Why Family Matters in Addiction Treatment and Recovery

When someone suffers from a substance use disorder, that person never suffers alone. The problems of addiction inevitably radiate outwards and affect one’s friends and family. And the opposite is true too. Addiction doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. There’s always some kind of context and often that context has to do with the family. This is why it’s often said that addiction is a family disease. There are many connections between addiction and family also plays a crucial role in addiction treatment and recovery. Here’s how.

Family history is the biggest risk factor for addiction.

By far, the biggest risk factor for developing addiction is having a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, with a substance use disorder. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64269/] There are a number of reasons for this. One is that there are genetic factors involved in addiction risk. These may be indirect, such as being prone to major depression, which increases your risk of addiction, or they may be more direct, such as when you have a genetic variant that makes using certain substances much more pleasurable. There’s about a 50 percent chance you share these genetic variants with a parent or sibling. 

Another major reason having a close relative increases your risk of addiction is that you learn your attitudes about substance use from your family. For example, if you have a parent with an alcohol use disorder, you grow up thinking that drinking heavily every day is just normal adult behavior. What’s more, alcohol is readily available and you are likely to start experimenting with alcohol at an earlier age, which is another risk factor for addiction.

Finally, having addiction in your family increases your risk of adverse childhood experiences. These may include abuse, neglect, feeling unsafe, witnessing abuse, having a parent with a mental health issue, having parents get divorced, and other experiences that have a negative impact on children. More adverse childhood experiences have been linked to a greater risk of addiction.

These dynamics are important to understand whether you are a parent of a child with a substance use disorder or you have a substance use disorder and have children. It’s not uncommon to be both. The good news is that getting treatment that involves the whole family can interrupt the generational cycle of addiction. A stable family structure can insulate children from peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol. And adolescents who get treatment for substance use can avoid many negative consequences as adults as well as reduce the risk of their siblings developing substance use disorders. 

Unhealthy family dynamics can perpetuate addiction.

There are many ways that unhealthy family dynamics can affect substance use risk. As noted above, some unhealthy family patterns can increase risk by affecting the development of children. However, some of these patterns may persist into adulthood. Children from families with addiction often repeat unhealthy patterns in their own relationships. One common pattern is codependent relationships. 

In a codependent relationship, one person takes care of the other, who is often impaired by substance use. One person essentially enables the other and by doing so, feels a sense of purpose. There is a tradeoff that both partners tacitly agree to, but it is not a healthy one. One person ignores his or her own needs and wants while the other person is able to continue in self-destructive behavior. People often learn codependent behavior as children, either from watching one parent enable the other or by placating a parent with a substance use disorder. Both the enabler and the dependent person are at greater risk for addiction and so this relationship pattern must be broken in order to have a successful recovery.

Codependency is just one kind of negative family pattern. Families may fall into all kinds of negative patterns without realizing. For example, it may seem normal in a family for members to be extremely critical of each other. This may contribute to anxiety and depression among some family members, increasing their risk of addiction. Or families may have trouble setting and respecting boundaries. One crucial task of family therapy during addiction treatment is to identify and correct these patterns to create a more supportive family environment for recovery.

Family support can be a big asset in recovery.

It’s essential to involve the family in addiction treatment, whether it’s your family of birth or your family of choice. Most quality treatment programs involve families in a number of ways. A major one is family therapy, which, as noted above, can help families identify dysfunctional dynamics and correct them. Family therapy can help family members set and respect boundaries and communicate more effectively. This helps the person recovering from addiction and it also makes the family happier overall. Families can also help the person in recovery by contributing to individual therapy. Having context and corroboration can give the therapist valuable perspective on the issues that may be troubling the client. 

Finally, quality treatment centers often offer psychoeducational classes and workshops for family members of clients. These classes help family members better understand addiction. There are many persistent myths about addiction that can prevent family members from understanding their loved one’s struggle. These psychoeducational classes can help them understand addiction better and also understand what they can do to support their loved one in recovery.


Burning Tree West is a transitional college program dedicated to helping adults between the ages of 18 and 29 recover from addiction. Our campus is located in Tucson, Arizona, near the campuses of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. Our program is designed to help young adults overcome addiction, build foundational life skills, and pursue their educational and career goals. Contact us today for more information.