Families of Addicts

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Families of Addicts

When a family member suffers from substance abuse, it affects the entire family unit. No family is the same so each situation is unique to itself. Today, the family structure has changed from the typical nuclear family type. All families are different therefore counselling for families is unique to the specific family.

Family members and non-addicted spouses are left to pick up the pieces. This puts tremendous stress on everyone in the family. From having to pay the addict’s bills, pick up their responsibilities to bailing them out of bad situations. 


families of addicts

Codependency is common interaction pattern found in families affected by addiction.  It is characterized by excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.

Codependency affects both the addict and people around them. The addict is codependent with their substance and the spouse, parent or other family member can become codependent with the addict. Codependency can also be displayed between adults and their addicted teens, youth or adult children.

It can be difficult to manage the difference between supporting and enabling. The Codependent provides a caregiving role beyond the boundaries of normal interactions. It involves a confusion in motivation. The codependent family member believes their “rescuing” behaviour is helping. However it is harmful to the addict as the addict never has to take responsibility for their choices. Signs of a codependent in an addicted relationship:

  • Covering up problems with drugs and alcohol
  • Taking care of bills and other responsibilities 
  • Obsessively thinking about others 
  • Difficulty with healthy boundaries 
  • Relying on the substance to get through the day (codependency for the addict)

The majority of non-addicted family systems are open; meaning they have friends or family members over to socialize or visit with, and they accept help from the resources of their greater community. When codependency for addiction becomes an issue these family systems become closed systems. There becomes an unspoken rule of “don’t tell” which means nobody outside of the family can know what is going on or even help. Shame is the core of emotion in these families.

Addicted youth:

When a family faces a situation with an addicted youth it can take a different toll on the family than if it was an adult. When the addict is a youth there are more parental responsibilities and safety concerns when the child is a minor. As a parent, you have legal obligations to take care of the youth by providing shelter, food and financial support. 

In a lot of cases, youth seek substances due to some form of trauma in their lives. Most parents may believe that their teenager has had no hardships in their life to cause them to take that route. Especially today, youth are exposed to bullying, sexting, cyberbullying, social media, sexuality, and more that can cause major depression and anxiety. Bullying and sexual abuse can cause youth to go through major trauma causing them to turn toward drugs or alcohol to mask those feelings.

families of addicts

Addicted parent 

When the addict in the family is a parent, both the spouse and children are greatly affected. If a child grows up viewing one of their parents suffering from addiction, it can cause major differences in their development. When children are in an addicted household they are forced to change their behaviour to survive the chaos. Children often begin behaving differently because they have to grow up quicker, need an escape from the addiction, or feel the need to shoulder adult responsibilities. 

In these types of situations you may see an older child becoming the ‘rescuer.’ This child understands what is going on and they try to reduce the chaos in the home. This may be physically breaking up fights between parents, putting themselves between the addict and other members of the family. This becomes a “parentified child” – which means they step up in the parent’s absence (taking other siblings to school/daycare, cooking, cleaning, tasks beyond
their age level etc). In these cases, the child often ends up taking these caregiver/rescuer traits into adulthood causing serious emotional and physical needs. Other survival patterns that children turn too are hiding, or isolating themselves from the situation as a scapegoat. This may cause children to become shy and withdrawn into adulthood as they often felt “invisible” as a child. Younger children in an addicted home may turn to humour and ignorance. This is because they do not have the mental capacity to fully understand what is really going on. These children often grow up into adulthood “feeling” like something isn’t right about themselves, their responses, their relationship and their behaviour. 

All these survival patterns can leave children at risk for future mental health problems like addiction, anxiety or depression in adulthood. 

Adult Children of Addiction 

An Adult child is the term given to someone who grew up in an alcoholic, addicted or dysfunctional household. They portray traits that shows neglect as a child. The adult did grow up psychically, emotionally and psychologically. However they grow up with patterns that helped them survive the addiction which are not typical to those unaffected by addiction. When children grow up in a household surround by this pattern, they can pick up those traits when they become adults. Common traits of an adult child are: 

  • Avoid conflict 
  • Fear of losing control 
  • Denial 
  • Compulsive behaviour 
  • Depression 
  • Grief 
  • Abandonment issues 
  • Low self esteem

Many people that grew up in these types of households tend to want to forget their past. 

Unfortunately, in a lot of cases they face an event with which they do not have the emotional capacity to cope. Adult children of alcoholics often fall into the same role as their parents or become a codependent. This means they may become the addicts themselves one day or they may enter a relationship with an addict because this pattern, while uncomfortable, is very familiar.

Tips to Help the Family Cope

You can not force an addict to get help. However, you can take the steps you need to be there for the person by supporting them in their journey to sobriety. For people who are codependent it is important to get help so that they know the difference between supporting and enabling. Here are some tips to begin 

  • Learn about addictions 
  • Family and individual therapy sessions
  • Self-care (sleep, exercise, personal joy)
  • Manage expectations 
  • Plan family time together (ie, meal times, game night etc.)
  • Find local support groups 
  • Celebrate milestones – even the smallest ones

Addiction causes the whole family to struggle. Seeing someone close to you struggle with addiction can be extremely difficult to see. If you are interested in starting the counselling process to discuss how addiction is affecting your family. Please call us today 705-735-9107.

If you are seeking help as an addict or for an addict here is a great list of places across Canada here