Family History and Addiction

11/08/19: Addiction \ Addiction Recovery
Whether or not a person develops an addiction is based on an endless variety or combination of factors. Each individual experiences life in an entirely unique way, making it impossible to pinpoint what combination of these factors may make someone more or less vulnerable to addiction. However, researchers have come to determine that family history plays a huge role in a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction themselves later on down the road. One study found that the children of addicts are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction than those with non-addicted parents. While not all people who have a family history of addiction develop one themselves, it does put them at greater risk for it. In this article, we will explain how and why this occurs, and how people with a family history of addiction can break the cycle.

Common Risk Factors

“Family history” of addiction can come in a few forms, but there are three areas that contribute most strongly to repeated cycles of addiction. We will discuss those more in detail below:


Studies that have examined identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings have found evidence that suggests that as much as 50 percent of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to drugs is dependent on his or her genetic makeup. One study in particular looked at 861 pairs of identical twins and 653 pairs of fraternal (non-identical) twins. They found that when one identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin had a high chance of being addicted as well. However, when one non-identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin did not appear to have an addiction. As a result, the study concluded that 50–60 percent of addiction is likely due to genetic factors, and that number has been confirmed by other studies as well. The other half has been attributed to stress or uncomfortable emotions and a lack of coping skills. Knowing that genetics makes up over half of a person’s propensity for addiction can be a scary thought. However, don’t discount the power of strong coping skills and the ability to regulate and process emotions in a healthy way. Most people turn to substances because there is a lack of these capabilities in their life, and they are looking for other ways to cope with pain. But you can’t become addicted to something you have no desire to use because you are in a good place emotionally.


Simple exposure to drugs in the household can also increase a person’s likelihood to become addicted. If a person’s parents or siblings, or other members who reside within the household are bringing drugs in and out of the home consistently, or even using in the presence of other family members, this can instill a stronger vulnerability in those others in the house. Children are especially at risk under these circumstances, as they look to their parents for guidance on what to do and how to behave. It also becomes easier for young family members to access these substances, as they become household necessities for the users. Substance addicted people in the home may even provide these harmful and illegal drugs to the younger, more vulnerable members of the household out of their own free will. Parents who struggle with substance abuse issues are often unable to properly care for themselves, let alone their children. This leads to a situation where the children are being neglected, which can instill emotional issues and trauma.


Homes, where one or more family members are dealing with a substance abuse disorder, can be extremely chaotic. The dynamic of the family is usually very toxic and isn’t an ideal atmosphere for a child to grow up in. There is typically little to no structure or rules in place to provide guidance for the child, which leads to them feeling lost and confused. Witnessing the effects of drugs and alcohol on other family members is often corrosive to a child’s long term development. The behavior of these family members is frequently unpredictable, and can even lead towards verbal or physical abuse. Children also may not understand that it is the substance causing their parents to behave so erratically, and may take on the burden for themselves, feeling as if it must be their fault. Older children usually understand this, but still, love their parents and may feel angry or hurt that their parents continue using the substance even though it is detrimental to the wellbeing of the family and themselves. As a result of the unstable family environment, children and other family members may develop post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), low self-esteem, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Family history of addiction? Here’s how to rise above it:

If you have a family history of addiction, but do not want to fall victim to addiction yourself, here are some ways you can protect yourself and your family. Just know that even by reading this article, you are already setting yourself up for success.
  1. Research your family history. If you have suspicions that there may have been an addiction in your family, but you’re not sure, you may want to look into it further. Since genetics play such a big role in a person’s predisposition for addiction, it is imperative that you have this information. Family members may be reluctant to admit or volunteer that there has been addiction present in the family structure, but assure them that it is important to know for medical purposes, and for the health and safety of your other family members and children.
  2. Create boundaries around drinking. Creating boundaries for yourself is extremely important in avoiding forming a habit around alcohol. If you know you may be predisposed to alcoholism, setting rules for yourself such as limiting drinking to celebrations only, can substantially mitigate the risk of developing a real problem. Some more examples of healthy “rules”/boundaries:
    • Never consuming alcohol to “take the edge off” after a bad day.
    • Never consuming alcohol while in a bad mood.
    • Never keeping alcohol in the home.
    • Never drinking in the presence of your children.
    • Only having one drink when going out to eat.
    • Only having >3 drinks per week.
    • These are just examples, and may not work for everyone. You know yourself best, and you can come up with boundaries that will give YOU the most success.
  3. Make sure your healthcare providers are in the loop. It’s important to be aware of your family history of addiction so that you can communicate this information to your doctors. They may want to come up with a personalized healthcare plan that will help you avoid forming an addiction. However, this is most important in the event that you are experiencing severe and/or chronic pain that would usually call for a prescription for opioid painkillers. Since opioids are highly addictive, your healthcare provider will know to avoid prescribing these to you, and instead, explore other options that are far less risky. Of course, this isn’t completely avoidable. If you undergo a surgery that will require a long and painful recovery, prescription opioid painkillers may be the only thing that can provide relief. But as long as your doctors are aware of the risks, they will be able to make adjustments so that you are protected.
  4. Talk to your kids and other family members about your risks. It is likely that your other family members may not even be aware of a history of addiction in the family, or they do not know that there is such a high risk for developing addiction themselves simply due to genetics. And of course, your children likely have no idea that they may be at risk. Having these tough conversations is never easy, but it can save you years of grief if you ensure that your family is informed and protected early on. You can then teach your children healthy coping skills so that they do not turn to substances when faced with emotional turmoil in their lives.
  5. Attend therapy to strengthen coping skills. Therapy is key in healing past trauma and teaching individuals the healthy coping skills that they need to avoid turning to harmful methods of dealing with pain. This is especially important if you had parents or family members in your home with substance abuse disorders. It is very likely that you may still be suffering emotionally from the difficulties of your childhood, and talking to a licensed counselor can help you work through this trauma and begin to heal. Encourage the rest of your family to attend as well, even if they seem well-adjusted. Everyone can benefit from going to therapy, even individuals who seem to have it all “figured out.” Plus, you never know what someone could be dealing with.

In conclusion…

Although your family history of addiction does not define you, nor is it an automatic sentence, it never hurts to reduce your risk as much as possible. Following the steps above, you can strengthen you and your family’s resolve so that they will have the ability to face tough issues head-on and in a healthy way.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact 602-737-1619 or email [email protected] to get the help you need. Our acclaimed recovery environment merges upscale, luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare.

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