Addiction: A Disease that Affects the Whole Family

Drug and alcohol addiction affect the entire family, not just the person who is addicted.

In families where addiction is present

  • The addiction becomes the primary focus
  • Secrets are the rule; problems are not discussed openly; they are often minimized or denied
  • Normal routines are often interrupted by frightening and unexpected events
  • Children are often left to fend for themselves
  • Promises are broken
  • Guilt and shame prevent family members from seeking help

Family members may also experience physical symptoms:

  • Tense shoulders and lower back pain (tensions from being constantly on alert)
  • Stress-related disorders (panic attacks, colds, chronic fatigue)
  • Gastrointestinal disorders (repressed emotions and excessive adrenaline and cortisol contributing to ulcers and intestinal problems)
  • Sexual dysfunction (obsession or withdrawal from sexual activity; sexual abuse is not uncommon in families where addiction is present)

Common Myths in Families with Addiction:

  • “All families are like ours; there’s nothing unusual going on here.”
  • “If we talk about what is actually happening, it will just make things worse.”
  • “We need to keep family secrets private; people outside the family won’t understand.”
  • “If we ignore problems, someday, somehow, things will get better.”

Common Family Roles:

The family operates as a system, with each member of the family unconsciously assuming a role to keep the family “functioning” (more accurately, barely surviving) amidst spiraling chaos. If a parent is addicted to substances, the following roles are often assumed by other family members.

Big Caretaker/Enabler

  • Often one of the parents, the partner of the person that is addicted
  • Covers for the substance abuser, picks up the pieces, protects the person who is addicted from experiencing negative consequences
  • Takes on responsibilities that are being neglected by the person with the addiction
  • Often hopes things will change or get better on their own

 Little Caretaker

  • Miniature enabler, taking cues from the Enabler
  • Gets drinks or drugs for the parent (or family member) with the addiction, cleans up messes, and attempts to soothe the addicted parent
  • Often seeks a partner who behaves like the addicted parent did


  • Tries to make the family proud
  • Very responsible, typically quite successful at school and work
  • Appears self-confident but often feels inadequate; vulnerable to stress and anxiety


  • Tries to divert attention away from the addict by acting out in anger and rebellion
  • Accident prone and self-destructive; frequently hospitalized or injured; prone to risk-taking
  • Likely to abuse substances

 Lost Child

  • Isolates and withdraws from family through TV, video games, reading, etc. to escape
  • Requires little attention and appears quiet and content
  • Loner, typically has few friends


  • Brings comic relief by being cute and funny
  • Unable to communicate honestly
  • Immature

Family Members are Wise to Remember the “3 C’s”:

  • They did not CAUSE the addiction.
  • They cannot CONTROL the addiction.
  • They cannot CURE the addiction.

Drug and alcohol addictions are

  • Chronic (long-lasting)
  • Progressive (worsen over time)
  • Fatal (if left untreated)

But they are also treatable

Therapy and/or self-help groups can be helpful for all members of the family.

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