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 Monica Hinton, a social worker at Sharp McDonald Center, a chemical dependency recovery hospital. “Anyone who has a close relative such as a parent, sibling or grandparent with an addiction problem has a higher risk of eventually having one themselves.”
For Monica, this reality hits close to home. Her father and both grandfathers were addicted to alcohol, and she personally witnessed the effect addiction has on an entire family. It was a combination of her personal experiences, involvement with Alateen (Al-Anon for adolescents) and a college research paper that brought Monica 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 40-60 percent of addiction is hereditary or genetic. However, being vulnerable to addiction does not result in inevitably becoming addicted,” Monica says. “I went straight to my brother and told him we needed to make a promise to not become addicted to alcohol or other substances and he agreed. We’ve stuck to our agreement throughout our entire lives.”
Other factors that contribute to a recurring cycle of addiction within a family include trauma within the family, witnessing dysfunctional behaviors, mental health challenges and if the use of alcohol is common or normalized as part of the culture or family structure. Young people often repeat behaviors and actions that are modeled for them by parents, caregivers and other family members.
According to Monica, children lacking in healthy parental/caregiver attachments 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,” Monica says. Research has shown alcohol and drug use at an early age effects proper brain maturity and is linked to long-term health risks. Additionally, early use makes it more difficult to stop later in life.
What is initially seen as harmless behavior — a way to feel better about oneself or cope with a current situation — could develop 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 Monica’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 Monica and her brother to risk addiction by starting to drink alcohol or use other substances.
“My father was very open about his alcohol addiction 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, problems with the legal system, interpersonal problems at home and work, employment and financial losses and — ultimately — addiction and even death.” Monica recommends that parents be comfortable talking to their children about these risks and maintain open communication about alcohol, drug use 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 Monica about family addiction cycles for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.