The debate as to whether addiction is a genetic disease or acquired behavior has not been settled among scientists, but both can be true. Within the family, both genetic and relational factors impact one’s risk of addiction. More discussions have focused on how environmental factors increase the risk of addiction, but it is just as important to understand the importance of family life in addictive behaviors so that you can take effective preventative measures. Like other diseases and disorders, addiction can also become a family epidemic, with multiple generations of one family struggling with substance use disorder (SUD).
Is Addiction a Genetic Disease Within the Family?
Family life is the first and most formative place one learns about their environment and develops our self-image. Researchers in psychology and human development find that events in early childhood can have lasting effects on one’s life choices. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that there are three indicators in early childhood that influence one’s risk for drug abuse: parents’ emotional absence, ineffective parenting, and early exposure through an addictive caregiver. Together, these factors make up the environmental risks children have from their families.
Apart from these family environmental factors, research shows that one generation’s substance use may change structures in the brain so much that addiction can become genetic and heritable. According to NIDA, “Family studies that include identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genetic makeup.” In many instances, addiction begins in the early teen or young adult years. Children of people with SUD consider substance use normal because they likely had early exposure to it. Mothers who use drugs or alcohol while pregnant can increase the risk of their newborn children’s genetic inclination for addiction.
Given all this research, this does not mean that a high-risk family environment and genetic influence guarantees the development of addictive behaviors in later generations. This knowledge should not lead to fatalism: it should simply teach you that there are inherited risk factors. If anything, they can help find the causes of SUD and come up with prevention measures, especially early in life.
How Do Family Dysfunctions Contribute to Addiction of a Later Generation?
Family dysfunctions increase the risk of SUD because they create a less-than-ideal environment for children’s overall wellbeing. Certain personality traits can increase one’s own or one’s children’s risk for addiction. These include compulsive behaviors, poor impulse control, narcissism, and the tendency toward emotional abuse or physical violence. One article published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors says addiction can pass from grandparents to parents and then to children because there are “deficits in inhibitory control” and “impairments in executive functioning and problems with self-regulation.”
It is not hard to imagine that when parents or caregivers of a family are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, children find themselves having to take up responsibilities far beyond their maturity level. Some become substitute parents to younger siblings. These may all lead to social isolation and withdrawal from friends. A sense of shame tends to develop and damage the child’s self-esteem. Parents who are struggling with addiction themselves are unable to care for their children’s conditions, and they expose children to their addictive lifestyle. All these are triggers to toxic stress and then addiction if given access to drugs and alcohol.
How Can the Cycle Be Broken?
It is difficult for a family suffering from SUD to heal by itself. People generally lack awareness of reflecting on themselves or their own origin. Breaking the cycle of generational addiction often involves caring adult bystanders intervening. Relatives, teachers, and community workers have the potential to make a difference in a child’s life. Although sometimes the odds are against the child growing into a healthy lifestyle, positive role models can certainly decrease the risk. Recovery treatments for adults can also work for children, including journaling, creative activities, relaxation techniques, therapies, and counseling.
At a treatment center, you can meet with counselors who are trained to help diagnose the relationship between family dynamics and addiction. They examine family history to determine genetic and environmental risk factors. They can then develop a tailor-made treatment plan to address these risks. Councilors who specialize in relationship skills can also meet with you to talk about how to change dysfunctional traits in the family and mitigate the risk of passing addictive behaviors to future generations. Remember, there is always hope and seeking professional help is the first step.
Growing up with parents who struggle with addiction may have put you at a much greater risk of substance abuse. You may have a loved one whose addictive behaviors are negatively influencing the future of his or her child. Things do not have to be this way. You can take action starting today. You or your loved one can break the cycle by seeking professional help and making healthier choices. Laguna Shores Recovery can help you along the way. We understand the trauma and pain of generational addiction, and we have successfully helped people out of it. Here at Laguna Shores Recovery, our staff and experienced health professionals have helped many people break the cycle and rebuild their family life. We also believe in proactive intervention and a holistic approach to sustainable recovery. Our cognitive and behavioral therapies, family relationship programs, 12-step groups, and outpatient offices are designed to assist your recovery. Call us at (866) 229-9923.