Throughout this series, we have spent a lot of time on the workings of drug abuse. For example, in part three and part four, we explored several behavioral, physical, and social signs of drug abuse, when considered in context. Part six touched on risk factors. The prior installment provided a snapshot of the epidemic that is currently roiling communities around the country.
Regardless of the urgency of these topics, our discussion is incomplete until it covers some of the reasons drug abuse and substance use disorder have troubled health professionals, policy makers, and educators for decades. They have been problems for so long it is easy to take their corrosive nature for granted – or at least to feel that the ill effects are so apparent they do not require explanation. However, an honest assessment of these effects serves as a powerful tool to motivate people to seek help or avoid engaging in drug abuse altogether. In this entry, we will look at the toll on families.
Drug abuse alters a family on every level, be it emotionally, psychologically, financially, or socially. The outcomes are dependent on the type of family unit, who is abusing drugs, the duration of abuse, and of course, the severity. The common denominator is the undermining of trust and relationships. It is damage that can last generations.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) observes in its 2004 Treatment Improvement Protocol, “the effects on families may continue for generations. Intergenerational effects of substance abuse can have a negative impact on role modeling, trust, and concepts of normative behavior, which can damage the relationships between generations.” One common example of this phenomenon is the child of a parent who suffered from substance use disorder being unable to form a bond with his or her own children, which could in turn increase their risk factor for drug abuse.
Drug abuse introduces a destabilizing force into a family unit, but as we discussed in Part Six: Risk Factors, sometimes family environments can foster substance use disorder. As the American Addiction Centers states in its Guide For Families, “The genetic ties that make blood relatives so close can also hold the seeds of compulsive or addictive behaviors, and the self-harming actions that children observe in their parents can become habits that affect their own lives as they grow.”
A parent’s preoccupation with addiction often leads to neglect or abuse. Children respond in a range of unhealthy ways, such as employing denial to protect themselves or acting as a surrogate spouse or parent. Children are especially in danger of adopting behaviors that are not age-appropriate in single-parent households, whether it is to shoulder undue burdens – to work harder to “fix” the situation – or by repeating behavior that has been modeled and normalized.
A partner, spouse or parent who is abusing drugs is often full of internal conflict, guilt, or anger, which causes him or her to lash out at other members of the family or withdraw from them. This can result in self-doubt and shame in themselves and others.
When a child or adolescent is a drug abuser or develops substance use disorder, it often causes conflicts between parents, or even between parents and the sibling(s), through the assigning of blame or the monopolization of the family’s attention. Relapses can be especially demoralizing and painful. Despite the (negative) attention, or perhaps because of it, the drug abuser is often further isolated. This incentivizes him or her to associate with other addicts who act to reinforce the behavior and addiction.
The financial hardship that results from substance use disorder, whether through lost productivity, loss of employment, poor impulse control, or through the costs to maintain the addiction itself, can be especially acute. It further exacerbates the unhealthy conditions that foster and are fostered by the drug abuse. Stress from the financial hardship can produce a vicious cycle that eventually leads to poverty, further eroding family bonds.
Families undergo many difficult challenges as a result of drug abuse, and as I mentioned in Part 1: An Overview, nearly everyone – by extension, every family – has been affected either directly or indirectly. The good news is that health professionals can help resolve many of these challenges. Due to the emotional complexities of family relationships, it is vital for family members to seek a professional health practitioner to help them avoid blaming, and to reveal and repair family interactions that create the conditions for substance abuse to continue.
As SAMHSA notes in its Treatment Improvement Protocol, “oftentimes, young people will listen to professionals rather than family members, as the latter encounters can sometimes be driven by fear, accusations, and emotions.” This can be true for parents and spouses as well. Many who are suffering from substance use disorder are ashamed and afraid, and might refrain from being completely honest to protect themselves within a very complicated relationship.
The toll of drug abuse on families is extensive and complex, and its effects extend far beyond the family unit. In the next installment of this series, we will look at the toll that drug abuse takes on work and in the larger community.