The Effects of Substance Use on Family Members

Some people view substance use as an individual behavior that can be done in isolation, away from family members who may not approve. But in most cases, a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) affects not only the person using drugs or alcohol, but everyone around them as well, particularly their family members. Because a person’s physical, psychological, and emotional health are all impacted by substance use and addiction, it’s nearly impossible to preserve relationships without the impact of the condition taking its toll. Even the closest bonds can become severely strained when a family deals with a loved one fighting an addiction. Whether it’s a child, parent, or partner, addiction changes the lives of anyone who loves the person.

It’s important to recognize that SUD is often not an individual choice but rather a disease of the mind and body. Unfortunately, there is a lot of shame and stigma for individuals struggling with this disease and we have to be careful about the way that we talk about it because negative connotations associated with the condition can serve as barriers to long-term recovery. At River Oaks, we seek to compassionately honor the very real experiences of those struggling with substance use and actively work to remove the stigma associated with it.

As we explore the impact of substance use on family members, please refrain from judgment or criticism toward the individual. We share this information to spread awareness of substance use and the importance of seeking therapy when it hurts families. Our purpose is to guide families toward resources, NOT to present the individual using substances in a negative light.

Impact on Children

When a parent is struggling with a substance use disorder, children often receive less guidance and support. The substance use takes priority in the mind of the individual. Although parents may genuinely love their children, it becomes difficult for them to exercise healthy parenting skills when using drugs or alcohol. The more severe a substance use disorder becomes, the more difficult it becomes to be a healthy parent to their children. Many children with parents who have an SUD report feeling neglected, abused, mistreated, or uncared for. The experience often robs them of having a normal childhood and leads them to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. Many children grow up feeling angry or resentful toward the parent, leading to broken relationships and divided families. In these cases, it is so important for the children to have outside resources for support and safety. Recovering from this family trauma is often a lifelong journey, which is why adult children of substance use parents often need extra support in adulthood as well.

Impact on Parents

When a teenager, young adult, or adult (of any age) struggles with a substance use disorder, their parents often feel guilty, helpless, and extremely distraught. Many people develop a substance use disorder for reasons that have nothing to do with the parenting they received growing up, but parents nonetheless often wonder where they went wrong and feel terribly worried about the life of their teen or adult child. Parents feel helpless as they desperately want to help them seek treatment and recovery but their wishes may be met with opposition from the individual. Parents have a little more say with teenagers, but if the person using substances is an adult, parents cannot force them to seek treatment. It can be a devastating situation for these parents and the negative impact bleeds into the relationships of siblings and other relatives as well. This is why many parents and family members of a loved one struggling with addiction often seek their own personal therapy to heal from the pain they face.

Loss of Trust

It’s crucial to remember that, despite often having good intentions, most individuals struggling with substance use or addiction cannot hold themselves accountable to their responsibilities or relationships due to the negative impacts of the condition. During the most intense parts of their struggle with drugs or alcohol, individuals may engage in lying to try to conceal their substance use. They may become deceptive or unreliable. Their substance use condition may also impair their judgment, causing them to steal money or treat people abusively. These behaviors are often triggered by both physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms and ultimately lead to a loss of trust in relationships. A critical part of recovery is learning to reestablish trust and repair these bonds, which is why family therapy may be necessary in one’s treatment journey.

Impact on Significant Others

For SUD individuals with significant others, delegating tasks and responsibilities to their partner often becomes their new normal. As a result, their partners might become enablers, sometimes without even realizing it. Partners often become exhausted after having to independently manage day-to-day home responsibilities, finances, chores, making decisions, raising the children, and covering for the individual using substances. The relationship is not balanced and it leads to resentment. Partners of people struggling with substance use are also more prone to anxiety, depression, and stress-related illnesses. But because the individual struggling with substance use often consumes more attention, partners may suppress their own emotions and invalidate what they are going through. This is why we urge partners to seek professional help. Partners of individuals struggling with substance use deserve a safe space of their own to process and heal from how they have been affected.

Financial Stress

Individual struggling with substance use and addiction may experience a loss of employment due to low attendance or poor performance on the job as a result of their addition. In addition, there may be legal repercussions that surface during one’s struggle with their SUD, which can often be expensive to deal with. Substance use treatment options can also be expensive and can result in a worsening financial situation for a family. To make matters worse, the disease of substance use and addiction may impair the individual’s judgment so much that they begin to use the only money they have left to obtain more drugs or alcohol. As their funds become depleted, they may develop the false belief that their loved ones will always be able to financially support them, which is not typically the case, especially when there are broken relationships. Sadly, cycles of financial stress can have enormous impact on a family. Early intervention is vital for families. It’s so important to know the warning signs of substance use, seek help early on, and develop strong support systems to maintain sobriety.

Written by Lauren Presutti

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