Legacy of Addiction: How Behaviors Are Transmitted Over Generations

Research has shown that addiction tends to run in families; however, genetic factors alone do not account for the prevalence of this phenomenon. It is true that complex genetic factors (i.e., not just a single “addict gene”) contribute to a person’s biological likelihood of using or not using (or doing or not doing). For example, people who have the CYP2A6 gene have a greater chance of feeling dizzy or nauseated when smoking tobacco, which  often translates into smoking aversion and, by extension, abstinence from cigars and cigarettes.  Still, even a person who is genetically vulnerable to certain aspects of addiction or the effects of specific substances is not necessarily doomed to a life of compulsive dopamine seeking from behaviors, alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. 

Genes Aren’t a Family’s Only “Hand-Me-Downs”

To some extent, the behaviors that are associated with addiction are learned.  Children who are raised in households in which one or both parents have a chemical dependence, eating, or other addictive disorder often unconsciously internalize many, many negative attitudes and behaviors simply from existing in such a negative environment without realizing that these are inappropriate, damaging, and/or dysfunctional.  As many as 5 million Americans were addicted to or abused alcohol and had a minor living in their home in 2002.  Unless these children are fortunate enough to have an adult intervene with therapy or other support, many of them retain these perspectives and ways of relating to others when they become adults.

Abuse and Domestic Violence

The U.S. Department of Justice’s statistics on child abuse suggest that almost 40% of instances of child abuse involved consumption of alcohol prior to the incident.  Other research has evaluated children’s risk of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of addicted parents; those in households with alcoholic parents were more likely to be the victims of physical abuse whereas those in households with parents addicted to cocaine had an elevated risk of being sexually abused.  Even if the child is not being injured physically, emotionally, or sexually, a child who witnesses intimate partner violence against one of his or her parents is put at an increased risk for behavioral and emotional problems.  If they overhear their parents reconciling after an incident, the child may start to rationalize violent behavior as an understandable result of substance use.  Some children and teens may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of escaping and coping with difficult emotions that they are otherwise unable to effectively process.

Attitudes Toward Mental Health

Although stigmas related to certain mental health conditions are fading, they are still a reality for many families.  Dismissing the importance of mental health, including addiction treatment, or inculcating a child with fears of shaming the family when seeking help for a problem can unnecessarily delay appropriate interventions.

Communication Styles

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) regularly conducts a National Survey on Drug Use and Health.  Among the 2002 findings, households in which one or more parents abused alcohol were significantly more turbulent than those that did not.  Turbulence included yelling, arguments, and insults.  Members of these households may engage in passive aggressive behaviors (i.e., behaviors that may seem innocuous but have underlying malice) including blaming others for one’s own mistakes, acting as if one is a victim, emotional detachment, repressing anger, conveniently “forgetting” responsibilities, acting in ways that are inconsistent with verbal communication, obstructing fulfillment of others’ needs, avoiding intimacy, and adamantly (but unrealistically) asserting independence.

Distorted Thinking, Low-Self Esteem, and Depression

In many cases, depression is caused by negativistic thinking patterns.  A parent who verbalizes such thoughts about himself or herself (e.g., “I got fired; I’ll never be able to keep a job,” or “Nothing good ever happens to me.”) or about the child (e.g., “You’re worthless,” or “You did this to me.”) can inadvertently teach the child to have similar ways of perceiving themselves and others.  There is a clear link between substance abuse and depression (and other mental health problems), and the risk is exacerbated by having one's childhood and adolescent environments tainted with distorted, depressive thinking.

Rescuing Behavior

Children who watch one parent (or another relative) continuously help an addict avoid negative consequences (e.g., calling them in “sick” at work, collecting bail money, etc.) may imitate the rescuing parent’s behavior when interacting with the addicted parent as well as in future relationships.  As can be deduced from this effect, the children of addicts often have a greater propensity to enter into and remain in codependent  relationships that require them to be a “rescuer,” including relationships with addicts.  Studies have found that, despite firsthand knowledge of the damage that addiction can do to relationships, addicts’ children tend to marry addicts at a higher rate than do people who were raised in homes without an addicted parent.

Breaking the Cycle

If you are outside of the cycle, your options are somewhat limited.  If the child is unsafe, you can report the situation to a child welfare agency.  Encourage non-addict parents to remove the child from the home.  If they refuse, relatives can petition the court for custody. The laws about involuntary treatment for the addict vary by state. But before turning to an attorney, consider trying to persuade the addict to get help with an intervention. Most importantly, stay involved in the child’s life as a positive influence, and continuously evaluate their situation.

For parents who are also addicts, knowing that you have a problem with addiction and caring enough to take active steps to find a solution is crucial for your child’s health, well-being, and future.  In addition to getting treatment for your addiction and any related negative behaviors, make sure that you find ways for your children to express how they have been affected.  Discuss addiction with your child or teen, and learn how to create a home environment that reduces their risk for substance abuse.  Get regular counseling for your family and give them opportunities to talk about their feelings with the therapist without being physically present.

Related Articles