Substance use disorder (SUD) (i.e., addiction) can develop in an individual without any notable family history. However, a family history of addiction is a prevalent risk factor. In many instances, this family history spans several generations, often involving multiple individuals in each generation. The presence of addiction and its adverse effects strengthen and perpetuate the risk of addiction in subsequent generations.
This multigenerational cycle of addiction in families is a recognized phenomenon. While the underlying mechanisms are still unclear, critical factors are believed to contribute to this occurrence. Reminiscent of the classical discussion of nature versus nurture, two major contributing factors to the development of addiction in families are genetics and environment.
Factors Contributing to Substance Use Disorder
Genetics and environment increase the risk of developing substance use disorder (SUD). However, the reverse is also true. Addiction can strengthen the genetic predisposition and create a detrimental environment—both of which increase the risk of addiction in future generations.
It’s well-known that genetics (https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction) are a significant contributor to the development of addiction. However, it is essential to remember that genetics aren’t the deciding factor. Having a mother or father with an addiction who passes those genes along to you doesn’t guarantee you will also develop an addiction. Instead, those inherited genes only create a predisposition to developing SUD. A predisposition means you are at a higher risk than the general population, but it doesn’t mean you will develop the disorder.
One significant difference between developing an addiction and other genetic diseases is that addiction requires you to ingest the substance. Genetically, you might inherit what is often called “an addictive personality” or “addictive tendencies.” Yet, you can’t develop an addiction to a substance unless you choose to partake in drug use. This choice is where environmental factors play a critical role in developing SUD.
As previously noted, genetics may create a risk of SUD, but environmental factors (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4924064/) are typically the most significant contributors. While someone might have an extensive family history of addiction, that doesn’t mean they are destined to follow the same path. Unfortunately, they often do because of external stressors in their environment. This could be several factors, like peer pressure or the desire to escape a traumatic situation.
While environmental factors can be viewed as the “changeable” variable regarding addiction, it might not feel that way for those experiencing it. Environment consists of multiple components such as parents, location, socioeconomic status, and family dynamics. While these can be altered, they are often beyond one’s control until adulthood. By then, the exposure to this environment may have already resulted in significant trauma or learning detrimental behaviors.
Family Impacts of Substance Use Disorder
The presence of addiction affects the entire family unit. One’s desire for the substance can overpower and overshadow all other needs and responsibilities in your life. An individual might neglect work duties, waste income on the substance, or lose their job. At home, they might overlook self-care, risking negative effects on their health, like liver disease or accidental overdose. Neglecting or abusing loved ones can cause severe trauma. There is also the risk of injuring them by accident while under the influence.
The impact of substance use disorder can be especially severe for the children of a parent with an addiction. This is particularly true if the parent’s addiction is present during their child’s critical developmental periods. Children pick up behaviors through observation of their parents, even if they don’t fully understand what they are witnessing. Watching this behavior can mold their personality and their behavior, increasing the likelihood of developing their own addiction. This is compounded by the adverse external effects of the parent’s addiction, such as neglect, abuse, or low income.
Breaking the Cycle
It is difficult to break the cycle of multigenerational addiction, but it is not impossible. The belief that genetics are set in stone and cannot be changed is false. It’s been proven that external factors can directly affect genes. One example is the methylation (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3174260/) of specific genes in DNA, which can activate or deactivate their expression.
While this may not be how genes in addiction work, it is an excellent analogy to changing external factors to prevent your genetic predisposition from driving an addiction. By changing these external factors, those risk factors are lessened, reducing the risk for an individual and their children.
Steps to Take
Breaking this cycle may seem impossible, but it can be done. It might be helpful to consider beginning with the following steps:
The first step is being aware of the presence of this problem in your life and family history. You can’t do anything about a problem if you don’t know it exists. While this sounds straightforward, it is often one of the most challenging tasks. Many people are only aware of the problem in their own family once it becomes a problem in their own life. Even then, denial can prevent them from gaining proper awareness of the issue. This first step is critical to have any hope of breaking this cycle.
Changing External Factors
Beyond being aware of the problem, one has to be able to recognize the factors that contribute to it. Specifically, the factors they can do something about, like changing environmental factors. This might mean moving, getting a different job, returning to school, or surrounding oneself with better people. Regardless of what those changes are, forming a healthy environment for oneself and one’s children is critical to creating lasting change.
Treatment is one of the most critical steps for breaking the cycle of substance use disorder. Getting sober and staying sober is vital to giving children a positive role model. Treatment options for addiction include medication, psychotherapy, and support groups. Conversely, for those who haven’t developed an addiction yet, being aware of their predisposition and taking the necessary precautions to prevent the development is critical.
Be the Change
It may not be easy, but there are ways one can alter the significance of these factors. In doing so, one has the potential to break the toxic generational cycle of addiction, bettering one’s own life and the lives of future generations.
Gosnold is here to help.
Gosnold assists family members and loved ones at all stages of addiction through education, intervention, and support. To speak directly to a Reaching Out Specialist, please call Michael Dias at 774-392-3721.
Family Support and Education Groups:
The Gosnold Reaching Out program is a resource for family members and loved ones affected by addiction. It assists the family at all stages of addiction through education, intervention, and support.
Untreated chronic addiction causes severe stress within the family unit that can lead to significant health problems such as high blood pressure, weight loss or gain, anxiety, and insomnia. Feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and fear are all facets of addiction that impact the family unit.
An educated and supportive family has a positive impact on treatment outcomes. Family members receive support and guidance to manage the challenges of addiction and recovery. Gosnold provides weekly family education and support groups for families seeking answers and resources. The family education sessions and support groups are facilitated by Gosnold’s certified clinicians and are at no cost to attend.
For a full list of our family support groups, please click here. https://gosnold.org/family-resources/