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How does Addiction Affect the Family?

How a parent with a drug or alcohol problem affects the whole family?

If you grew up in an alcoholic home, you're probably familiar with the feeling of never knowing what to expect from one day to the next. When one or both parents struggle with addiction, the home environment is predictably unpredictable. Argument, inconsistency, unreliability, and chaos tend to run rampant. Children of alcoholics don't get many of their emotional needs met due to these challenges, often leading to skewed behaviours and difficulties in properly caring for themselves and their feelings later in life. If you were never given the attention and emotional support you needed during a key developmental time in your youth and instead were preoccupied with the dysfunctional behaviour of a parent, it may certainly be hard (or perhaps impossible) to know how to get your needs met as an adult. Furthermore, if you lacked positive foundational relationships, it may be difficult to develop healthy, trusting interpersonal relationships later on. Children of alcoholics often have to deny their feelings of sadness, fear, and anger in order to survive. And since unresolved feelings will always surface eventually, they often manifest during adulthood. 

The son or daughter of a parent abusing alcohol or drugs can also end up trying to adapt. They often adopt a role which helps the family, but they may get stuck in the role and neglect their own needs. Sharon Wegscheider describes some of these roles. Can you see yourself in one of these roles, or in elements of a couple of them? 

  • The Family Hero

This is often the eldest in the family. This person is responsible, works hard for approval, and often appears successful. But inside, this person often feels insecure, as if things are always going to go wrong, and feels incompetent, confused and angry.

  • The Scapegoat

 This person feels blamed when things go wrong. Everyone focuses on this person’s faults, which provides the family with a distraction from the real problem. So this person often seems rebellious, troublesome, law-breaking, tough… and may be at risk of abusing drugs themselves.  Inside, this person is often full of fear, hurt, rejection and loneliness, feeling angry at the unfairness of how they are treated.

  • The Lost Child

This son or daughter appears as a dreamer, drifting above the troubled waters that bother other people. But inside, the person is not as contented as they appear. They are quietly hurt, angry, lonely, with a feeling of being inadequate.

  • The Mascot

Sometimes also referred to as the clown, the person in this role is often charming and cute, fun to be with, quick to make a joke. Sometimes they are quite hyper-active and flit from one interest to another; sometimes quite fragile and easily hurt. But they are good at hiding the hurt, and other feelings of loneliness, insecurity, fear and low self-esteem.

If you recognize any of these roles as being ‘you’, the first step to putting things right is to take time for yourself, to talk to a friend or a counsellor. Stop thinking about the addicted person for a while (easier said than done!) and pay attention to your own real needs. 

How a partner with a drug or alcohol problem affects the other partner?

It is not easy to live with a person whose drinking or drug use is causing problems. The drinker or drug user is often full of conflict, torn between wanting their drug or alcohol and not wanting the harm that always seems to follow. They often blame others when things go wrong.

The partner or spouse of the addict or alcoholic often doubts themselves: Am I not a good enough partner? How can I get them to stop taking that drug? How can I protect my children? How can I hide this from my family and neighbours?

The partner often feels hurt, ashamed, afraid, and has an overwhelming sense of failure. Unfortunately, many partners then work even harder to ‘fix’ the situation, taking on extra responsibilities, trying to cover up the mess… fighting a losing battle.

If you are that partner, the first step towards putting things right is to take some time for yourself, and get the support you need. 

How a son or daughter with an addiction affects the whole family?

Whole families can seem to go to pieces when there is a son or daughter using drugs or alcohol. Parents fall out with each other over how to handle the situation, while other sons or daughters can get blamed for being a bad example. The drug user gets so much attention that others are neglected. Rows and bad language upset the peace. If peace and love are the oxygen of life, then the whole family is gasping for breath.

In an airplane, if the oxygen masks are released, parents are supposed to put on their own masks before attending to their children’s masks. The same is true here. You must look after your own needs before helping the one causing the problem.

Even if you are the only person in the family who recognizes the alcohol or drug problem, it is worth while getting support for yourself, from a friend or a trusted teacher or a counsellor.