The environment in which you were raised plays a significant role in
predicting your susceptibility to substance use addiction.

Breaking the Family Cycle of Addiction


Failure to address the family context of substance use disorders within addiction treatment is like trying to scratch the surface of a problem without examining the roots that lead to it. Sure, there’s peer pressure for kids who are in school or life in general that may prompt an adult to turn to alcohol or drugs. According to research, however, family dynamics have the power to negatively or positively influence the treatment of a loved one’s disorder, which also suggests that family history shapes a person’s predisposition to addiction.

If my parents have a substance use disorder, does that mean I’ll have it too?

Genes play a large role in the way your body processes the ingestion of alcohol and other drugs, but the environment in which you were raised plays an equally large, if not larger, role in predicting your susceptibility to substance abuse addiction. There are sets of “substance-specific” genes and other genes that render you vulnerable to addictive behavior in general, but your DNA alone does not account for addiction. In childhood, environmental factors such as parental monitoring and peer pressure shape a child’s predisposition; in adulthood, gender is factored into an individual’s genetic sensitivity to life’s stressors such as demands of relationships.

What patterns shape future addiction?

In psychology, attachment is defined as “a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Disruption of attachment between a mother and her child occurs when the mother uses drugs to (1) compensate an alienated sense of self; (2) manage anxiety and fears about herself and others; (3) regulate emotions; and (4) find a substitute for normal bonding that takes place in relationships. When a mother cannot bond with her infant, it sets the stage for potential future emotional, behavioural and substance use disorders with which the child will struggle through adulthood.

Secrets make you sick, but denial is a major pattern in families where drug and alcohol misuse is prevalent. When one parent is using and the other is allowing the substance use to continue, it creates an atmosphere of dysfunction, especially if the non-user is instructed to keep the addict’s habits a “secret” from other members of the family outside the home. The problem of misuse escalates as the addict’s habits spin out of control and destroys the family unit; when confronted, the user denies that he or she has a problem with drinking or drugs, despite the evidence of emotional turmoil, domestic violence and verbal/sexual abuse. Children who grow up in this home environment learn to adopt this reality as “normal” unless they are exposed to other families where alcoholism and drug misuse do not exist. They internalize destructive relational patterns and later drop out of school, which will inevitably affect their socioeconomic trajectory in adulthood, thus increasing their vulnerability to substance use addiction.

How would a substance use counsellor help break that cycle?

Substance use counsellors are trained addiction professionals who assist clients, their families and significant others who will affect a client’s recovery journey. Successful therapists recognise the powerful role of relationships in addiction treatment; they examine family history to determine genetic and environmental risk factors so they can develop an individualised treatment plan that will minimise future relapses.

Brook McKenzie, Contributor

Brook McKenzie serves as the Director of Clinical Outreach and Family Liaison for New Method We… Read moreBrook McKenzie serves as the Director of Clinical Outreach and Family Liaison for New Method Wellness. An experienced interventionist, Brook works directly with the family to facilitate an interruption of the loved one’s active addiction cycle, discontinue enabling factors and help expedite the loved one’s entry into treatment. Born and raised in East Texas, Brook’s own family endured several years of pain and frustration at the hands of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Today, he shares his past experiences freely with an eye toward mentoring families.