Substance abuse affects more than 24.6 million Americans, or roughly some 9.4% of the total adult population. Of these, a significant portion are part of a working family, and may have spouses, children, or close-knit family systems in which relatives including parents and grandparents rely on them or live in the home. As a result, family members often become victims of substances through the actions and behavior of the addicted family member.
In one study, it was shown that parents are actually significantly more likely to rely on drugs and alcohol than single persons, as 13% of children live or have lived in a household where a parent or guardian abused drugs (prescription or illicit) and an additional 24% in a household where at least one parent or guardian abused alcohol.
While substance abuse heavily impacts the life of the substance abuser, it also negatively affects the lives of everyone around the abuser, especially close friends, family, and children.
Roles of the Addict Within the Family System
Families are diverse, exhibit different power hierarchy, and rely on different members for food, care, and funds depending on the family. For this reason, the role of the addict can be diverse depending on their role within the family, the structure of the family, and their eventual impact. Most take one of two roles in the family system, that of the provider or that of the dependent, although some exist between the two roles.
Provider – Providers include parents and guardians and are typically the primary homeowners or rent or mortgage payers. They contribute significantly to the household income, contribute to family care, and either work inside or outside of the home for the primary benefit of the family.
The loss of a provider to addiction can be detrimental to the household. Addicts take risks, are unable to prioritize others over their addiction, and may lose their job, cease caring for family members, or spend money intended for the household on their substance, creating strong repercussions for dependents. Addiction changes the brain so that it prioritizes the reward system and the instant gratification of the substance over that of the long-term rewards of paying rent or mortgage, keeping a job, buying groceries, or caring for children, which means that addicts may cease to be providers, putting the burden of fiscal or personal responsibility onto another member of the family.
In some cases, providers may fall under high functioning addiction, where they maintain their job and responsibilities alongside their addiction. This can negate many of the fiscal and care based repercussions of addiction, but will still negatively affect the family’s emotional health and relationships.
Dependent – Many addicts also fall into the role of a dependant, or person who is primarily cared for or provided for by another family member. Dependents include children, aging parents or other relatives, spouses, and close relatives who have become a part of a household they do not contribute to. Dependants will begin to neglect responsibilities, may lie or steal, behave erratically, and become a drain on the financial and emotional state of the household while addicted. Teens, elderly family members with prescription painkillers, and stay at home spouses with few responsibilities typically fall into this role.
The Impact of Family Members Functioning in the System
Every family member plays a part in an addiction and most of the time, the roles taken are predefined ones which are commonly seen in addicted families.
Enabler – An enabler is a family member who enables the addict to continue using by supporting their lifestyle, hiding their addiction from others, handling their responsibilities, helping them financially, or even covering for them completely. This role can vary a great deal and can be a family member, friend, or close relation, but is always someone who tries to help but at the same time enables the addict to continue using. Common examples include spouses who step up to get jobs or take care of children or household responsibilities when the provider becomes unable to do so because of their addiction, parents who continue to pay rent or pay for mistakes, therefore financially enabling the addiction, and even refusing to leave after instances of domestic violence. In time, this may develop into codependence, where the enabler is mentally unable to leave or to cope without caring for the addict.
Scapegoat – Scapegoats are persons who are blamed for addiction or substance use, and are often abused emotionally or physically while the addict is under the influence. However, scapegoats can also be jobs, lifestyle factors, and other issues that are not people so these may not be present in every family relationship. Here, the substance abuser blames their use on the scapegoat (“if you wouldn’t nag”, “If the kids wouldn’t cry all the time”, “I need to relax after work”, “I need to destress because of this bill”, etc) as an excuse to continue their substance abuse. In most cases, addicts will resort to using scapegoats to escape their own sense of shame and guilt for using.
The Victim – Victims are often dependents and spouses who rely on an addict for fiscal, emotional, or mental support. Because substance abusers are rarely able to maintain responsibilities, including emotional ones, other family members suffer and become victims.
Changes in Family Relationships
Because addiction changes the behavior, priorities, and emotional reactions of the addict, it deeply affects all levels of a family relationship.
Domestic Violence – Studies show that substance abuse greatly increases the likelihood of domestic violence including violent arguments between spouses and parents, abuse, and other forms of violence. Some studies show that as much as 75% of all reported domestic violenceresulted from one or more parties using a substance. However, domestic violence or abuse is not a necessary consequence of substance abuse and not all addicts become violent.
Hierarchical Changes – When providers and leaders become addicts, they relinquish their responsibility, often forcing other family members to step up to ensure that the entire family does not go hungry or lose their home. This type of shift in responsibility and therefore in hierarchical roles creates permanent changes inside of the family structure, so that a family leader who becomes a substance user will likely be permanently ousted from their role as a caregiver. This change is not a detrimental one, but it can intrinsically change the family, their lifestyle, and their relationships.
Reduced Trust – Addicts, whether dependants or providers, are unable to prioritize family and relationships over their substance. This results in lying, hiding substance use, and failing to maintain responsibilities. In some cases, dependents may begin to steal or to lie to fund their addiction. In all cases, this results in an increased level of mistrust for the addict, causing emotional pain for other family members, and increased guilt, shame, and isolation for the addict – all of which feed into a negative cycle, typically resulting in more substance use to feel better.
Financial Difficulties – Addicts become impulsive, irresponsible, and often cannot maintain a job while heavily addicted. This can result in the addict spending necessary funds on their substance, can result in poor decision making resulting in unnecessary expenses, can result in increased medical bills, lawsuits from driving under the influence, and other unnecessary difficulties. Families with an addicted member often suffer from increasing financial difficulties, and may be pushed into requesting money from parents or elders not living in the home. Many addicts also increasingly demand funds from parents and relations, who may be guilted into paying to keep the addict in their home, to prevent a home from being repossessed, or otherwise to provide basic food and shelter for the addict.
Emotional Trauma – Parents and family members substitute their substance for their emotional relationships, slowly swapping one out for the other. The sudden seeming lack of love or care in a close relationship, aggressive or abusive behavior, and apathy can be emotionally traumatizing for relatives, spouses, and partners. Emotional trauma also relates to guilt and shame, where children and spouses or partners will often blame themselves for the addict’s behavior, rationalizing it by blaming themselves.
The Effects of Substance Abuse on Children and Teens
While 37% of all children will be affected by drug or alcohol use by parents or guardians, they are the party that suffers the most from an addiction in the family. Nearly 300,000 children suffer from child abuse and neglect every year, including abandonment, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse at the hands of a parent or guardian. Addicts become erratic, irrational, and lose control of their emotions and reactions. However, even situations without domestic violence can be severely damaging and traumatic to children. Persons who are addicted become emotionally withdrawn, distant, and often uncaring and unable to provide the strong emotional, moral, and mental guidance developing children need.
Children who are raised in an environment where one or both parents are addicted to or are consistent substance abse are more likely to become addicts themselves, are more likely poorer emotional relationships growing up, and are less likely to be able to form bonds with others as adults.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance use disorder, it is crucial that you get help. No one plans to become addicted, but addiction can and will ruin your life, change how you behave to family members, and can cause you to make decisions that irreparably damage your relationships. For parents, this is especially crucial, as drug abuse during a child’s formative years can damage them emotionally and mentally, which will affect them for the rest of their lives. Taking the time to seek out professional help and to get clean is the only way to begin to repair the damage.
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