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Why alcoholism & addiction is a family disease

Why alcoholism & addiction is a family disease image

Alcoholism and other addictions do not only negatively impact the alcoholic or addict – everyone around them is affected in some way. This could range from a parent being anxious about their addicted teenage child to a child being physically abused by an addicted parent.

These consequences of addiction will be felt to an extent by everyone who is around the addict. This could be colleagues, friends or anyone in their local community.

They will possibly have to pick up some of the pieces left behind by such as the addict not showing up at work. Or it could be that a friend finds the addict standing on their doorstep after midnight looking for somewhere to sleep for the night.

But the people who are most likely to feel the full devastating impact are the addict’s family. 

This is because they are probably the ones who are closest to them. Not only emotionally but also because most often they will live in the same household.

It is the family that is forced to deal with all sorts of mayhem ranging from such as broken doors to police calls. Or they may endure physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

An addict’s family will frequently find themselves making excuses for and dealing with the addict’s unstable behaviour. With all the energy that’s used up it can make it difficult for an addict’s partner to work or parent efficiently. 

For similar reasons, children of addicts often struggle in school. Their friendships may suffer too as other parents limit time their own children spend with these children who are getting damaged.

As well, children of an active addict are more likely to be involved with alcohol and drugs as they grow up. They are also more likely to get involved in a range of other addictions.
Addiction can be defined as anything that is detrimental to the addicted person and/or those around them but that they cannot stop. This includes the behavioural addictions – also known as process addictions.

What are behavioural addictions?

  • Gambling.
  • Work.
  • Internet.
  • Gaming.
  • Television.
  • Sex.
  • Pornography.
  • Food.
  • Exercise.
  • Shopping.
  • Love & relationships.
  • Plastic surgery.
  • Tattoos.
  • Extreme sports.


They are called behavioural addictions because there are behaviours that can be as addictive as substances such as alcohol and drugs. There is a failure to control an impulse. 

They are also frequently used in a similar way as addicts use alcohol and drugs. That is in an attempt to block traumatic things out, as a distraction – often with a high – and to mask or numb feelings.

Behavioural addiction can be just as all-consuming and compulsive as a substance addiction.

The addicted person can spend all their waking hours thinking about the behaviour. They will always be planning it, doing it or dealing with any feelings of guilt, remorse and bad consequences from doing it.

Whether it’s a substance or behavioural addiction it is clear to see why anyone involved with an addict can suffer. They may even reach for something unhealthy in an attempt to cope.

In the book The Anxiety Conversation psychotherapist Wayne Kemp says: “If a family comes to me and there are four kids with an alcoholic parent, then depending on the severity of the impact on the family, I would usually expect to find anxiety, panic, depression, eating disorders or more alcoholism.

“Nobody is going to live in that environment and be free from symptoms. Alcoholism and addiction is a family illness.”

That can include being affected from childhood right into adulthood. The scars do not disappear on their own.

What are the consequences of being the adult child of an addict or alcoholic?

Common consequences of being the adult child of an addict are:

  • Fear of abandonment.
  • Trust issues.
  • Dysfunctional relationships or difficulty have a relationship at all.
  • Choosing addict partners.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Being highly self-critical.
  • Feeling different from others.
  • Isolation.
  • Constantly seeking love and approval.
  • Having a victim mentality.
  • Fear of authority.
  • More prone to addiction – both substance and behavioural.
  • Guilt – blaming themselves for their parent’s behaviour.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Always taking themselves seriously.
  • Concentration difficulties.
  • Co-dependency.
  • Impulsive.
  • Being a “dry drunk”.
  • Always looking to “rescue” others.
  • Detesting any criticism.
  • Fear getting angry and/or of angry people.


Sadly because of the nature of the disease of addiction, most addicts cannot see that their behaviour has any immediate negative impact on their family and others close to them. They will likely also have no idea of the long-term consequences, especially on children growing up under the lash of their addiction.

For an addict, their main relationship is with whatever they are addicted to – and everyone else comes second. Sometimes other people won’t even get a look in.

Frequently the person close to an addict will have to decide whether they are an “enabler”. That is what they think might be helpful such as giving them money might actually be enabling the addiction. There may well be co-dependency issues for a partner of an addict.

It is clear that where there’s an addict it is never solely the addict who needs help. The stark truth is that addiction is always a family disease.

That’s why if we are helping an addict we like to see if we can help the family as well.

Sometimes, depending on the family circumstances, this is not for the best. Or some family members do not want to take part in any form of recovery for various reasons.

But most times if the family collectively receives help from therapists they will all immensely benefit.

It is often realised that certain dysfunctional patterns have existed for generations. Many family members realise they fit into certain defined roles such as “the saviour”, “lost child” or “scapegoat”.  These can all then be explored and replaced with positive aspects.

Studies have shown that where there is family involvement the success rate of addicts quitting their addiction are much better. Their family’s new understanding and support can really help them stay stopped.

We have considerable experience of helping people with addiction problems and with family involvement in beating their addiction. We are always discreet and know how to carefully bring family members together for this very effective treatment.

Contact us today to find out exactly how we can help.

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Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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