorly at school or work perhaps because of an undiagnosed developmental or psychological disorder. Blaming the scapegoat is a coping mechanism for the family that doesn’t want to confront the addict’s behavior.
The Lost Child
The “lost child” is usually a younger member of the family who has always been isolated and neglected. They typically are not as assertive as other members of the family and may become distanced from the conflict. The lost child may perform poorly at school or work and have few, if any, relationships with peers.
The Codependent Family
When the addict’s family are all enablers, they may be considered a “codependent” family. Addicts learn through trial and error what kind of behaviors make their family members codependent on them. In other words, the addict says and does certain things that make their family feel guilty or sorry for them. The addict may become verbally abusive when others try to force them to abide by rules, justify why they are addicted, and bring up past events to “blame” family members for their addiction.
What These Family Dynamics Can Mean for Recovery
In order to support the recovery of a loved one who has addiction, family members need to be aware of the role that they may be playing within their family. Participation in a 12-step group like Al-Anon can help family members become more aware of how they may be unintentionally enabling or supporting their loved one’s disease.
On the flip side, if someone is in recovery from addiction but do not have a supportive family, that person may need to set some healthy boundaries with their family. When you have toxic family members, you have to find recovery separate from them. Here is a concise guide to recovering without a supportive family.
How Can Family Therapy Help?
There are several different forms of family therapy. Though they do not provide formal therapy, support groups like AL-Anon and Nar-Anon have helped many family members feel less alone, more supported, and better equipped to navigate the family dynamics of addiction in healthier ways.
Family dynamics workshops and traditional family therapy sessions can also be helpful pathways to recovery. Each of these outlets allows the family to come together, confront the issues they’ve been trying to deflect and look inward to understand how their personal behavior may be helping or hindering a loved one in recovery.
Therapy sessions may or may not involve the addict. The primary objective is for the family to understand the impact of their support (or lack thereof) on the addict’s recovery. Here is a breakdown of the ways in which a family is involved in a person’s experience with rehab and recovery.
To learn how you can change your family dynamics and roles to support a loved one’s recovery, contact FHE Health today. Our counselors are available 24/7 to help with interventions or other questions and referral needs.