Escaping a Family History of Addiction

When you are surrounded by addiction in your immediate family, it is easy to feel like your own downfall will occur in just a matter of time. The genetic, inheritable nature of disease has become well known, and it can be disconcerting to know that one or more of your parents, and perhaps your siblings as well, are all suffering from addictions. Quite apart from the pain and frustration of being in such close proximity to addiction, it is hard not to wonder and to fear what that significant family history means for your own health and future.

“Nature vs. Nurture” and Addiction

While science has so far been unable to isolate specific genes that are responsible for addiction development, the scientific community currently estimates that approximately 50 percent of a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction is genetic and inheritable. This is not an encouraging figure for someone who has a clear family history of this disease.

The genetic risk of addiction can often be exacerbated for individuals who grew up with parents who suffered from addiction. If addiction is equal parts genetics and personal experiences, “nature and nurture”, then individuals who grew up exposed to addiction-related behaviors may be even more susceptible to developing an addiction of their own.

Environmental Risk Factors for Addiction

Of course, “nurturing” the potential for addiction is much more complex than simple exposure to an individual with an addiction. Addiction is not an infectious disease that can be passed directly from person to person, like influenza.

Instead, the risks of addiction exposure are variable and psychological in nature. For example, there is the risk that young people growing up with an alcoholic or drug addicted parent may come to view drug use or excessive alcohol use as normal rather than abnormal and unhealthy. Parents with addiction may not model positive relationships and effective communication, causing their children to struggle to form positive relationships of their own. They may come to view drugs or alcohol as necessary social lubricants, or simply use these substances to mitigate the frustration and loneliness that results from these struggles. The children of addicts may also have psychological trauma that causes them to turn to alcohol or drugs as a means of self-medication.

Recognizing the Risk

Individuals who are concerned about their family history of addiction already have two factors working in their favor. One is the recognition that the behavior modeled by their parents or other family members is not normal or healthy, but driven by disease. Even more significant is the recognition of their own genetic risk factors, and the ability to take preventative measures as a result.

The challenge for many people with a significant family history of addiction is that much of that history may be hidden from them. In previous generations, and to a large extent in the current one, addiction has been considered to be shameful. As a result, addiction is often not discussed among families, even when the information is relevant to other members of the family.

Taking Steps to Avoid Addiction

Those who do know that addiction runs in their family have the opportunity to take certain steps or avoid additional risk factors in order to keep themselves healthy.

One such step, particularly for the children of addicts, is to seek counseling to help them deal with unresolved issues related to growing up in an addicted household. Counseling can help individuals to develop stronger coping and communication skills, or to resolve lingering resentment, anger, or other emotions bred in an unhealthy environment.

Those who know their family history of addiction may also want to make cautious decisions when it comes to substance use. Highly addictive drugs such as heroin or crack cocaine can cause individuals to become addicted after only one or two uses. Many people assume that there is no danger of addiction with one-time experimentation, but this is not the case. Individuals with significant genetic risk for addiction may be more susceptible to rapid onset of addiction through the use of such substances. These individuals may also want to moderate their use of less volatile addictive substances, such as alcohol.