There is a growing body of research focused on the dynamics of addiction within the context of family relationships. Drinking parents have profound and lasting effects on their children's physical, social, and psychological development. Children of alcoholic parents are twice as likely as those with non-alcoholic parents to experience inadequate supervision, neglect, physical abuse, and imprisonment . Offspring of drinkers are more impulsive, less likely to delay gratification, and prone to aggression and hyperactivity. They report low self-esteem, high social anxiety, tend to be depression-prone and are prone to develop drug-misuse problems. Children of alcoholics drink more, show more symptoms of alcohol dependence, report more frequent use of other drugs, and display more drug-related negative consequences. Parental inconsistency is the most significant factor, adversely affecting emotional development and placing the child at greater risk of drug abuse. The family cycle of addiction is perpetuated by these family dynamics, affecting not only the addict but also all those who care about the addict.

Partners of addicted individuals suffer from the disease. Let us consider a psychosocial perspective of the effects of alcoholism on spouses. This view combines preexisting aggressive personality difficulties and environmental stress factors. Wives of problem drinkers report significant levels of stress. The use of ineffective coping mechanisms, including avoidance, care taking, and rescuing of others, impairs self-worth and increases the risk of suffering depression and abusing drugs or alcohol.

The effects of addiction extend to the entire family system. For example, family violence, incest, separation and divorce have all been linked to parental drinking. Alcohol abuse is hypothesized to skew the balance of growth and stability within the family, resulting in a rigid, inflexible system. Rather than maintaining healthy regulatory behaviors such as routines, rituals, and problem solving, the alcoholic family's system begins to revolve around alcohol. For the family to retain a sense of "stability", the use of alcohol is perpetuated. In this way, the more alcohol becomes an integral part of the family dynamics, intergenerational transmission of the disease is increased.

The negative parenting characteristics and familial discord often associated with having an addicted parent are particularly harmful. Alcohol misuse is more likely in alcoholic homes where parents tend to be unpredictable, uninvolved, rejecting and abusive. Parental unpredictability is a central factor. Children exposed to this environment develop a basic belief system and worldview that the world and the people in it are unpredictable. This increases risk taking in general, including substance abuse.

In addition to parenting influences, the manifestation of an addictive predisposition in adolescents is strongly influenced by peers. Peer pressure is positively associated with adolescent smoking and drinking. In contrast, teens whose parents are involved, have higher expectations for their behavior, and hold them in high regard are less likely to initiate drug use. The risk of intergenerational transmission is decreased when addicted parents enter recovery.

Addiction is therefore a multifactorial disease that expresses and perpetuates itself within the context of family systems. Understanding addiction conceptually as a family disease highlights the need to address all members of the family in prevention and treatment strategies of societal programs and treatment strategies.

If you have a loved one that you have a concern about addictive behavior, perhaps the best you could do for all concerned is to seek help for yourself. The good news is that, if addiction can be seen as a progressive disease that affects all family members, then treatment starting with one family member can similarly radiate recovery, hope, and health throughout the entire family.

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Author's Bio: 

John Derry, B.Sc.Phm., M.A.
Founder and Director,
A Home Away Retreat Inc.