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How Does Addiction Run in Families?

Most people have a tendency to think about addiction in terms of individuals, which is understandable. After all, this is a disease that develops through the choices and behaviors of individuals. However, addiction is a unique disease in that its direct influence extends far beyond individuals, reaching throughout their families, social groups and communities. There’s no understating how far the effects of this deadly disease reach.

Recent decades have seen tremendous growth in the amount of research being conducted in the hope of better understanding the origins of addiction. Among the many things we’ve learned from addiction research, a clear pattern has emerged wherein the children of alcoholics and drug addicts are significantly more likely to develop substance abuse problems than their peers with non-addicted parents.1 In other words, the implication is that people who have familial relationships with those in addiction have an increased susceptibility to the disease. But what is it, exactly, that causes addiction to run in families? It’s an easy question to ask, but it’s proven to be quite a difficult, complicated one to answer.

Addiction and Hereditary Genetics

One answer to this question would be genetics. When people in a family share a biological trait — whether it’s hair color, eye color, skin color, a tendency to bruise easily or one of countless other types of hereditary traits — the assumption is that, rather than being happenstance, the shared trait was passed from the parents to their children through genes. Therefore, when members of the same family exhibit a tendency to develop substance abuse problems at a rate that’s higher than average for those individuals’ demographics, it’s reasonable to conclude that the frequency of addiction in the family is due to hereditary genetics.

In the simplest of terms, a gene is a type of molecule that carries a person’s chromosomes,2 which are essentially the blueprint or recipe for a person’s biological makeup. These specific genes — which we inherit from our parents — are what determine each person’s physical being, but they can also pass on other characteristics, including psychological disorders and diseases. So if addiction is a disease of the brain, one would expect there to be certain genes that could cause addiction. But it doesn’t quite work that way.

For a moment, let’s pretend that there was one specific gene that’s known, without a doubt, to be the “addiction gene.” Inheriting the addiction gene wouldn’t mean that a person would have a 100-percent chance of becoming an addict. Instead, someone with the addiction gene would simply be more susceptible to addiction, and susceptibility is distinct from causality.3 In this example, it would mean the addiction gene contributes to certain characteristics — most likely psychological — that would make a person either more likely to experiment with substance use or more likely to lose control in the event that he or she were to drink alcohol or use drugs. The influence of the gene would equate to higher risk of addiction.

However, there has not yet been a gene or genes identified as the direct cause of addiction. In reality, several genes seem to result in an increased risk of addiction,4 but, again, that does not mean genes are the sole reason the addiction develops. After all, a gene cannot put the drink or drugs in one’s hand, so hereditary genetics is not the only explanation for elevated rates of addiction among families.

Environmental Exposure to Addiction

Besides genetic information, there’s something else families share that could account for the higher-than-average addiction rates in families: environment. If someone were to attempt to explain why addiction tends to develop with above-average frequency within families, there’s a good chance he or she would attribute it to the influence of being in an environment where one’s family members engage in substance use.

A person’s environment is an extremely influential part of his or her life. In fact, there’s an entire branch of psychology that specifically studies how a person’s behavior is molded by his or her environment, which is called environmental psychology.5 To be clear, environment doesn’t just refer to a physical location, but also the people who surround an individual at that location. We all have many different environments, each of which consist of different locations where we interact with different groups of people. We have work environments, school environments, home environments, retail environments and many others. Each of these environments are closely tied to a specific demeanor or way of behaving, which is usually learned from other people in that environment. The case is the same for a person’s home environment.

The home environment — which is where one’s social learning begins — is vital to a person’s development and remains important throughout one’s life. During childhood, a person learns social skills from his or her parents and family members. In fact, it’s not just social behavior, but behavior in general. This is referred to as modeling.6 This phenomenon is very well documented and is why, for example, you might see a child puffing on a pen like it’s a cigarette or adopting many of the same figures of speech as his or her parents. Even adolescents and teenagers will unknowingly adopt behaviors they’re seeing from their parents, often without even realizing that they’re exhibiting a behavior they’ve picked up from their parents.

There are many different types of behaviors that people can pick up from their parents. A number of studies have confirmed that even emotion can be passed along from parents to children. In one example, the children of parents with aggression problems exhibited issues with aggression themselves.7 Since it’s so easy to pass aggression and other characteristics to other people in one’s environment, it should come as little surprise that this can also happen with substance use.

According to the learning theory of addiction, one of the most common ways in which a person develops a substance use disorder is through social learning, which occurs when a person learns and adopts a behavior after observing someone else exhibiting that behavior.8 In the family environment, this means when there’s one family member who has a substance use problem or suffers from addiction, the individual’s other family members are significantly more likely to develop substance use problems through social learning.

While behavior modeling and learning theory are compelling explanations for the increased frequency of addiction in families, it would be unreasonable to assign complete causality to the environment. The main reason why this conclusion can’t be drawn is because there are many people who were raised by parents with substance use problems, and they all didn’t become addicted to alcohol or drugs themselves. Although it’s plausible that a person could adopt substance abuse tendencies by sharing a home environment with an addicted loved one, this would not guarantee that the individual would become addicted.

Nature and Nurture: Meeting in the Middle

We now know any genes that might be linked to addiction could only make a person more susceptible to addiction rather than making addiction a certainty. On the other hand, the environment is a compelling explanation due to the phenomenon of behavior modeling, which is consistent with the learning theory of addiction. But the environment can’t be the sole explanation because of the numerous people who grew up with addicted parents without developing an addiction themselves.

Instead of one or the other, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. A family history of addiction is due to “the interaction between genes and environment.”9 While this may make you feel like you’re being attacked from two different directions, it’s actually good news. Despite certain genes making a person susceptible to substance use problems or being exposed to substance abuse at home, the development of an addiction still comes down to the individual. Just as people with no predisposition factors can develop an addiction, being predisposed for addiction doesn’t mean that one’s fate is sealed. Furthermore, anyone who has an addiction but seeks comprehensive treatment can go on to live a full, healthy life in recovery, regardless of genes and environment.



Written by Dane O’Leary