Navigating the Tides of Addiction as a Family

Navigating the Tides of Addiction as a Family
Written By: Clinical Psychologist
Reviewed By: Counselling Psychologist
MA Psychology Pennsylvania State University, USA
Last Updated: 04-01-2024

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You might have seen traffic accidents caused by drunk driving. Like some epidemics, substance abuse is a mass killer. Addict is a safety hazard to the addict himself, to the family and to society. Addiction leaves the scars of its ravages to the next generation as well. 

The addict s children do not grow up normally because their family does not have the suitable emotional atmosphere for their normal growth. Many children born to alcoholics also become alcoholics when they grow up. 

Addiction is a severe threat to national development. The addict is often an Impact of Substance Abuse unproductive element in the society. Addicts add to the burden of social health care. Addiction also brings about a number of accidents. 

This blog demonstrates the implications of drug abuse at the various strata of the society. It describes in detail the wider implications of drug abuse as it affects children in the families and economic development for the society and nation.


Everything is interrelated in the world. In a nation the family is the basic cell of tile society. The health of the nation is measured in terms of the health of the family. Addiction affects mostly families. Addiction leads to deformation of the character of the children. When one member of the family abuses drugs-be it a parent, child, or relative-it causes disruption and disharmony within the family and every family member suffers. Drug abusers often become so obsessed with the habit that everything going on around them, including the needs and situations of other family members is ignored, leading to a breakdown of the family as an entity. 

The nation pays a heavy price for drug abuse in economic terms as well as in human terms. Most of the drug users are 18 to 35 years of age. Some; of them are employed and others are not. The employed ones create serious problems in their workplace. Absenteeism, sloppy work habits, accidents at the workplace and poor relationship with co-workers, are some of the serious consequences of drug abuse.

Many drug abusers who are in their teens are unemployed. They do not become productive members of the nation. They become a burden on the nation s resources. They form part of the crime syndicate; their health care becomes an additional burden on the nation s resources. They may become unwitting agents of epidemics and incurable diseases.

Drug abuse has another price to pay: the ecological cost. Deforestation, soil erosion, pollution of water sources, the extensive spraying of herbicides, degradation of ecosystems, changes in the hydrographic system, demographic pressure and population migration are indirect consequences of drug production.

The environment is being subjected to the general expansion of illicit drug producing crops; the inevitable backlash to the pitiless rigours imposed on millions of small farmers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are affecting the world economy, which takes little account of their precarious circumstances. In order to make a living, these men and women are reduced to planting coca, opium poppy or cannabis.

The cost the nation or the world pays for drug production may be indirect, but very enormous. Many drugs like cannabis, cocaine, opium, and tobacco are produced from plants. Since the cultivation of these crops is often illegal, the operators move to forests and destroy them to grow these crops. 

Substance Abuse and Family 

The damaging effects of drug abuse on the family are perhaps those, which pose the greatest threat to the nation. When own members of the family abuse drugs- be it a parent, child or a relative-it causes disruption and disharmony within the family and every member suffers. Drug abusers are often obsessed with the notion that everything is going on smoothly around them, including the needs and situation of family members. Their ignorance lead to a breakdown of the family functioning. 

The abuser often demonstrates certain criminal behaviour by disturbing the family atmosphere, and as a result suffers physically and psychologically. The effect on the family members due to the loss of a beloved one-very often an earning member is very painful. A very serious aspect of drug abuse often left unsaid is that when the younger ones see the older ones using drugs, they wrongly assume that drug abuse is normal and is an accepted behaviour. 

Parents cannot face the fact that their children take drugs, or attribute their deviant behaviour to something the parents did not do while in bringing up the child. Shame and embarrassment far too often prevent them from acknowledging their child s drug problem. In failing to confront the problem, they cannot help the child find the courage and the appropriate means to stop taking drug. 

Parents of young drug abusers have often suffered profound emotions within their own family of origin. They have a strong sense of having lost their own parents through death, divorce, rejection or neglect. They are inversely occupied with the issues of attachment and separation, loss and restoration. 

Alcoholism is often called a family disease. The term reminds us that all the members of the addict s family have a share in the disease of the addict. There is no way the family members can escape the influence of an addict s behaviour. Every day the members are forced to confront the addict s destructive and threatening deviousness. The family members respond to this with anger, fear, shame and confusion. Their response also becomes similar to that of the addict.  

Many of the addicts are married, and among the alcoholics, majority of them are householders. But their ability to play social roles become impaired to the point where he or she is unable to play such roles as spouses, as a parent and wage earner in a satisfactory manner. The alcoholic can also be very difficult to live with at times loving, and outgoing, but on other occasions moody, depressed, and even abusive. Families of addicts are likely to be broken through divorce or separation. 

In case of alcoholics, as the addiction to alcohol worsens, his or her family attempts to cope with the problem in a series of stages: First in the direction of family disorganisation. For example, as her husband s drinking problem begins to emerge; the wife reacts by denying that a problem exists. When the denial does not work, she will attempt to cope with the problems by herself alone. Initial attempts to deal with the problem may involve discussions with him, trying to control the availability of liquor, and setting up norms. She may agree to drink with him under the condition that both of them stop at a certain point. This attempt will fail and the crisis will worsen, leading to further deterioration of the relationship between them.

As the drinking habit worsens, the husband ceases to earn anything for the family s maintenance and the wife is forced to assume this role. She may also take up the role of the disciplinarian in the family, which should be performed by the husband, as the father of the children. The saddest thing at this juncture is that the husband who is an alcoholic has his life revolving around the bottle. Similarly, the other members of the family also have their life revolving around the bottle, of course in a different manner.

The wife for example may resent the fact that her husband s behaviour sometimes forces herself to be his nurse rather than his wife, or she may behave as a guilty person because unconsciously she feels responsible for her husband s problem.

No two alcoholic families are alike and not two families respond to the addiction of its family members in the same way. The impact of addiction on the poor class of families and the rich class will be different. In any case, addiction in the family puts heavy strain on the family with disastrous consequences. 

Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence  

Daily expertise and research has shown that domestic violence is a common occurrence in the drug abuser s family. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to violence caused by addiction. "Child abuse, wife battering, dowry deaths, marital violence and desertion are common manifestations of domestic violence" (UNDCP 1999). Drug abuse, particularly alcohol abuse and violence go together. 

Aggression or violence is a basic human instinct, which humans share with the rest of the animal kingdom. The purpose of this nature given instinct is for self preservation. For humans it is only his rationality that keeps his aggressive nature under control. For other animals, any perceived threat could trigger aggressive responses. 

As we discussed earlier, all psychotropic substances act on the cortex-that area of our brain that controls reasoning-and make it dysfunctional. Because of the social-religious and political conditioning and compulsions, human beings are forced to keep his aggressive instincts under control. But when drugs like alcohol act on the cortex, it removes these compulsions and controls and the individual releases all the pent up emotions.

Violence is the release or the expressions of bottled up emotions of the addict. And we can easily understand that an addict has a lot of emotions like guilt, anger and frustration which is released this way.

Drug addicts manifest many aspects of socially unacceptable behaviour. Violence, aggression, grandiosity, irresponsibility, selfishness and gambling can all become part of the chemical dependent life-style. Violent drug related crimes constitute a large proportion of the crimes committed in South Asian Countries- ranging from between as high as 70% in Nepal and 20% in India. (UNDCP Report 1999).

The same report reveals that a study on violence conducted in Sri Lanka found that 60% of women were subjected to domestic violence; 29% of women who were battered reported that their children were also subjected to violence by their husbands. 82% of them believed that alcohol was one of the reasons for the violence.

The fatalistic attitude of women that they must endure hardships caused by sons, husbands and brothers who use alcohol also contribute to the continuance of this habit. (WHO Report 1993).

The National Council of Alcoholism (USA) estimated that as many as 63 % of the alcoholic families now in treatment have experienced domestic violence. About the same percentage of the-children from alcoholic families have been physically abused or have witnessed such abuse occurring on a regular basis within the families. 

Addictive Families and Children

Addiction affects children more than all other categories. Adults can choose to live in the same family or leave it. Children can neither choose to leave the addictive family, nor do they have the means to do it. A wife or a partner may feel helpless about another family member s addiction, but the truth is that the child is truly helpless. The characteristic of childhood is its spontaneity, to be itself, to be carefree. A child in an addictive family cannot be carefree. It is always withdrawn, anxious, and fearful. In an alcoholic family the children do not receive the attention and nurture, which they should normally receive. 

Due to the addictive behaviour of one member of the family the whole attention of the family will be focused on that family. That effect of such an environment is permanently disastrous for the child. They lose their identity; they become victims of depression, anxiety, and stress and will have severe adjustment problems in the society.

Since they cannot get positive attention they would seek negative attention by playing truant. Some of the children may be hyperactive, restless, and unable to concentrate on any serious matter. 

Researches show that domestic violence is total harmful to the emotional and mental development of a child. Even if they are not physical by abused, witnessing violence lead them copy on parents and siblings also tend to be abusers in adulthood. Many children of the alcoholics become alcoholics. 

Studies in India and other nations show that domestic violence is common in drug abuser s family. Women and children are the usual victims of this violence. Child abuse is the most serious form of this violence. It is estimated of every four female victims of sexual abuse, three are minors. 

From what we saw above, the children growing up in an addict s family have a number of personality and identity problems. We would discuss a few of them here below. 

Lack of role model: Children learn the sense of right and wrong from the families, especially from their parents. A child growing up in an alcoholic family does not have the opportunity to learn this. They witness only denial, guilt, aggression and other behaviour from their parents. The child is often punished for what he has not done, and rewarded for no achievement. 

The behaviour of the alcoholic is confusing for the child. When not drunk the father is all loving, when drunk it is all chaos. The child at the age is not able to understand concerns on Family and on National Development along with the understanding of what love is and what violence is. The father is just a bundle of contradictions and the child learns to imitate him. 

Lack of self-esteem: Self-esteem or self-worth is the core of one s personality. It is that which gives a person identity. Self-worth is learned from the behaviour of the person who is important to the child. If a child is accepted, and loved by the parents, the child gradually begins to reorganise that he is good, wanted, and / worthwhile. From childhood, if a child is abused, and not valued, it will begin to feel that he/she is a useless person, whom nobody wants, and nobody loves. The negative feedback a child receives in turn of quarrels, fight, punishment and rejection are all internalised. 

Lack of honesty: An addict is a chronic liar, even when he can tell the truth. Children in alcoholic families learn to lie. The father lies about his addiction. The mother lies about the father s addiction to protect the image of the family. The father makes many promises and never keeps them. All that though a child sees and hears in an addictive family is often untrue. The child thus learns that it is all right to tell lies. In some cases the children may be punished for being honest and expressing their feelings. 

Denial is a form of dishonesty. An addict lies to protect his self-esteem, or his 1 dignity. Accepting the truth is too painful for him. Similarly the child too cannot accept that his father is an addict. So he denies it, and gradually he gets used to denying all unpleasant things of life.

Depression: A member or an addict s family has many unmet needs. An individual to grow up as emotionally healthy needs to have his basic physical, emotional and psychological needs met at the proper time. When this does not happen the child suffers from depression, as a result of deprivation of the basic human needs.

In this connection it is important to note that many children grow up in well to do I families which may not be addictive but where the parents do not have enough time for the child, because they are too busy. Such children grow up in depression.  

The conclusion to this section is that a family with an alcoholic member is likely to encourage growth of emotionally unhealthy citizens. Some of these children turn out to be very ambitious, or very rebellious.

Some will be ready to please everybody while some others may behave like clowns. All these behavioural skills of life are not taught at the right time by the parents, because the parents were too busy with the problem of addiction within the family. 

Family Response to Addiction 

As mentioned earlier, family remains the first and most important socialising institution, where safety and security for the individual is found while facing difficulty in life. Drug abuse is a sign that a family has failed to help the child in its maturing process. It is sign of helplessness from the family like a person attempting suicide, because he cannot cope with the tasks of life.

A family copes with addiction in different ways. Almost in all cases the methods are unsatisfactory, indirectly encouraging addiction of the children. If the family has adopted a healthy method, it would have been able to solve the problem successfully. We shall describe below the various responses of families in the face of addiction. You can identify that they are all negative methods. 

When an organism is faced with a life-threatening situation it will try to preserve itself at the cost of other not essential aspects of life. In case of an earthquake, a person may jump from the top of a high-rise building, risking fracture or even serious injury. In case of the dress catching fire, the person will panic and run, causing the fire to spread. If someone hits you on the head, you will raise your hand to protect the head at the risk of damaging your hands.

Similarly, the family of the addict responds to addiction in certain ways, which are often damaging to the individual. The six-stage process is given below. 

1) Denial: Denying and justifying the drinking problem of the member. When the family becomes aware of the problem, it would refuse to accept it as a problem or deny the problem. The family members might also find other reasons justifying the addict s drug habit. They would try to force him to stop  drinking by doing things for him, by promising him rewards and incentives with the likelihood of him cutting down the unhealthy behaviour. They would try to bribe him in different ways. 

2) Withdrawal from the society: The family withdraws from all social interactions, for fear of being identified as a problem family. They will try to protect the addict from the consequence of drug abuse by taking responsibility for his actions. They might also try to control his drinking by breaking the bottles or destroying the drug paraphernalia. In some cases the wife might join him to drink in a controlled manner. 

3) Loss of control: When the family members dance to the tune of the addict for a long time and the addict continues to behave the same way, taking advantage of the good will of the family members they begin to feel angry. They may not express this anger, but they will begin to feel that everything about the family is going out of control. 

4) Re-organising the Family System: This is one of the early methods, which the family found effective. The family members take up the responsibility of the addict and fulfil the roles the addict is supposed to fulfil. This becomes more evident when the addict is the head or an important member of the family. The wife might begin to do a double shift to earn some extra money or the eldest child might take up the responsibility of running the household.  

5) Breaking away from the addict: As the addiction becomes intolerable, the family members cut themselves away from the addict. The family may disown the addict; get him arrested by the police. The wife might decide to divorce the husband, if that is socially acceptable. 

6) Letting the addict face reality: This is the most helpful stage where family members break through their denial and let the addict face the crisis. 

Emotional Response of the Addictive Family 

We would like to repeat that addiction is a family disease. No member can escape the consequence of the addiction of one member of the family. They suffer physically as well as emotionally. Here we are describing how the family responds emotionally addiction: 

Guilt: The family members feel that addiction of a dear one is due to some of their own fault. This response is strengthened by social stigma attached to addiction. The family blames themselves or some outsider for the tragedy that has fallen on them. Self blame leads to more guilt and shame. The family members may start blaming each other as well. 

Anger: The family members try their best to adjust themselves to the demands of the addict. They may not express their resentments and may not even meet their own physical needs to placate the addicts. This builds up anger in the minds of the family members. This suppressed anger can lead to other psychosomatic illnesses. 

Grief: The family has lost all interest in life. They also feel the loss of a very dear person. There are sorts of loss, like material goods, good name of the family, personal dignity etc. grief needs to be expressed, just like any other emotion. But they feel that no one understands them. They suppress the grief and suffer alone. 

Shame: Living in an addictive family is very stressful. The behaviour of the addict is highly unpredictable. The members do not know what to expect from the addict. They are afraid of their own life and their future, there is too much tension in their relationship. 

Loneliness: Loneliness produced by the combined effects of shame, hurt and fear cannot be avoided. To protect themselves from further emotional pain, they try to hide emotions and do not disclose them to anyone outside. They will talk a lot but never express their feelings. They are deeply alone. 

Behavioural Response of the Addictive Family  

All behaviours are expressions of emotions. Addictive families have certain predictable behavioural patterns. The intensity of these behaviours may differ, but they do not have similarities in contents. 

Protecting: The family members want the addict to get out of the problems. So they take up the work and duties he himself has to perform. Instead of making him realise and face the problem arising out of his irresponsibility, they will do all his work, clear his debts, and tell lies about his absence. This process is called enabling. We will be discussing more in the next section, i.e. codependency.  

Controlling: The family members make all kinds of efforts to control the addictive habits of the addict. They may buy a fixed amount of drugs for him to use at home; they may try to destroy the supply of drugs in his possession, and they may try to accompany him whenever he goes. The more the addict is controlled, the more he will resist and blame the family for his addiction.

Blaming: The addict s actions are damaging for the family. This makes the members angry. But often they do not express it to avoid confrontation. When something goes wrong seriously in the family, the members will begin blaming the addict for the misfortune. 

Denial: No one would like to admit unpleasant realities, which they cannot control. One way to handle such situations is to deny them. 


"Co-dependency is an emotional, psychological and behavioural condition that develops as a result of an individual s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems. In other words it means being a partner in dependency. 

When a person takes to drugs he will not be able to continue his habit for a long time if somebody is not there to help him to face the consequences of his action. Without them he would be forced to face the consequence of his drug habit, before it becomes a case of full-blown addiction.

Even at an early stage of addiction the addict s behaviour is already becoming unhealthy and antisocial, that it s natural consequences would have prevented him from going any further. But those who love him step into protection. As the disease progresses, they come in with more and more protection. This can be called enabling.

The function of a person who does the enabling is called codependency. They are people who keep on reacting. They react to their own problems, pains and behaviour of others. They react to their own problems and pains. They will have to be guided to respond rather than to react. Responding is answering to a situation. Reacting is denying the situation. 


1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, September). Helping someone you care about: How to talk about substance use.

2. SAMHSA. (2020, September 30). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

3. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (n.d.). Helping a loved one with addiction.

4. Azrin, N. H., & Powell, J. N. (1968). Behavioral contracting with alcoholics.

5. Flinn, M. A., & Garland, A. N. (1988). Family therapy for alcoholism and drug abuse.

6. Meyers, R. J., & Smith, J. E. (2000). Clinical handbook of alcohol and drug abuse treatment protocols. Springer Publishing Company.

7. O Farrell, T. J., & Cutter, F. (1978). Taking care of yourself: The complete family guide to alcoholism. New York: Simon and Schuster.

8. Wegscheider, C. (1976). The miracle of change: Overcoming substance abuse and codependency. Hazelden.

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