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Chemical Dependency & Family Relationships

Dr. Gerardo Sison

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Gerardo Sison

April 1, 2019

Addiction rarely only affects the individuals taking the substances. Often times, the ones closest to individuals who are addicted to drugs struggle to hold onto their personal relationships as a result of the substance abuse. It is important to support a family member or loved one during these times so that they can overcome addiction and begin to repair their relationships.

Each year millions of families are affected by chemical dependency. Unfortunately, it’s not all that surprising. Over the course of a lifetime, 82 percent of the US population will have tried alcohol, 62 percent will have smoked, 47% will have used illicit drugs including heroin and cocaine, and 41 percent will try marijuana. These individuals come from all walks of life. Some are mothers, fathers, siblings, and children. Chemical dependency doesn’t just affect the person; it wreaks havoc on families.

How Does Chemical Dependency Develop?

Chemical dependency is an addiction to any compound that alters brain function, including prescription and illicit drugs, and alcohol. The word “dependency” refers to a physical need to take a drug. If someone stops taking a drug on which they are dependent, they will experience side effects or withdrawal symptoms. Someone who abuses a drug will develop a tolerance to it and require more of the substance to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Signs of Chemical Dependency

  • Withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use
  • More of the substance is needed to obtain same effect
  • Social isolation
  • Using the drug despite known health risks

A chemical dependence on a drug develops over time, though risk factors for addiction and how quickly someone is likely to become dependent are driven by genetic predisposition and other external forces including socioeconomic factors and early exposure to drug use.

The human brain includes a protective mechanism designed to reward pro-survival activities like eating, drinking water, sex, and sleep. When you eat a food high in fats, proteins, or carbohydrates, the neural pathways in your brain are flooded with a release of dopamine. With this dopamine response, comes that satiated feeling you get after eating your favorite meal.

Addictive substances initiate the dopamine response, but on a far more concentrated level. The brain quickly begins to associate drugs or alcohol with life sustaining needs like food, water, and sleep.

How Does Chemical Dependency Affect Family Relationships?

It is said that a single person using drugs affects as many as 100 people. Within family groups, someone who abuses drugs has the potential for far greater harm, not only to themselves, but to those they love. Someone who uses drugs is typically less stable, less responsible, more likely to lie or steal, and more likely to commit crimes. Children in homes which at least one parent is using are at higher risk for abuse and neglect.

Children of chemically dependent adults are more likely to:

  • be victims of physical or sexual violence
  • suffer greater rates of anxiety and depression
  • sleep less
  • do more poorly in school
  • suffer from illness due to stress and poor nutrition
  • experience higher rates of behavioral issues (i.e. ADHD)

Children in households where at least one parent abuses drugs or alcohol is more likely to end up in foster care.

While there are many genetic factors that make someone more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, a child in a household where they are exposed to drug use, may grow up without good coping skills and is more likely to become addicted to drugs as an adult. A child who sees a parent use is also more likely to try drugs.

In families with more than one child and at least one parent using, kids develop coping strategies to mask their feelings and cope with the disruption of addiction on the household. Often the eldest takes on a caretaker role, looking after the younger children. Other children take on different roles acting as unintentional enablers, doing what they’re told, and in some cases helping their parents obtain drugs.

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A shift in family dynamic also occurs when a sibling is using. In this case, all attention and focus may be on the negative behaviors associated with the person abusing drugs, and away from the accomplishments of other siblings. Additionally, parents trying to care for a child with a substance abuse problem experience significantly higher rates of stress and may lash out at other members of household or neglect responsibilities while trying to manage more than they can handle.

Spouses, who discover their partner is abusing drugs or alcohol, face the added stress generated by concern over their partner, with worry about the safety of their children. Domestic disputes are significantly increased as are rates of spousal homicides in households where at least one partner is abusing drugs.

Regardless of the situation, for the sake of the family, support from a counselor or treatment professional is essential.

Chemical Dependency And Co-Recovery

The effects of drug use run rampant through the entire household. During this time, it is important to seek help. An addiction counselor can help you better understand the addiction, and the dysfunction that may have contributed to the addiction. It is also useful to work with a counselor in order to establish healthy boundaries and avoid codependent behaviors that enable the user. It is easy to slip into abuse of a substance to cope or self-medicate. Getting help early on will help avoid this and other pitfalls that arise with chemical dependency.

As your loved one enters recovery, the entire family, become co-recoverers. They are an essential part of the support team, but must also help support one another while developing positive coping strategies.

Get Help For Your Chemical Dependency

If someone in your family is dependent on drugs or alcohol, help is available. will connect you with the resources, professional support, and treatment options available in your area. Don’t wait until it’s worse to get better. Contact today and discover a new and rewarding life in recovery.

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