Family can be one of the greatest sources of physical security and emotional support. But family environments can also foster destructive emotions and behaviors, including substance abuse and addiction. 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. Partners or spouses may feel deeply betrayed or abandoned if the person they love turns to alcohol or drugs.

Understanding the nature of addiction and the options for treatment can help family members avoid the cycle of addiction or remain close if substance abuse affects their lives.

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No matter how much an individual knows about addiction, it can still come as a shock to find out that a relative has a substance abuse problem. While facing the reality that a loved one is addicted can be heart-wrenching, it is easier to confront that reality with the support of professionals and experts who understand the disease of addiction. Substance abuse counselors, family therapists, marriage counselors, spiritual leaders, school counselors, and intervention specialists are a few of the guides who can help families cope with the effects of addiction and mend broken bonds.

Learning about the experiences shared by families struggling with substance abuse, and the resources available to cope with those experiences, can make it easier to overcome this all-too-common disease.

Substance Abuse: How Big Is the Problem?

In popular cultural stereotypes of the American family, drugs and alcohol are not part of a happy household. Yet statistics indicate that the problem of substance abuse affects people from all walks of life, including parents, children, spouses, and partners living in otherwise “normal” homes.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) of 2014, one out of 10 Americans age 12 and older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days — a number higher than any year since 2002.

The primary reasons for this increase include the rise in abuse of marijuana and nonmedical use of prescription drugs, especially narcotic pain relievers like OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, and fentanyl.

Alcohol abuse is also prevalent among American households. Out of the 139.7 million Americans age 12 and older who reported drinking alcohol in 2014, 16.3 million defined themselves as “heavy drinkers,” and 60.9 reported that they were “binge drinkers,” according to the NSDUH.

Substance Use Disorder

When use of drugs or alcohol causes impairment in one or more areas of an individual’s life, this condition is known as a substance use disorder. Substance use disorders are widespread in the US, as the following 2014 statistics show:

  • Approximately 21.5 million Americans age 12 and above had a substance use disorder.
  • Out of this number, 17 million abused alcohol.
  • About 17.1 million abused illicit drugs.
  • Approximately 2.6 million had both an illicit drug and alcohol disorder.

These numbers become even more significant when the families and partners of these individuals are taken into consideration. Each individual who abuses alcohol or drugs touches the lives of a child, parent, sibling, spouse, or partner.

Estimates from the Child Welfare Information Gateway indicate that 12 percent of American children live with at least one parent who abuses alcohol or drugs or who has a substance use disorder.

Children of substance-abusing parents are at an increased risk of neglect, poverty, and mistreatment, as well as a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder themselves. Up to two-thirds of cases of child abuse involve chemical dependence in some form, and over 30 percent of children removed from their homes by Child Protective Services in 2012 were removed because of parental drug or alcohol abuse.

There is no doubt that parental substance abuse interferes with the physical and emotional development of children, yet addiction also affects the health of the family as a whole. In order for all members of a household to have rewarding relationships and healthy lives, substance abuse treatment must address everyone in the family, not just the individual who uses drugs or alcohol, notes Social Work in Public Health. When researching the resources available for families affected by addiction, it is important to consider the emotional, psychological, and physical needs of all individuals who occupy the home.

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Detecting the Signs of Substance Abuse

No matter how well we think we know the people we share our homes and hearts with, every individual is capable of keeping secrets. Addiction, by its nature, drives the individual to suppress painful emotions and harmful behaviors in order to fuel episodes of drinking or using drugs. The signs of addiction can range from obvious to subtle, revealing themselves in an individual’s appearance, behavior, moods, mental function, occupational status, or finances.Perhaps most importantly for families, addiction can affect the quality of interpersonal relationships. Addiction can undermine formerly strong relationships, creating an atmosphere of distrust and provoking feelings of betrayal. The following checklist can help family members identify the potential signs of addiction in the early stages of the disease.

When looking for the potential signs of addiction, remember that substance abuse affects many areas of an individual’s life, and one or two changes in habits or appearance do not necessarily prove that a loved one is abusing drugs. These changes may also be caused by conditions such as depression, personal loss, job stress, or a difficult life transition. A mental health professional or addiction counselor can help to determine whether the changes in the person’s life can be attributed to chemical dependence or abuse.