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Written by Caroline Meyer

Harmful substances such as alcohol and drugs take a major toll on the user and can even be fatal. Other addictions such as gambling and sex addictions can have serious consequences for the person with the addiction as well. Most people only consider the person with the addiction and how it affects the person involved, but serious addictions have an impact on the entire family. Partners, parents and children suffer due to legal, medical, financial and emotional damage and even experience long term consequences as a result.

Looking at substance abuse addictions such as alcohol and drugs in particular, there are short-term and long-term effects for the family. Whether the person with the addiction is a parent or a child, this often leads to a loss of trust. Other relatives may distance themselves from the family due to issues such as theft, aggression, lying and other bad behaviour. This is noticed particularly when the family is trying to hide the substance abuse problem.  Communication between family members and the person abusing drugs or alcohol becomes strained and difficult, often leading to arguments or the person cutting themselves off further from family members. Spousal addictions can often lead to the marriage ending and the children being separated from the partner who is addicted.

The side effects of addictions such as aggression and sudden mood swings can drive away friends and relatives quite quickly. Most people will distance themselves and not want to deal with these issues. The person with the addiction may become estranged from everyone and may actually disappear for long periods of time, often turning up to solicit money for their next “fix”.  Some people who are unable to fight their addictions may end up homeless and living on the streets and may even end up dying as a result of the addiction. The shock of losing a loved one to an addiction can also cause a lot of trauma to the family. This can sometimes lead to unhealthy behaviours on the part of family members as a means of coping with their grief.


Addictions, especially alcohol addictions usually start quite slowly. It is a progressive disease that may start of as socially acceptable behaviour which starts to become unacceptable but is not curbed at this point. The family often makes excuses for the bad behaviour. This slowly but surely escalates and at each step is “accepted” by the members of the family until it becomes rote. The addictions can bring out worse and worse behaviour, but because the unacceptable behaviour has been accepted as part of the normal behaviour of the person, no one points out that the behaviour is related to substance abuse.

If you look back to a time prior to the addiction and then to the point where the addiction is a set thing, you can see how unacceptable the behaviour has become. If you had seen the behaviours that you now live with in your family as if it is normal played out by someone else, you would be shocked. You may even have tried to get help for the family embroiled with a person suffering from an addiction, but do not get help for yourself.


In a family where there are members suffering from substance abuse addictions, there is a lack of positive role models and the stability needed to thrive is missing. The family is dysfunctional and the kids may start to model their behaviours on that of the parent with the addiction or of the brother or sister with the problem. There may also be physical and emotional abuse which can affect the child in the long term as well as the short term. Kids are also quite sensitive to animosity in the home and a home with addiction can be a warzone with the little ones being caught in the crossfire.

The behaviours may also be inconsistent, creating confusion.  The parent may be wonderful and loving one minute and turn in to a screaming banshee the next.  The one parent may be make excuses for the other parent at one point while threatening to leave the next.  Children that grow up with parents that have substance abuse problems are also a lot more likely to become addicts themselves. There is also more likely to be sexual and physical abuse as well as neglect of children in homes of addicts. The kids can become very distressed and often suffer from emotional and mental problems. Kids from homes where there is an addict may suffer developmental issues, learning delays among other disorders.

Children are easily influenced by external influences. Their personalities are still developing and they may pick up cues from abusive parents or siblings. This can include inappropriate sexual behaviour, anger and aggression and acting out violently.  The earlier they are exposed to issues in the home stemming from substance abuse the more likely they are to grow up emotionally and mentally unstable. They may even develop feelings of guilt or a lack of self-worth especially when parents blame the children for the bad behaviour they present. One partner may also try and prevent anger and rages but making the child behave in a certain way to not incite the other partner’s ire. They may even blame the child for the partner’s behaviour.  In some cases of substance abuse, the children may even be removed from the home and put in to foster care. The child may also feel responsible for this.

Teenagers that have suffered through a period of time with one or more parents that have addictions are far more likely to become substance abusers themselves. This can lead to problems at school, underperforming, behavioural issues and aggression. They may become overstimulated and unable to sleep and may go from one substance to the next. This can cause further disruption in the home, a vulnerability to other destructive behaviours such as unprotected sex, delinquency, running away from home and even death.

There is help out there for people with addictions as well as those that suffer from the effects of a relationship of someone who is an addict. Reach out for assistance before it is too late.

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