Breaking the Familial Cycle of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a healthcare crisis in the United States. So many factors contribute to different people developing substance use disorder, one of which can be family. Genetics can be a big contributing factor but even more powerful are the learned experiences of substance abuse in the home, as well as behaviors and trauma that contribute to future substance abuse. That makes breaking the familial cycle of substance use that much more powerful.

Genetics and Substance Abuse

When addiction occurs in a family, there is a 50% chance that children will be predisposed to addiction through genetics. Some substances carry a higher or lower genetic risk, but the average is one in two children risk addiction through genes alone. 

Having the genetic markers for chronic alcoholism or addiction does not guarantee that the child will develop an addiction. Genes are only one contributing factor. It is when genes combine with environmental factors that we see addiction in families occurring even more often.

Environmental Factors within the Family

One of the most powerful environmental factors for addiction is witnessing chronic alcoholism or other addiction in the home. Learned behaviors are far more powerful than words or lessons from outside of the home. Even though children may grow up despising their parent’s addiction and associated behaviors, they are most likely to repeat that cycle because it is all they know. Coping with problems, dealing with relationships and escaping from reality are all lessons taught with substances in homes with addiction, and thus, substances are the most likely place that children look when they are faced with those same life experiences.

In addition to the obvious learned behaviors, other environmental factors in the home can include:

  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • Lack of emotional connection with addicted family members
  • Parentification (when young children care for parents and siblings)
  • Witnessing fighting or violence in the home
  • Increased divorce rates
  • Financial hardships related to addiction, including job loss
  • Untreated co-occurring disorders
  • Accessibility to substances

Exposure to trauma, particularly when it is repeated over an extended period, is a common reason that people turn to substances, as they are unable to process the pain on their own. This idea of self-medicating the pain is common in families with substance use, handed down from generation to generation. Combine all the pain and trauma with increased access to substances and it seems clear why children of parents with addictions become addicted to substances themselves.

Addiction Inside the Home

Children of parents with a substance use disorder (SUD) witness a lot. Some experience abuse and trauma firsthand. Inevitably, many children will grow up swearing that they will never drink or use drugs like their parents. And inevitably, most children grow up doing exactly what their parents did. When addiction is in the home, it is really difficult, particularly for children, to change their fate. Genetically and environmentally, they are more likely than not to end up on the same path of addiction. 

Recovering from Addiction Despite Family

Drinking and using drugs have long-term physical and emotional consequences. However, just because someone grew up with addiction in the family and became addicted themselves does not mean that they cannot figure out how to beat addictions. Despite all the genetic and environmental pulls, we can recover from addiction no matter what our family situations were. Recovery and breaking the familial cycle of alcoholism or drug addiction is hard. But it is also worth it. Not just for the individual but also for future generations. One person can break the chains of addiction and free future generations or even inspire those still living to make a better life for themselves.

Breaking the Cycle

Strive to be that person in the family tree who changed the course for future generations, showing them how much more they can be, what it is to live a life free of substance abuse and all of the corresponding behaviors, pain and trauma. To be that person who changes the course of life for those who will come after them. That is the power of breaking the cycle.


Breaking the cycle begins with breaking your own addiction. Free yourself from all of the pain and trauma your family has taught you and allow yourself to be your own person. Genetics may tell you that you have a propensity towards substance use, but environmental factors are more powerful. You are more powerful. At DiscoveryMD, we offer everything you could need in outpatient care to treat substance abuse. Contact us so we can help you find the best way to succeed in freeing yourself from your family’s cycle of pain and addiction. Be that one who changes the course for generations to come. We want to be the first to welcome you to your new life. 

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