Anybody can become addicted to alcohol, pharmaceuticals or illegal substances, regardless of their age, race, gender or social status. However, there are certain factors that can increase one’s risk, and a family history of addiction is one of them.
“Very rarely do we see someone in our treatment facility who has no history of addiction in their family,” says Dr. Monica Hinton, a behavioral health therapist with Sharp McDonald Center, a chemical dependency recovery hospital. “Anyone who has a close relative with an addiction problem has a higher risk of eventually having one themselves.”
For Dr. Hinton, this reality hits close to home. Her father and both grandfathers were addicted to alcohol, and she personally witnessed the effect one’s drinking has on an entire family. It was a combination of her experiences, stories heard about the problems caused by family members’ addictions, and a college research paper that brought Dr. Hinton to the realization that she did not want to continue her family’s cycle of addiction.
“I was randomly given a college assignment to study alcohol addiction and learned that addiction is hereditary,” Dr. Hinton says. “I went straight to my brother and told him we needed to make a pact to not become addicted to alcohol or other substances and he agreed. We’ve stuck to our pact throughout our entire lives.”
Another factor that contributes to a recurring cycle of addiction within a family is the behaviors witnessed by young family members. When alcohol or substance abuse is common and normalized, then young people are more likely to follow the example being set. Furthermore, parents with addiction problems are less likely to be present in a child’s life.
According to Dr. Hinton, children lacking supervision, strong attachment or positive role models within the family structure have a higher risk of becoming addicted to alcohol or other substances. They are also more likely to consume substances at a younger age than others, which increases their risk of becoming addicted compared to those who started alcohol or substance use at a later age.
“The average age our patients report they started to drink alcohol or use substances is 12 or 13,” Dr. Hinton says. “It can be even earlier if they have older siblings who also have addiction problems.”
What is initially seen as harmless behavior — a way to feel better about oneself or cope with a current situation — can quickly turn into a very serious problem.
She recommends that parents, especially those with a family history of addiction, talk to their children early about the risk of alcohol and substance use. “You can’t simply tell kids not to do it,” she says. “You have to make sure they understand all of the risks involved, including addiction.”
Though Dr. Hinton’s father suffered with addiction, he was very clear when talking to his children about the negative consequences of his alcohol abuse. He admitted that he was unable to control his alcohol use and shared the reasons why he did not want the young Dr. Hinton and her brother to risk addiction by starting to drink alcohol or use other substances.
“My father was very open about his drinking and talked often about why he did not want the same for us,” she says. “There are so many reasons not to drink or use drugs, including physical and mental health risks, legal troubles, relationship problems at home and work, and — ultimately — addiction and even death. Parents must be comfortable talking to their children about these risks and maintain open communication about alcohol, drugs and any family history of addiction.”
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your or a loved one’s use of alcohol or other substances. Sharp McDonald Center, Sharp Grossmont Hospital and Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital all provide substance abuse programs to help define a recovery path that works best for you.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Monica Hinton about family addiction cycles for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.