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How Substance Use Disorders Can Impact Families

How Substance Use Disorders Can Impact Families

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are still stigmatized in our society. Unfortunately, the stigma can make getting honest, reliable information and resources difficult if you or a loved one is struggling. Though this situation is improving, there is still work to be done.

As a result, many people who have never encountered SUDs do not realize that substance use disorders do not just impact the individual but their family and friends as well. Loved ones of a person with a SUD must go on their own journeys of healing as they learn to rebuild trust, shed prejudices, abstain from enabling, and work on themselves and their relationships as their loved ones heal.

The path toward recovery is difficult for all involved, and the support of loved ones is an essential component of reaching long-term recovery. However, in order to offer or receive healthy support, it is important to understand how substance use disorders can impact those loved ones. The team at Recovery Cove offers comprehensive, judgment-free resources to those on the path to recovery as well as their families, including this brief guide.

What Is Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorder is a mental health disorder that involves an individual's inability to control or cease substance use despite the presence of negative consequences. In many cases, this involves an individual using street drugs, alcohol, or prescription medications without being able to stop.

Many of those who experience substance use disorder realize the harm that the substance is causing to their minds and bodies but are unable to control their usage. This can lead to problems performing day-to-day tasks such as working, taking care of themselves, upholding parental responsibilities, or spending quality time with family. As SUD worsens, it can lead to unemployment, relationship issues, neglect or abuse, and more.

What Role Does Family Play in Addiction?

Though substance use disorder affects the family in many ways, which we will discuss, the family may also play a role in influencing or creating the disordered behaviors. Substance use disorders are closely related to genetics, meaning that they can "run in the family." If a family has a history of a substance use disorder, current and future generations are more likely to struggle as well.

A family environment that is stressful or unstable can also contribute to an individual's tendency to use illicit substances or misuse prescription medications. Chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to substance use disorder or disordered habits. Those who experience stress at home are more likely to develop a substance use disorder in the short and long term.

Finally, as mentioned, family support is important to the individual’s long-term recovery. The components of effective family support will be discussed later.

What Is the Impact of a Substance Use Disorder on a Family and Relationships?

Impact of a Substance Use Disorder on a Family and Relationships

Though a family can certainly contribute to an individual’s substance use habits, the crux of substance use disorder ultimately rests on the person with SUD. Meanwhile, the habits and behaviors displayed by the individual can significantly impact the family. In this way, one individual who experiences substance use disorder can have a ripple effect on a large group of people, including parents, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, workmates, and more.

The ways substance use disorder can affect the family are numerous and complex. The individual impact depends on the person’s relationship with the individual struggling with addiction. Learn more about the impacts of SUD on family members.

Spouse or Partner

Substance use disorder often heavily impacts intimate relations, such as those with a partner or spouse. This is typically because of their close proximity and continuous involvement with the afflicted individual. In most intimate partnerships, avoiding or ignoring the results of a substance use disorder is difficult.

SUD affects partners in many ways. Perhaps the most dangerous of these is the increased likelihood of intimate partner violence. Though not all individuals with SUD turn to violence while they are under the influence, there is a higher-than-normal risk that they will act out of anger, resentment, or distaste. These emotions may stem from any number of places, but intimate partners are often on the receiving end of any violent outbursts.

Substance use disorder generally leads to a lower quality of interaction between spouses. When one individual is under the influence of a controlled substance, it can become difficult to have serious conversations, connect emotionally, have sex or otherwise engage in intimacy, and more. An inability to participate in these basic relationship necessities can lead to strained relationships and dissatisfaction in a marriage or serious partnership. SUD can similarly affect a spouse’s perception of their partner, leading to a diminished desire to engage in intimacy or even participate in daily interactions.

The impact of SUD on a spouse will also depend on whether the couple shares children. If they do, the substance use can leave the other spouse to perform an inflated percentage of daily household and childcare tasks. Unequal parental contributions or even poor parenting may lead to resentment or other problems within a partnership.

Suggested Reading: Toxic Relationships and Addiction


Children are naturally dependent on their parents and can be significantly affected by a parent’s choices and behaviors. However, the children of a person with a substance use disorder can be extremely negatively impacted, even if their other parent remains sober. Some of the effects appear right away as the child experiences them, while others cause trauma that takes years to fully develop.

Parents with substance use disorders often have difficulty providing a stable home for their children. There are often disruptions in routine, and the child may grow up with a sense of unease or unsettlement. Many children in SUD households grow up without a clear sense of what adult communication should be, and natural roles can become reversed. The household’s finances may be jeopardized by the parent’s SUD, creating a financial vulnerability that impacts the child’s social life and education. This can impact their emotional development, leading to mental health disorders and other ongoing psychological issues.

Childhood relationships are the foundation for further relationships later in life. If a child is shown stability, boundaries, and healthy communication when they are young, they are likely to seek these qualities in their future spouse, friends, and loved ones. However, if a child grows up in an environment that lacks healthy habits and relationships, they may seek out what they knew as they grew up. In this way, SUDs can cause generational issues if left unchecked.

Finally, because of the genetic component of substance use disorders, children of a person with SUD may struggle with substance use as well. If not given the tools to break the cycle, the child may then pass this behavior on to their own children.


In some cases, substance use disorders do not appear until adulthood. In other scenarios, they present in adolescence. Regardless of when it fully appears, many people who develop a SUD show behavioral signs during childhood and teenage years.

This condition heavily impacts the siblings of a person with a substance use disorder. Often, parents of a person with SUD focus on their needs while ignoring or delaying the needs of the child’s siblings. Siblings often feel neglected, angry, lonely, or unimportant in these situations. They may receive less attention than their sibling and may even face stereotypes or assumptions at school and in the community because of their sibling’s condition.

The siblings of a person with a substance use disorder may also assume the caretaker role, depending on the family circumstances and dynamics. Taking on this role can cause physical and psychological damage to the siblings, while their needs will likely remain unmet by the parents who focus on their child with SUD. In some situations, this means that a young child is performing care tasks far too mature for their psychological development. It can also mean a younger sibling caring for an older sibling, a prime example of the role confusion that often stems from substance use disorders.


Parents of individuals with substance use disorder face countless effects of their child’s illness, both physically and mentally. People with substance use disorders may be manipulative or difficult during their teenage years, regardless of whether their condition has fully manifested. Many teenagers experiment with substances, which can be the beginning of a SUD. Teenagers with developing substance use disorder may lie, deceive, or even steal from their parents. The manipulation may begin in small ways but often escalates as the condition worsens.

Unfortunately, many parents feel guilty or blame themselves for their child’s behavior. This is not a fair or logical thought process. Substance use disorders are not a parent’s fault. Regardless of the reality, parents of people with substance use disorders feel responsible for what has happened to their children.

As a consequence, some parents feel embarrassed about their child’s lifestyles. They may try to excuse their child’s behavior or hide them from their friends and community to combat this feeling. These strong feelings can lead to low self-esteem for parents, which diminishes their ability to support their children on their healing journey.

Many parents of children with SUD remain in a caretaker role far longer than they normally would. Accordingly, many people with substance use disorders rely on their parents and family well into adulthood, which can prevent parents from entering age-appropriate stages of life, such as empty nesting and retirement.

"Recovery takes a village, and our team at Recovery Cove is here to help you reestablish the most important parts of yours. "

Signs SUD Is Impacting a Relationship

Substance use disorder can impact relationships in many different ways already discussed above. While the effects a person experiences depend on their relationship with the person with a substance use disorder, there are common signs that a SUD is beginning to impact a relationship.

These signs include:

  • Frequent fights, either verbal or physical, about alcohol, drugs, or other substances
  • Arguments about finances, responsibilities, going out or staying out late, and more
  • Isolation from others and the community
  • Physical violence
  • Weakened or strained emotional connection
  • Diminished intimacy or sexual relations
  • Neglect of the relationship
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions
Many more examples exist of how substance use disorders can affect a relationship, depending on the individuals involved, as well as the stage of the SUD and the details of the situation.

Family Reactions to Addiction

A family's reaction to their loved one with a substance use disorder depends on the situation. Some families have healthy communication and support tools that they can use to provide effective help to their loved ones. However, other families do not have the emotional tools necessary to engage with their family members in an appropriate and helpful way.

It is common for family members to react to their loved ones with anger, disgust, or disappointment. For many people, these emotions are more complicated than they understand, leading to reactions that are not necessarily productive. Though this kind of behavior is normal, it is important to try to engage productively with your loved one with a SUD.

First and foremost, family members must remember that substance use disorders are not personal attacks or acts of spite. In fact, someone else's SUD has nothing to do with you at all; you did not cause it, you cannot cure it, and you cannot control it. Rather, it is the result of their own personal struggles. With this in mind, it is important for family members to refrain from taking the situation personally.

When you engage with or react to your family member with SUD, remember that their condition is treatable. Many people feel helpless when faced with the effects of SUD, but there is absolutely hope for those who are suffering. These conditions are difficult, but there is hope.

Open communication is essential when interacting with a family member with SUD. Try to speak honestly without being accusatory or angry. At the same time, you should make it clear that you are concerned, that you will not continue to enable their behavior, and that you are available to assist them with getting the help they need. Both inpatient and outpatient treatments are available around the country for those with SUDs who wish to get help for their condition.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) has additional online resources for families of people with substance use disorders.

Suggested Reading: Benefits of Outpatient Care

Dealing With the Effects of SUD

Family Therapy for SUD

As a family member of an individual with a substance use disorder, it is important that you address and process the effects of your loved one’s SUD. As discussed,aSUD can have a significant impact on an individual’s family, and acknowledging this can help you to break the cycle of substance use and the harm it causes. The type of action you choose to take will depend on your relationship with the individual with SUD, as well as your family dynamic.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is an all-encompassing way to address the effects of SUD on a family. With the help of a licensed and highly trained therapist, you and your family can process the ways your loved one’s SUD has affected you. The facilitating therapist can guide you while you discuss different areas of your life that have been impacted, some of which you may not have realized. In this controlled and safe environment, you can explore your feelings and process any trauma associated with your loved one’s substance use disorder.

Individual Therapy

In addition to family therapy, individual therapy can help you to focus on your personal needs rather than on your family dynamic. Many people who are close to an individual with SUD internalize their feelings and may even deny their own needs to accommodate their loved one. Emotional repression can have lasting effects on your mental and physical help, and family therapy does not always provide you with enough time to process all your feelings. Individual therapy allows you to focus on yourself and the ways you need to heal from the effects of SUD.


When someone in your family demands extra attention and care, it can cause you to neglect yourself in multiple ways. Engaging in self-care activities like getting extra rest, going for a walk, healthy eating, massage, exercise, and more can help to minimize resentment and restore your energy, both of which can help the family overall. Other forms of self-care can be extremely helpful for those close to an individual with SUD.

There is no single way to deal with the effects of SUD. Ultimately, it is important to engage in activities that help you to feel stable and secure so that you can bring that kind of energy to the entire family dynamic. This will ultimately serve your family members with SUD as well as your remaining family members and yourself.

Rebuilding After Substance Use Disorder

Though many recovery programs focus on ways in which the recovering individual can repair their relationships, few talk about what can be done by the family of a person with SUD. Depending on the journey your family has been on, you may experience residual resentment or difficult emotions even after your loved one is well on the path toward recovery. If you are ready to facilitate healing within your family dynamic, there are tips you can follow to make the process smoother for everyone.

Suggested Reading: Repairing Relations Broken By Addiction


Many people with substance use disorders lie to their families while they are engaging in substance use. Lies may serve to hide the extent of their condition or to minimize suspicion among their family members. No matter the situation that you are in, trust is required if you want to rebuild your family relationships.

Reinstating trust can be difficult, especially if your loved one has struggled with substance use for a long time. Chances are, your trust has been broken many different times. That can make it difficult to extend again.

Try to take this process slowly. Trust your loved one with small tasks, items, or information at first. They must be allowed to prove that they are worthy of your trust. Keep in mind that it is normal for you to feel frightened. Small acts of trust will begin the process while posing little threat to your boundaries.


All healthy family dynamics require healthy and effective communication. However, the method of communication that works for your family will be different from the method that works for another. Meet as a family and discuss how you will relay information, express feelings, and navigate disagreements as you move forward. When you establish your method of communication together, everyone will feel more comfortable utilizing the tools that you choose.

Though it may feel silly, over-communicating about small, everyday information may be helpful at first. Though you do not have to disclose deeply personal information, communicating about basic activities and feelings can help to establish your new dynamic.


Though it may be challenging, try to stay patient throughout your rebuilding process. Substance use disorders can cause a great deal of damage, and some things may never truly return to the way that they were. However, being patient and open-minded can help you to accept the new normal and incorporate healthy habits into your daily family life.

Preventing Substance Use Disorder

As mentioned, some people may be genetically predisposed to developing an SUD. Preventing your loved ones from succumbing to a substance use disorder is possible. This can be especially helpful if your children are still young and impressionable.

Again, communication is an effective tool in preventing substance use disorder. Establishing healthy communication when your children are young can prevent them from lying or participating in risky behavior when they get older. With an established method of communication, when your children face peer pressure about drugs and alcohol, they may be able to talk to you about it rather than engage in it.

Setting boundaries is another way to prevent substance use disorders. Regardless of the ages of your family members, outline your expectations surrounding drug and alcohol use as well as the potential consequences for crossing those boundaries. When you've established healthy modes of communication, you can address any boundary violations effectively if they should happen.

Bolstering your child’s self-esteem, encouraging their hobbies, and steering them toward friends that are good influences can all help to avoid substance use disorder, as well. However, in some situations, substance use disorders occur despite your best efforts. If you suspect that someone in your family is developing a substance use problem, approach the situation calmly and offer to help them get the help they need.

Contact Recovery Cove for Family Services

Recovery Cove

Recovery takes a village, and our team at Recovery Cove is here to help you reestablish the most important parts of yours. Whether you are struggling with a substance use disorder or have a loved one with SUD, we have outpatient programs that can help to facilitate recovery. We are proud to offer family therapy options for those who are affected by someone with a SUD.

For more information about SUD, to inquire about programs, or to take the next step toward a substance-free future, contact Recovery Cove today.


  1. https://www.bumc.bu.edu/genetics/research/substanceabuse/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732004/
  3. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-26127-015
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3725219/
  5. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction-substance-use-disorders/what-is-a-substance-use-disorder

About Christine Todd, MS, LPC, CAADC

Clinical Director Christine Todd is a Licensed Professional Counselor and an Advanced Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor who enjoys working directly with a population that struggles with addiction and mental health disorders. Christine brings many years of clinical experience to the team at Recovery Cove, where she is currently the Clinical Director. In her role, she oversees the clinical department as a leader, educator and mentor, designing programming and protocols for a diverse client population. Learn More About Christone Todd, MS, LPC, CAADC

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