You may have heard addiction described as a family illness. This oft-repeated expression is more than just a thing people say. In the vast majority of addiction cases, family plays more than a small role.
In this piece, we talk about the implications of these findings, notably, that recovery may need to involve the same family dynamics that contributed to addiction in the first place.
At FHE Health, we encourage families to get involved in their loved one’s recovery (with consent from both sides, of course). This includes family therapy, access to family support groups and family dynamics workshops. To learn how you can change your family dynamics and roles for the purposes of healthy recovery, contact us today.
How Is Addiction a Family Disease?
Families are a system, and more than that, they’re most people’s first system. Your family is there from the moment you’re born, often through childhood, adolescence and even into early adulthood. If your family shapes who you are initially in life, this poses complications when addiction is involved.
Upbringing Often Plants the Seeds of Addiction
A significant body of research shows that the occurrence of addiction, homelessness and some mental illness comes from influences — often brought on through family dynamics — in early childhood. This is more than just watching a parent use drugs and alcohol, although this can be a major part of it.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25% of children grow up in a home where substance abuse is common. Other studies have shown that this can be a predictor of future addiction in a child, or at least that children who grew up around parents who used drugs and alcohol heavily were more likely to do so themselves.
That’s because growing up in a home where addiction is present fits into the category of Adverse Childhood Experiences. ACES are anything that represents or causes childhood trauma, and studies show that these are likely to explain addiction and mental disorders when a child who experiences ACES becomes an adult.
Not all ACEs are functions of family dynamics. For example, emotional or sexual abuse by a teacher or peer can cause early trauma. With this in mind, though, it’s much more likely that ACEs come from inside the family setting:
- Growing up with domestic violence or divorce
- 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
- Having a parent engaged in criminal activity or incarcerated
- Being raised in foster homes due to lack of a family structure
The Family Dynamics of Addiction
This doesn’t mean that the family system and addiction are only related during childhood, however, and there are several models aimed at showing how the behavior of an addict’s family can help or hinder their recovery, even as an adult.
One focuses on six roles that a family is likely to break into when a member is addicted to drugs or alcohol.
First, there’s the addict. This is the center of the struggles of this sample family. Their inability to deal with this person’s addiction in a healthy way means that this person struggles to break the cycle of addiction, regardless of whether they understand their problem and want to get better.
Closest to the addict is the enabler. Often, this person is misguided in the belief that their actions are helping the addict.
They may take over some of the addict’s responsibilities and even cover for them to try to make it seem like everything is ok. Really, all the enabler is doing is making it easier for the addict to continue living a destructive lifestyle.
Next are the hero and the mascot. Each of these roles involves common coping mechanisms that people tend to conform to when their family is in conflict.
The hero, for example, turns toward the conflict and tries to assume responsibility. While this a noble pursuit, it tends to be misguided because one person isn’t can’t fix everything.
On the other side of the spectrum, the mascot tries to use comedy to avoid the situation. This is a person that typically feels that they aren’t strong enough to face the responsibility of helping the family during a hard time.
The final two roles are the result of a family’s focus being concentrated in one place. The scapegoat is the person who receives the blame for issues at home. While the scapegoat does tend to be performing poorly at school or work, much of this blame is a coping mechanism for the family that doesn’t want to confront the addict’s behavior.
Conversely, the lost child is isolated by the family. They’re typically not as assertive as other members of the family and may become distanced from the conflict. This can result in poor academic, career and social performance.
There are other models of understanding complex family dynamics during addiction; we feel this one is one of the easiest to understand.
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What This Can Mean for Your Family
In order to grow to support a family member struggling with addiction, you have to understand which role in family addiction is the one you’re playing.
First, a note: If you’re in recovery with an unsupportive family, a family group or family dynamics workshop can’t always address the situation. Sometimes, families that slip into these roles simply refuse to change their behavior.
When you have toxic family members, you have to find recovery separate from them. Here’s a guide to how to recover without a supportive family.
How Can Family Therapy Help?
There are several different forms of family therapy, ranging from family support groups — like AL-Anon and Nar-Anon — to hands-on family dynamics workshops and traditional family therapy sessions. Each of these allows the family to come together, confront the issues they’ve been trying to deflect and look inward to understand their personal behavior’s potential to help or hinder a loved one in recovery.
These sessions may involve the addict, or they may not. The primary objective is for the family to understand the impact their support (or lack of it) can affect 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 more about family programs at FHE Health, contact us today.