By definition, addiction is a chronic disease. It results in the pathological pursuit of reward or relief through substance abuse and other behaviors. Addicts become destructively dependent on a substance, which can result in broken relationships, financial ruin, and sometimes death.
Not only can addiction hurt and tear apart families, but family patterns of addiction are also common. Of course, having an addict in your family doesn’t guarantee that you’re destined for addiction too.
Why Family Patterns of Addiction Exist
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that the “single most reliable indicator” for risk of future substance abuse is family history.
But why is this the case? It comes down to two factors: genetics and environment.
Research suggests that at least half of a person’s susceptibility to addiction is linked to genetics. For some substances, such as cocaine or nicotine, this percentage may climb as high as 60-80%.
Contrary to popular myth, there’s no one “addiction gene.” Scientists and researchers have identified multiple genes that may contribute to addiction vulnerability, and an understanding of genetics and addiction is likely to become clearer with advances in genetic testing.
Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), explains that scientists may some day use a dopamine receptor known as D2 to predict addiction to alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. Those with fewer D2 receptors are likelier to become addicted to these substances than people with more D2 receptors, and the number of D2 receptors is determined in part by genetics.
Family environment is also a factor in family patterns of addiction, although it may be less significant than genetics.
Children are more likely to engage in future substance abuse when their home is a place of frequent conflict or aggression, when at least one parent is depressed or has other psychological issues, and when the child experiences some degree of neglect. All of these factors are more likely to be present when one or both parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Additionally, children who grow up witnessing drug or alcohol abuse are more likely to view this as normal behavior, which they may mirror in the future.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that teens who have witnessed their parents drunk are more than twice as likely as their peers to get drunk during the average month and three times likelier to smoke cigarettes or marijuana.
They’re also likelier to be able to easily obtain prescription pills and to have friends who use hard drugs like heroin or meth. Of course, all of these behaviors could lead to substance abuse issues.
If you are genetically predisposed to addiction, grew up witnessing substance abuse, and are the product of a dysfunctional household, you may be at risk for inheriting family patterns of addiction.
How to Reduce the Risks
You won’t automatically inherit a drug addiction or alcoholism. First, you will have to try drugs or alcohol. Next, you will have to begin consistently using drugs or alcohol. At this point, your family genetics and environment could take over and result in addiction.
Avoid underage drinking or early drug use, as early use increases the risk of addiction. Choose your friends wisely, and don’t associate with substance users or heavy drinkers.
Be proactive in managing your physical and emotional health. Eat well, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Seek professional help if you find yourself stressed, anxious, or depressed. If possible, consider family therapy to address underlying familial issues from your childhood.
Knowing that you’re at risk for family patterns of addiction, you may also consider choosing to abstain from all substances or to carefully manage your consumption.
Family patterns of addiction are not a myth. Genetics greatly influence vulnerability to addiction, and growing up in an environment influenced by substance abuse can increase your risk as well.
Of course, the decisions you make now will ultimately determine if you develop substance abuse issues. Make wise choices, lead a healthy lifestyle, and seek family therapy if possible.
Be aware that you may be predisposed to addictive behavior, and use this knowledge to make healthy and positive choices that will break the cycle.