Family addiction is complicated, and it isn’t isolated to one person who may be using. Addiction is passed on through generations and everybody is affected.  Intergenerational addiction studies examine how addictions are passed on through the generations from great grandparents to grandparents to parents to children. Numerous ongoing studies continue to show the propensity of substance use disorders (SUD) being a family disease, not only regarding how the illness affects all members of a family, but how each generation may have an impact of the course of the disease.

How Does One Become An Alcoholic/Addict?

  • Genetics/biological impact (most significant cause)
  • Environmental factors (such as living in high risk communities and/or home, poverty, poor health care)
  • Peer Pressure and/or being in a relationship with someone who uses (friends, older siblings, college parties, etc.)
  • Historical trauma (such as the Native American population)
  • Co‐occurring disorders (such as mental illness or history of personal trauma)
  • Modeling the behavior of parents, other adults, or friends (they use drugs/alcohol so it’s normal for you to use)
  • Early use of alcohol or drugs (childhood and teen use make one more susceptible to addiction)
  • Addictive potential of the chemical itself (for example, cocaine is a highly addictive substance)

Children And Teenagers: Does A Family History Of SUDs Affect You?

YES. Family members who are addicts may affect the family dynamic in unhealthy ways (poor boundaries such a child parenting the adult, abuse, neglect, poor living situations or poverty, etc.) Additionally, genetic history is a strong predictor of addictions in each subsequent generation.

But My Parents Don’t Use So I Shouldn’t Have a Problem

Yes and No. If there is a history of addictions with your biological family, you are still at risk. Genetics account for about 50‐60% for you having a higher risk of being addicted ‐ even if your parents aren’t addicted. So it is very possible if you use substances, you will have a problem. Likewise, a percentage of children won’t have an addiction and can be social users of various substances (social users do not have consequences related to their use such as drunk driving, increased tolerance, losing a job, etc.) However, as noted above, you are also at risk due to other factors such as peer pressure, the addictiveness of the chemical, etc.)

But It Skipped A Generation

Genetics continue to influence you, even if your parents aren’t addicted. So it doesn’t really skip a generation although it may appear that way. Also, you may have other relatives such as aunts or uncles who are addicted.
Your parents may not use because they grew up in an addictive family and don’t use because they don’t want to create the same unhealthy family dynamics with you as they had growing up. In actuality, they may be prone to being addicted, but will never know because they don’t use. This is why it appears to skip a generation.

So What Should I Do?

  1.  Since addictions thrive in secrecy, you need to talk, talk, and talk some more to trusted family members or other adults such as family friends, a teacher, counselor, or spiritual mentor. Do not allow the “elephant in the living room” syndrome to take over and pretend that nothing is wrong. Communication is a must. You need to understand your family history and how it may impact you.
  2.  Secondly, become knowledgeable through your own learning. Read and educate yourself. This helps you to be in charge of your life. Do not allow an addiction to rule you; your life is yours to live and hopefully, to live in a healthy manner.
  3. Set boundaries with others. Do not let peer pressure force you to use to be “popular.” Let others know that you’re at risk for addictions and that you choose not to use because of this.
  4. Model your behavior on those who you admire, trust, and respect.
  5. Socialize with others who want to live free of addiction; they really do exist.
  6.  Attend 12‐step meetings such as Ala‐Teen or Al‐Anon and Nara‐Teen or Nar‐Anon which focus on issues that children/teens or adults of addicted parents/other family members may have, or ACA Teen or ACA (adult children of alcoholics – also called ACOA)  that explore the special issues and concerns about growing up in an addicted family system.
  7. Be involved in healthy activities such as school groups, the arts, sports, clubs, hobbies, and school‐led support groups for children and teens of addicted families.
  8. See a counselor who can help you deal with family issues, grieve, and learn healthy coping skills.
  9.  And finally, know that you are not alone. There is a lot of help out there. Seek it out.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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