Broken Households: How Substance Use Disorders Impact Families

Broken Households: How Substance Use Disorders Impact Families

The link between substance use disorders (SUDs) in families is complex and goes further than the role genetics play in a family member developing a SUD. When someone is struggling with addiction it not only takes a toll on them, but it can also have devasting effects on an entire family.

Multiple family members can feel the effects of the stress brought on by a family member’s addiction leaving them with behavioral health issues, relationship problems, a loss of trust and financial hardships.

Substance Use Family Members Infographic Fort Wayne Recovery


of Americans have a family member or close friend that’s been addicted to drugs

How Addiction Can Destroy Families

While SUDs are harmful to the individual grappling with addiction, they can also have a major impact on other members of their family including spouses, siblings, children, parents and grandparents. Stable homes can quickly turn into volatile environments due to the effects that drugs and alcohol have on someone struggling with substance abuse. It’s been estimated that nearly half of Americans have a family member or close friend that’s been addicted to drugs. And addiction can occur in any household regardless of factors such as race, ethnicity, education level, or political views.

Family members who reside in the same living space with the individual struggling with addiction are usually the most impacted and can face both short and long-term side effects including depression, physical or emotional abuse, financial instability and feelings of hopelessness. Marriages are 60 percent more likely to end in divorce when someone is struggling with alcohol, especially when only one spouse is a heavy drinker. This is often attributed to an increase in conflict and a breakdown of communication in the relationship.

Tommy Streeter, a community outreach coordinator for Allendale Treatment and Fort Wayne Recovery says that when his mother was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS), her health took a backseat to his drug addiction. “My mom was so stressed out and worried about my substance abuse all the time that it was impacting her physical health and making her MS worse. My mindset at the time was that my addiction was only hurting me, but in fact, I was putting my entire family through hell.”

How Substance Abuse Impacts Children

About 20 percent of children grow up in a home where a parent abuses drugs or alcohol. Since children are still developing their coping skills and responses to trauma, they are more vulnerable to developing a SUD as an adult. They are also more likely to be neglected or abused, face delays in learning and development, and have difficulty interacting with their peers. Teenagers are especially at risk for developing an addiction because they often face pressure from peers to experiment with drugs and alcohol while they’re living in an environment where they have easy access to those substances. 

Common ways for children and teenagers to cope with a family member’s substance use disorder include:

  • Experience feelings of depression or develop anxiety
  • Withdraw from friends and social activities
  • Develop toxic relationships
  • Miss curfew or sneaking out to avoid being at home
  • Fail to complete schoolwork and skip classes
  • Become increasingly unpredictable and show signs of aggression and recklessness
  • Steal money
  • Run away from home
  • Distance themselves from other family members

Streeter says that his addiction put his brother’s children at risk when his niece found an empty bag of heroin in the closet. “When my niece walked into the living room with an empty bag of heroin at my parent’s house, it destroyed my relationship with my brother for years because he couldn’t trust me to be around his kids anymore,” says Streeter. “If the bag hadn’t been empty, who knows what could’ve happened to my niece.”

How Families Can Fight Back

Family members will often take on a specific role when they’re living with someone with an addiction. These roles usually serve to “help” their loved one or as a way to cope with the situation. Unfortunately, these roles only allow the substance abuse to continue and put the rest of the family member’s mental and physical well-being at risk. Addiction Centers of America has identified six common roles family members take on in this environment:

The Addicted

The person struggling with a substance use disorder. They often isolate and blame other members of their family for their problems and are the source of ongoing turmoil in their household.

The Enabler

This role is often taken on by a spouse or child. They serve as peacemakers in the family by trying to smooth over any difficulties.

The Hero

This role is usually taken on by the eldest child who uses their achievements to deflect from the situation, create a sense of normalcy and provide hope for the rest of the family.

The Scapegoat

Commonly taken on by a middle child, they get blamed for all the problems caused in the household by the person abusing substances. By having the blame placed on them, they shield other members of the family from taking accountability.

The Mascot

Usually taken on by the youngest member of the family. They deflect from the stress and turmoil in the family by using humor. This is also a way for them to cope with any pain or anxieties brought on by the situation.

The Lost Child

This role often falls on a middle or younger child. They withdraw from the situation and are often seen as “invisible” to the rest of the family. They don’t receive a lot of attention from other family members and engage in solitary activities as a way to cope.

“When my niece walked into the living room with an empty bag of heroin at my parent’s house, it destroyed my relationship with my brother for years because he couldn’t trust me to be around his kids anymore.”

Tommy Streeter, Community Outreach Coordinator, Allendale Treatment and Fort Wayne Recovery

Family Member Roles in Addiction Infographic Fort Wayne Recovery

While family members in each role may have good intentions, the only way to fight addiction is for the person struggling with a SUD to receive professional care and support. Nate Moellering, a community outreach coordinator at Allendale Treatment and Fort Wayne Recovery says that addiction will impact each family member, not just the one struggling with addiction. “Family members often don’t see the residual effects that a substance disorder has on them until several years later,” says Moellering. “I always encourage family members to get help for the trauma they experienced while living with an addicted family member. It’s also okay for them set boundaries and cut ties until their loved one has completed treatment and they’re ready to accept them back into the family again.”