For the vast majority of Americans and their families, the most favored “drug of choice” is still alcohol, and it will probably remain that way for the rest of their lives.
The cold beers in the local bar after a hard day’s work; the glass of wine – or two – with dinner in the evening; the nights out with friends at the weekend – all of these have literally become unspoken American institutions.
Alcohol, as we know, is incredibly popular in Western societies, it’s easy to get hold of (regardless of age, to be honest…), perfectly 100% legal, and in the majority of families, an expected rite of passage for our teenagers.
However, alcohol also remains as one of the U.S.’s most predictable killers, too – taking thousands and thousands of American lives prematurely every year.
And you don’t have to be a chronic alcoholic for that to happen, either.
Recent analysis from the Centers of Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has found that excessive alcohol use was responsible for more than 140,000 deaths in the U.S. each and every year during the period 2015–2019.
Put another way, the mortality rate equates to more than 380 alcohol-related American deaths every single day.
Due to the presence of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. for the last 2 years, and the huge spike in alcohol consumption across the nation, that yearly mortality rate may well rise when the figures are in for 2020 and 2021.
Substance Use in Families Under Strain
The fabric of many U.S. families has been put under significant strain over recent years, particularly with the coronavirus pandemic and the myriad of its subsequent social and economic consequences – lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, social distancing, business and school closures, furloughed staff, reduced access to health services, to name but a few.
Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that “self-medication” with substances (such as drinking more alcohol) is a good way to relax, calm your anxious nerves, make you feel happier, and reduce your stress.
The Consequences of “Self-Medication”
Even though many aspects of daily life have returned to normal, many American families – husbands, wives, caregivers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – are now finding that having a loved one in the home who is constantly drunk, stoned or high has created far more strain, more stress, more anxiety and more unhappiness than what they were actually experiencing in the first place.
Substance use and abuse, and the possible development of a substance use disorder (SUD) does not simply affect the family member who is drinking or using.
It will powerfully and uniquely impact every single other member of their family, too.
For the children in the family home, it can even lead to alcohol or drug issues and a SUD later in life.
Understanding the Impact: “Attachment Theory” & “Systems Theory”
Substance use, abuse and addiction has the potential to dramatically turn a perfectly happy, cohesive family into an unhappy, dysfunctional group of isolated people who happen to share a house.
To better understand how and why this happens, it is important to look at two theories that can explain such a dramatic change – in people who presumably love one another: “Attachment Theory” and “Family Systems Theory.”
What is Attachment Theory?
Developed by John Bowlby, an eminent British psychologist and psychoanalyst, “Attachment Theory” provides a way of understanding the development and quality of relationships between family members, and how, through their mutual relationships, they are so strongly connected to each other.
For example, if a child experiences a parent as always being responsive and nurturing to their needs, a secure attachment will form. However, if the child finds the parent to be either unresponsive or inconsistently responsive, an insecure attachment can form.
An insecure attachment can result in the child suffering with anxiety, depression, and a failure to thrive.
Add into the equation a parent with serious drug or alcohol issues (such as a SUD) – someone who is mood altered, preoccupied with getting high, or spending time simply recovering from the effects of their substance use – and, as you would expect, any healthy and secure attachment will begin to suffer.
Furthermore, this relational attachment system between family members provides protection against psychological problems and illness. Without it, a child is even more likely to have problems with stress, trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental illness.
Lastly, Attachment Theory also states that “the quality of the parents’ attachment system that developed in infancy will affect their ability to form healthy attachments to their own children and with other adults.”
What is Family Systems Theory?
All “system theories” in general are about how one part of a system interacts with another. Specifically, “Family Systems Theory” states that a family is its own complete system, and that all parts of the system will have no choice but to respond when one part no longer functions normally.
Clinical addiction experts apply this theory when addressing the treatment of substance use disorder (SUD). Put simply, the reasoning is this: an individual cannot be fully understood or successfully treated without first understanding how the individual functions in his or her family system.
A significant element of the theory is the need for homeostasis, which can be defined in this context as “a state of balance among all the system parts needed for the system to survive and function correctly.”
In other words, family members will naturally adapt their behavior and their responses to try to keep the family working as normally as possible.
It’s the very reason why people become “enablers” – someone who “encourages or enables negative or self-destructive behavior, eg. substance use, in another person just to keep them happy.” This can even mean getting hold of their addictive substance for them, or providing the money to do so.
To summarize how these two theories affect a family, consider this:
The family is normally an important, integral part of all our lives. When your own family stops working as it used to do, because of substance abuse, familial relationships suffer, and a vital piece of who you are and your life isn’t there anymore – it simply disappears.
Lastly, your own behavior, responses, and interactions will adapt and change to try to maintain the state of homeostasis – a balance – in your family, however dysfunctional it has become because of the substance use.
7 Ways Substance Addiction Negatively Affects the Family
Substance abuse and addiction is often seen simply an issue for the individual, but in reality, it is an issue for everyone around them, too, and none more so than those in their family – mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.
Furthermore, it’s widely (yet mistakenly) believed than a chronic alcoholic or a drug addict is a solitary person, one of life’s real loners – with no time for anything (or anyone) else other than satisfying the addiction, and getting drunk or high.
In reality, the vast majority – both men and women – live within families.
One of the biggest changes experienced by families when addiction takes up residence in their household is the rapid increase in intense and conflicting emotions – feelings felt by every family member.
Most families understand their addicted loved one means them no harm, and they are not deliberately trying to create problems. The response from the family, then, is a positive one – usually helpfulness and empathy.
However, addiction often brings out the worst in people – lying, dishonesty, manipulating behavior, and other kinds of emotional abuse. The result of this is the exact opposite – the loss of empathy, and other signs of negativity.
1. The Harm Substance Addiction Inflicts on Children
In the U.S., it is estimated that around 1 in 8 children will grow up with a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol. Unsurprisingly, the effects of this substance use will go on to play a significant and damaging role in the child’s development.
However, and what may be surprising to many, is exactly how extensive this damage can be to the child as they are now, the child as they grow, and the child in the future – for example, when they are fully grown, and have children of their own.
Would-be parents begin families because they want to bring their own children into the world – healthy, happy children who go on to become healthy, happy adults, and possibly, one day, parents themselves.
Substance addiction in the household, however, is so damaging it has the potential to go against everything the idea of family stands for. A drunk or high parent won’t be able to meet the needs of their child – from basic things like preparing meals and their child’s hygiene, to other needs, such as having friends, and receiving an education.
Here are just some of the ways a child and their development can be harmed if they have a parent with substance issues:
- An addicted parent poses a greater risk of child abuse; abused children will then have an increased risk of substance addiction later in life;
- An addicted parent results in a child with compromised and weakened emotional and mental health;
- An addicted parent also results in children with low self-confidence, low self-esteem, weakened physical health, and poor social development; and
- The lasting effects of growing up in a house with an addicted parent includes their children being unable to form normal emotional attachments in later life – known as an “attachment disorder” – with a future partner, and any children they bring into the world themselves.
2. The Breakdown of Family Relationships & Ties
The presence of an family member with a SUD in the family home creates an environment of distrust, fear, and confusion. A clear practical consequence of living in such an environment is family members isolating themselves from each other, and, as we know, it can even cause parents to separate and possibly divorce.
For the children involved, apart from what we learned in the previous section, it can mean leaving home far earlier than was planned – perhaps to stay with a friend or a relative.
Obviously, there is a chance the family might simply break down completely, with the emotional ties and connections to each other destroyed.
3. Living with Increased Stress
Substance addiction for one family member causes untold and continuous stress in the members of the family around them. For example, an addicted person no longer cares about daily functions and routines like paying bills on-time, raising children, and buying groceries.
Those responsibilities become the complete responsibility of someone else, who is then forced to act as an “enabler” simply by doing the things that need to be done.
The result? They are exposed to a seriously increased risk of stress-related medical conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety and depression. There is also the possibility that they simply explode and bare their true emotions all at once, causing even more stress in the home.
4. “Walking on Eggshells”: Physical & Mental Abuse
Substance addiction makes the user irrational, which can lead to arguments with others. Worse, it can also make the user aggressive, and lead to physical and mental abuse. Such an environment tends to put everyone on edge – “walking on eggshells” as the saying goes.
With everyone behaving abnormally, the likelihood of physical abuse increases. For children, witnessing such behavior regularly can lead to them misbehaving, being rude and disrespectful, and playing truant from school. It can even turn them into abusers themselves.
It is also more likely to cause them to turn to drinking or drug use as their relative did, either now or later in life.
5. Financial Distress
Substance addiction is not cheap; it’s also likely to lead to poor performance or attendance at work, and possible unemployment. After a while, the family will begin to have issues paying for necessities like food, clothing, utilities, and rent or mortgage.
6. Legal Issues
Being an alcoholic or a drug addict can often result in the user committing criminal offenses, and possibly arrested and charged, eg. driving under the influence (DUI), drug possession or physical assault. This invariably leads to costly legal issues for those concerned.
7. Substance Withdrawal Symptoms
One of the clearest signs of substance use disorder (SUD) is when the user experiences withdrawal symptoms when the dependent person craves their drug of choice. These can manifest as moderate symptoms and discomfort, like sweating, anxiety, and increased blood pressure, to, potentially, even severe symptoms like seizures, “delirium tremens” (with alcohol use disorder / AUD), and coma.
Simply witnessing these symptoms can become extremely stressful for other family members.
SpringBoard Recovery: Family Therapy
SpringBoard Recovery, located in Scottsdale, AZ. (on the outskirts of Phoenix), is a highly respected drug and alcohol addiction treatment center who fully understands the negative and damaging effects of addiction on the family.
Family Therapy is a cornerstone of SpringBoard Recovery’s successful range of intensive outpatient treatment programs, through their integral practice of resolving family & relationship conflicts, family reconciliation, and family support.
Comprehensive rehabilitation plans are provided for every new client seeking addiction recovery, and family relationships, their part in a recovery support network, and family therapy are all significant factors in deciding the best possible plan for each individual.
Contact us today, and begin a new future for you and your family.
Lastly, you can find “Further Reading” by clicking on the titles below:
- What are the Effects of Alcoholism on the Family?
- Living with My Alcoholic Son or Daughter
- How to Cope with Living with an Alcoholic Spouse
- Huge Increase in Alcohol Use & Abuse During COVID-19 Lockdowns
- Am I an Alcoholic? – Self-Assessment Quiz
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Deaths from Excessive Alcohol Use in the United States. April, 2022. Available at CDC.gov.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. July, 2013. Available at NLM.NIH.gov.
- Google Books. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. May, 2006. Available at Books.Google.com.
- Google Books. The Science of Family Systems Theory. March, 2021. Available at Books.Google.com.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Exploring the Role of Child Abuse in Later Drug Abuse. July, 1998. Available at DrugAbuse.gov.
- Help Guide. Attachment Disorders in Children: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment. August, 2021. Available at HelpGuide.org.