The effects of drug and alcohol use in the family go well beyond the direct effects on the person using them, including both immediate family members and often extended family members, are all affected in some way by the individual’s substance abuse. Addiction impacts upon a family’s finances, physical health, and psychological wellbeing.
Living with a loved one who uses drugs or alcohol has a huge impact on the whole family, often not seen or acknowledged by others. Here are some of the ways in which families are affected:
People often feel that they can’t share what they are going through with other family or friends for fear that others will judge them or treat them differently as a result. They may worry what other family members may think about them.
Stigma and the stress of dealing with substance use in the family can lead people to isolate themselves from friends, family, activities and social networks. It may become easier to isolate rather than having to explain and address the issues occurring.
Stress and anxiety
Living with a substance user can be unpredictable and causes stress and anxiety in many different ways. Especially when people feel they have nowhere to turn, little or no support with nowhere to offload; this can build up over time to high levels that are very difficult to manage.
Due to the nature of addiction, substance users may act out in ways that cause trauma to those around them. This might be through abusive behaviours, manipulation or a dramatic change in relationship dynamics.
Substance use can put huge strain on relationships, not just with the user themselves but throughout the wider family and social networks as everyone struggles to find their own ways to cope. The substance becomes an unwelcome additional family member.
Family members are sometimes the victim of criminal behaviour by their loved ones such as theft of property to sell for money to buy substances. Others pay off substantial drug debts. If a substance user is unable to work or remains financially dependent this can also put additional strain on finances. Some family members find themselves needing to reduce working hours to cope with the situation or may even be unable to work due to the stress it causes them.
Mental and physical health
Stress, anxiety and feeling out of control for sustained periods can cause mental and even physical health problems for families, which further contribute to the stress and difficulty of coping.
It’s important to remember how addiction of a parent or carer can affect children within the home.
Most parents and carers who drink alcohol or use drugs do so in moderation and don’t present an increased risk of harm to their children (Cleaver et al, 2011).
However, parents and carers who misuse substances often have chaotic, unpredictable lifestyles and may struggle to provide their children with safe care and clear boundaries.
Parental substance misuse can have a negative impact on children at each stage of their development.
Women who misuse substances during pregnancy may put their babies at risk of impaired brain development, congenital malformations, premature delivery, low birth weight and withdrawal symptoms after birth.
In later stages, impacts to children can be:
- physical and emotional abuse or neglect as a result of inadequate supervision, poor role models and inappropriate parenting
- behavioural, emotional or cognitive problems and relationship difficulties
- taking on the role of carer for parents and siblings
- preoccupation with, or blaming themselves for, their parents’ substance misuse
- infrequent attendance at school and poor educational attainment
- experiencing poverty and inadequate and unsafe accommodation
- exposure to toxic substances and criminal activities
- separation from parents due to intervention from children’s services, imprisonment or hospitalisation
- increased risk of developing drug or alcohol problems or offending behaviour themselves.
(Altobelli & Payne, 2014; Cleaver et al, 2011; Cornwallis, 2013; Home Office, 2003; Templeton, 2014)
A recent Harvard University research study determined that children whose parents use drugs and misuse alcohol are three times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused and four times more likely to be neglected than their peers. Parents who suffer from addiction often struggle to set priorities and fail to meet even the basic needs of their children. Household finances are often redirected towards the addiction. If there is job loss, the financial situation can be bleak. (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/07/14/peds.2016-1575)
Children may live in chaos, with little to no structure or supervision, and isolation. Even when home life appears fine to outsiders, the impacted parent may be incapable of providing the guidance, structure, compassion, and love needed for a child to thrive. They may struggle to form friendships and deep relationships with those outside of the family. They may even live in fear.