How Drug Addiction Affects the Entire Family

Authored by Elliott Redwine, | Medically Reviewed by Peace Valley Recovery Editorial Staff,
Last Updated: August 25, 2022

Addiction affects the family.

It’s easy to think of the ways drug addiction affects the person using substances. As addiction progresses, the impact only gets worse with time. There can be short- and long-term health effects, loss of jobs, increasing financial troubles, and run-ins with the law. Living in active addiction is not a simple way to live.

However, people who struggle with addiction are not the only ones who feel the impact. The effects of active addiction stretch out far beyond the person using substances. Immediate family members are also affected when their loved one has a drug or alcohol problem. Whether it’s a child, parent, or spouse, addiction alters the lives of anyone who loves the person.

After her brother was diagnosed with the disease of addiction, Sam Fowler and her family had to change the way they lived their lives. In her talk, she tells about her experiences suffering from “the family disease.”

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

Addiction affects the entire family in many ways. The specific effects depend on which person in the family unit has the problem. Relationships, finances, safety, and more are all at risk.

For example, children with a parent with an addiction problem grow up with less support and guidance. On the other hand, parents with children who abuse substances have different issues. Additionally, children growing up with a sibling with a problem have difficulties. Even spouses of an addict also experience an extraordinary impact.

If your loved one struggles with drug addiction, how should you respond? What are some of the many ways addiction affects the entire family? Where can families with a loved one in active addiction find help?

The Effects of Addiction on a Family

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Familial Relationships and Addiction

There are countless effects of drug addiction on the family. Strained relationships, financial difficulties, and increased risk of abuse are only the start. Since each family has a different dynamic, not all families feel the same effects to the same extent. Regardless, it’s impossible to deny that addiction affects the entire family.

Addiction strains relationships, no matter which family member has the problem. It doesn’t matter if it’s a parent, child, spouse, or sibling. Every family member struggles alongside the addict to an extent. Living with someone with active addiction is a daily challenge for each person in the home.

Family members also respond in different ways. Some members step back from the family unit to avoid engaging with the addict. They don’t want to involve themselves in the chaos that comes with addiction. Some take on the opposite role and try to influence or control the addict into stopping or getting help. Others ride the middle line and try their best to blend in.

Help is Available for the Families of Addicts

How Addiction Affects Children

An estimated 1 in 8 children lives with a parent who had an active substance use disorder in the past year. The effects of addiction on a child depend on a few things:

  • Whether they come from a single-parent or two-parent household
  • Whether one or both parents struggle with addiction

Children living with a single parent who abuses drugs don’t have anyone to turn to. It’s similar for children living in a two-parent household with both parents struggling. When only one parent has a problem, there’s another parent to step in. They still feel the effects of drug addiction but still have some support.

Children who live with an addicted parent grow up in an unpredictable environment filled with secrecy and role reversal. They receive inconsistent physical and emotional support. Children in these environments experience affected social development, self-confidence, health, and more. There is a much higher possibility of abuse or violence against these children.

How Addiction Affects Parents

Parents who have a child with an addiction problem have a unique set of difficulties. They’re constantly plagued by worry about their safety and wellbeing. They may feel responsible for their child’s path and wonder where they went wrong.

Being a parent and feeling powerless watching your child suffer is painful. Some parents take on an overbearing and enabling role. This creates an inappropriately dependent relationship as their child grows up. Many try supporting their children financially, hoping they will turn their life around.

How Addiction Affects Siblings

Siblings of addicts are sometimes referred to as the “invisible victims.” These siblings feel various emotions like confusion, frustration, shame, resentment, and more. Parents tend to be consumed by the sibling with the addiction problem. Their ongoing and increasing issues draw attention away from the other children. They often end up taking the sidelines.

Some siblings take the path of refusing to follow the path their brother or sister took. They see the effects of addiction on their family and refuse to add to the problem. Others also turn to drugs or alcohol, following in their sibling’s footsteps. They use substances either as a way to escape the pain or to draw some of their parents’ attention back to them.

Help is Available for the Families of Addicts

The Six Family Roles in Addiction

When a person struggles with addiction, each family member develops their way of handling the problem. Clinicians notice five distinct roles that family members may take on to cope with their loved one’s substance use. Some families have a person for each role, others have members who adopt multiple roles, and others may not have certain roles in their family. 

The six family roles in addiction are a simple way to observe how family members of addicts deal with their loved ones. None of these roles are healthy ways of working through the difficulty, but each makes sense given the circumstances and effects of addiction.

The Addict

The addict is the person with the substance abuse problem and the focal point of the family. They are the source of most of the conflict in the home, whether directly or indirectly. Addicts tend to act and behave in whatever ways suit them, regardless of the effects on their family members. They may not realize how much the family dynamic centers around them.

The Caretaker

The caretaker is the family member who makes excuses or covers for the addict and the problems they create. They take on many household responsibilities to “keep the peace” and do their best to make sure the family is as happy as possible. The caretaker finds their purpose in enabling the addict, which keeps the entire cycle in motion. Caretakers are also martyrs of the family because they sacrifice themselves for what seems like the good of the family.

The Hero

The hero is similar to the caretaker but doesn’t participate in enabling the addict. Instead, they do everything they can to ensure the family appears normal. They try to maintain stability behind closed doors and maintain appearances outside the home. Heroes tend to be the “golden child”: highly responsible, self-sufficient, and perfectionists. However, their golden exterior merely covers up the increasing pain they feel inside.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the opposite of the hero, the “problem child”. They tend to be defiant and are filled with hostility toward the rest of the family. Instead of compensating for the chaos in the home, they try to draw attention to themselves through harmful behaviors. This diverts attention away from the addict in another way but still keeps the cycle in motion.

The Mascot

The mascot is the funny guy in the family. They try to alleviate the chaos and stress by diverting attention through humor or silly behavior. Mascots always tend to be in motion, constantly trying to make other family members feel better with their antics. This exhausting role keeps the mascot from having to look at the reality of their family dynamic, regardless of its impact.

The Lost Child

The lost child is the quiet one in the family. They do their best to stay out of the way and avoid creating any additional difficulty. The lost child watches as the chaos plays out among their family members and does what they can to blend into the background. Lost children tend to be younger or middle children, already used to their older siblings taking the lead. They all but disappear amidst the tumultuous environment in their home.

Help is Available for the Families of Addicts

The Effects of Addiction on a Family

Just like addiction causes a variety of effects on the person using substances, it leads to another set of the impact on the family. The exact outcomes depend on things like which family member struggles with addiction, the age of the children, or whether children live with their parents. Not all families experience the same effects, but oftentimes they are at least somewhat similar.

Financial Hardship

It isn’t cheap to support an active drug habit. Many addicts funnel all their money toward getting the substances they need. They may have a hard time keeping a job, so they ask for money, food, shelter, or other forms of support. Some might ask for help paying for a treatment facility or other program.

Families tend to take on financial responsibility for an addicted family member. Parents allow children to live with them while trying to get “back on their feet.” They pay for lawyers or post bail if legal troubles start. They’re all too familiar with the balance of how to help an addict without enabling them.

Increased Risk of Abuse

As addiction progresses, people become unpredictable and difficult to deal with. They are erratic, frustrated, and angry, lashing out at those closest to them. Drugs and alcohol affect an individual’s inhibitions. People are more likely to act out while under the influence.

One of the most profound ways addiction affects the entire family is the higher risk of abuse. Whether it’s emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, the risk increases. There is a higher likelihood that family members may experience violence at the hands of an addict.

More Addiction in the Family

Another impact of addiction on the family unit is the chance that another family member will also turn to substances. Children who grow up with a family member that abuses drugs are more likely to turn to substances. They follow the example set for them. Siblings might use substances to escape the chaos in their house.

Often, substance abuse “runs” in families. The chances of having more than one person in a family with a problem are high. This creates another pattern of addiction, and the cycle starts all over again.

Broken Families

The effects of addiction tear families apart. A person who struggles with addiction usually pushes their family members to their limits. This leads to severed ties and broken families. Some people can only take so much before they decide to cut their loved one from their life, so long as they’re in active addiction.

Some use to the point that their spouse or the state declare them incapable of caring for their children. Children who lose a parent or parents to drugs are left with feelings of abandonment and betrayal that may cause them to write their parents off for months, years, or even decades.

Help is Available for the Families of Addicts

Help is Available for the Families of Addicts

It’s difficult to cope when a loved one struggles with addiction. You may feel like you’ve tried everything to get them the help they need. When your attempts are unsuccessful, though, it’s painful and disheartening, to say the least. Even if your loved one chooses to continue using substances, finding help for yourself may be one of the best choices.

Help isn’t only available for people who live in active addiction; it’s also available for addicts’ families. If you feel the effects of your loved one’s substance use, seeking help for yourself is a great way to begin your journey to healing.

Individual Therapy

Individual therapy is the first line of defense for someone trying to find help as the family member of an addict. It’s simple to seek out therapy if no one else in the family wants to look for help. Individual therapy focuses on you, your goals, and the things that keep you from achieving them. 

It’s also a useful avenue to explore the effects of your loved one’s addiction. Therapy helps you identify which roles you took on to cope and how you can overcome those harmful ways of operating in the world.

Family Counseling

Family counseling is a great choice for multiple family members trying to find help. Bringing multiple members together allows clinicians to watch family dynamics play out in a safe and supportive environment.

Family counseling is useful whether the addict is interested in participating or not. Your family can heal without the involvement of the loved one using substances. Focusing on your healing instead of directing attention outward is a way to take back your power. It allows you and your family to recognize that you still have control over many areas of your lives.

Al-Anon Family Groups

Al-Anon Family Groups are an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous that focuses on the struggles unique to the loved ones of alcoholics. Al-Anon teaches you to find contentment and happiness independent of your loved one. After years of feeling controlled by their behavior, Al-Anon frees you from their hold over you. You learn to find freedom and joy amidst the chaos, even if it remains under your roof.

Help is Available for the Families of Addicts

How to Get Your Loved One Into Treatment

Having a family member with an addiction problem is painful, confusing, and overwhelming. The situation is not hopeless, though. Treatment facilities can help people with substance abuse problems and the families who love them.

If you want to know how to get someone into rehab, we can help. Peace Valley Recovery provides well-rounded, comprehensive addiction treatment programs. If your loved one wants to stop using drugs and alcohol, we can help.

We know the pain of caring for someone who can’t stay clean and sober, and we are here for you. Call us today to speak with an admissions counselor who can answer any questions. You don’t have to walk this path alone!

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