A Blog by Araminta Jonsson

Addiction is felt by the whole family. When addiction is present within a family system, the environment can often be a very painful place to be. More often than not, those who live with addicted family members can become traumatised by what they experience. The addicted family can be characterised by emotional, psychological and behavioural instability - causing an unnatural amount of stress for all that are exposed to it.

What might be experienced by those in addicted families:

For those that live with an addicted family member, normal routines can be disrupted by scary, abnormal experiences. Often they might think or believe one thing, but be told that something else altogether. This may make them doubt reality and even give them the sense that they are going crazy. As the family unit feels the situation slipping out of control, the addict, as well as other members of the family, may lie, deny and manipulate the truth to try and maintain some semblance of “normality” or order. ‘The entire system becomes absorbed by a problem that is slowly spinning out of control.[1]’

The impact of addiction on children within the family:

When children are forced to live in an extremely intense emotional environment, it can effect them in a number of different ways. In our current society the family is still meant to be ‘the primary source of attachment, nurturing, and socialization for humans[2]', therefore when the system becomes dysfunctional a disruption of attachment may occur. Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby in 1988. He theorised that the primary relationship between the mother and child, beginning at the time of the child’s birth, would act as a kind of template for every future relationship the child would have. Therefore if an insecure attachment forms due to the mother’s inability to be present for her child, either because she is abusing substances herself, or because she is stressed out and worried about another addicted family member, then an insecure attachment would develop. The insecure attachment could mean many future problems for the child such as ‘trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental illness.[3]’

The family system and addiction:

Most families are able to maintain what is known by family therapists as homeostasis. ‘Homeostasis refers to the idea that it is the tendency of a system to seek stability and equilibrium.[4]’ Homeostasis is a key concept in the family system theory, which is a theory as to how families work, developed initially from the biologically based general systems theory. Every model of family therapy has adopted parts of the family systems theory since its conception in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. In order to fully understand the effect addiction can have on the family system, it is important to understand this idea of homeostasis. When alcohol or drugs are present within a family system, the ability for the family to reach the desired level of homeostasis is severely impaired. However, rather than stop trying to balance the family system altogether, more often than not, the other family members will strive to keep the balance in potentially unhealthy ways. For example, in order to hide a father’s drinking from her children, the mother may clean up after him when he is sick, or make excuses for him if he disappears for varying lengths of time. While the mother may think that by behaving like this she is keeping the family balanced, and protecting her children from seeing their father worse for wear, she is actually enabling the addicted family member to continue. She is also putting herself under increasing pressure to maintain a sense of equilibrium, which is unlikely to go unnoticed by her children.

We know that both genetic predisposition and environmental factors are contributory elements in an individuals substance use disorder. The family where the individual grew up is influenced by at least one, if not both of these factors. Therefore those who are suffering with a substance use disorder cannot be understood or treated effectively without taking the whole family into account. ‘Addictions researchers have confirmed the reciprocal relationship between the disease of addiction and the environment.[5]’ In order to understand the disease and ensure the sufferer gets successful treatment, the whole family system must be taken into account.

The cost of addiction on the family:

Addiction places a substantial economic stress on society and costs billions of pounds a year in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care. However these costs are the tangible, financial costs that we can see. They do not take into consideration the other invisible costs such as the emotional, physical and financial toll suffered by family members of an addict. Nor do they account for the suffering caused by crimes committed under the influence or motivated by a need for drugs. ‘In Europe, estimates of the intangible costs of alcohol abuse range from €154 to 764 billion annually.[6]’

The importance of family in addiction recovery:

Not only is the family hugely emotionally, physically and financially impacted by an addicted member, but it can and also unfortunately play a large part in enabling the maintenance of addiction within its system. Because of this it is also true to say that those suffering from a substance use disorder cannot be treated effectively without involvement of the family as a whole. Educating the whole family on the subject of addiction is extremely important when one member is trying to recover. The attitudes and preconceived ideas that other family members may have about addiction will also influence a person’s chances of getting and remaining sober. If the family acquiesce to receiving sufficient education around addiction they will be able to play a much stronger role in the suffering members treatment and recovery.

As we discussed the idea of homeostasis previously, when one member of the family changes or becomes sober, this can knock the dysfunctional balance of the family off course. Sometimes members of the family will struggle with this, having become used to the precarious, dysfunctional balance that had existed for a long period of time. This may result in them inadvertently sabotaging the addict’s recovery. It is therefore important that the whole family receives therapy in order to understand the changes that are happening within the family system and encourage recovery as opposed to impeding it.