How To Break The Cycle Of Addiction In Families

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 29, 2021

Substance use disorders can often run in families. However, this isn’t inevitable. Breaking the cycle of addiction in families is possible through prevention, honesty with oneself, and seeking help when and if substance use does become a problem.

How To Break The Cycle Of Addiction

Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease,” both because it can be passed down in families and because the effects of addiction can affect loved ones within a household.

Having a parent, sibling, or another family member with a history of substance abuse can increase a person’s risk for developing substance use disorder. But this isn’t inevitable.

Breaking the family cycle of addiction is possible. So, too, is recovering from the effects of a loved one’s addiction on your life and other consequences of drug or alcohol abuse.

Learn more about the impact of addiction on families

Does Addiction Run In Families?

According to substance use experts, substance use disorders—also known as substance abuse or addiction—can be passed down by family members through genetic factors.

Children of one or more parents with addiction, for instance, can be at heightened risk for developing substance abuse problems later in life.

The heritability of substance abuse, however, can also be influenced by a “nurture” element. That is, drug or alcohol use behaviors can be learned and influenced by environmental factors as well genes.


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What Are The Effects Of Intergenerational Substance Abuse?

Growing up in a family affected by addiction can have lasting effects on a person’s mental and psychological health in a household. This is particularly true for children of parents with SUD.

It’s not easy to witness this struggle, particularly at an early age.

Households with a parent(s) affected by addiction are more likely to be afflicted by:

Growing up with a parent or other family member with drug addiction can be a form of trauma, especially if the individual’s addiction is severe or results in serious consequences.

Children may have to grow up more quickly than their peers and take on more responsibilities in the household. They may struggle to open up to others and build emotional walls to keep themselves and their family “safe.”

These lessons—of secrecy, self-sufficiency, staying on guard, and compliance—can bleed into adolescence and adulthood.

How To Break The Intergenerational Cycle Of Substance Abuse

There is no single path to recovery for families afflicted by addiction. That is, there is no cookie-cutter approach.

Rather, there are a variety of ways that family members can break free from this cycle, based on their needs, and begin the path towards healing.

Preventing Drug Abuse

One strategy that can help break a cycle of addiction in families is substance abuse prevention.

Substance abuse, particularly in families, isn’t always preventable. However, there are certain protective factors and strategies that can be used to reduce the risk of its development.

Drug addiction prevention strategies include:

  • education about drug and alcohol abuse
  • parental support and supervision
  • early intervention
  • learning supportive coping skills
  • treatment for mental illness or trauma
  • participation in positive activities
  • strong community connection
  • enhancing social and emotional competence
  • abstinence from substances

Substance abuse prevention can occur within the home, schools, or in communities. This may occur through family-focused intervention or through a structured school or community prevention program.

Understanding Risk Factors

Being aware of risk factors for drug addiction can by itself be a helpful tool for preventing addiction or identifying it early in yourself or a family member.

Risk factors are, by definition, factors that can increase a person’s risk for developing a certain condition or illness, such as alcoholism or drug addiction.

For instance, some risk factors for substance abuse include:

  • childhood trauma
  • family dysfunction
  • drug availability
  • poverty
  • mental illness
  • early aggressive behavior
  • poor impulse control
  • early alcohol or drug use
  • chaotic home environment
  • lack of nurturing from parents
  • social rejection
  • major life changes (e.g. job loss, divorce, moving)

Close, healthy relationships with family members—and others around you, such as friends and other sources of social support—can be preventative factors.

Not all risk factors are preventable. Understanding them, however, and their potential influence on drug or drinking habits can help prevent substance use from becoming a problem in a person’s life.

Knowing The Signs Of Addiction

Being able to identify problematic drinking or drug habits can play a role in breaking the family cycle. This is a key early intervention strategy, as a component of drug education.

Common signs of addiction include:

  • worsened job or academic performance
  • withdrawing socially from others (or socializing with a new group)
  • increased frequency of drug or alcohol use
  • using drugs or alcohol to decrease stress or cope with life difficulties
  • physical signs of substance abuse (e.g. red eyes, track marks, tremors)
  • dramatic and unexplainable changes in weight
  • changes in personality or unstable mood
  • increased depression and anxiety
  • changes in sleep schedule
  • defensiveness about drug or alcohol use
  • withdrawal symptoms within hours of last use

Signs of drug addiction may differ somewhat depending on a person’s age, personality, the drug used, and other environmental and personal factors.

Use Of Supportive Coping Skills

Substance abuse can run in families in part because drinking or drug use can become familiar for children who grow up with its presence in the household.

Learning supportive coping skills—for managing stress, healing from trauma, or dealing with other life difficulties—can help prevent a person from turning to drugs or alcohol as a balm.

What this can look like:

  • seeking professional counseling
  • talking to a friend or trusted family member
  • spending time with friends
  • engaging in positive activities you enjoy
  • deep breathing or meditation practice
  • journaling or turning to other creative outlets for expression
  • engaging in healthy habits (e.g. staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet)
  • regular physical exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, swimming, dance)
  • practicing self-care

Alcohol and drugs are unsupportive coping tools that can harm a person’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Supportive coping strategies, on the other hand, can be protective and beneficial for health.

Be Honest With Yourself

If you do develop what appears to be a problem with drugs or alcohol, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be honest. Be patient and show yourself compassion.

Playing the blame game, or chastising yourself for a problem with drinking or drugs, isn’t a solution. This will worsen the problem and is unlikely to help you get out of a cycle.

What being honest with yourself might involve:

  • take note of frequent or heavy substance use
  • identify consequences of your substance use
  • ask yourself the hard questions (e.g. Is my substance use impacting my ability to work, see friends, care for myself or a loved one?)
  • identifying signs of addiction
  • asking a friend or family member for their insight

Moreover, if you’re unsure whether you have a problem—but suspect you might—consider talking to your doctor or finding a substance abuse professional to speak to.

Ask For Help

While addiction can for some be a lifetime struggle, it isn’t a life sentence. Achieving recovery is possible. For many, this begins with a treatment program, or another form of intervention.

What help for a drug or alcohol problem can involve:

  • talking to an individual counselor or therapist
  • detoxification services (as needed)
  • recovery support groups
  • inpatient or residential rehab
  • family therapy

Getting help for a problem can begin with first talking to a doctor. Or, it can begin with contacting a treatment center or treatment provider directly for information about rehab.

What’s important is that you seek help in some form. Talk to someone. Disrupt the cycle of silence and secrecy. Know that you’re worth the effort.

Find Help For Alcohol Or Drug Addiction

If you or a loved one are struggling with drug addiction, we can help you find appropriate treatment options and begin the path toward an addiction-free future.

Call our helpline today to connect with one of our trained specialists and get more information about the best addiction treatment options near you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 29, 2021


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