Does Substance Abuse Run in Families?

substance abuse in families whole family

Most people assign the term ”addiction” solely to an individual; this is not surprising since we all have agency over our choices and behaviour, including whether or not we decide to drink or take drugs.

What is an addiction?

Addiction is a disease that develops through a person’s behaviour, the lifestyle they lead, and the choices they make.

However, the influence to consume alcohol or take drugs goes way beyond the individual; addiction is a disease that extends into communities, families and social networks.

Understanding substance use disorders

Much research has gotten conducted to help us better understand the origins of alcohol and drug abuse.

Studies have shown a direct correlation between children of alcoholics and drug addicts and the likelihood of those children becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol in adulthood.

Substance use and addiction

substance abuse in families woman taking pill

Children who grow up in environments where drug and alcohol abuse are rife are significantly more likely to develop substance use disorders in later life than those without addicted parents.

The research literature shows that those who have addicted family members have a significantly increased susceptibility to developing substance abuse issues.

However, the key word to note is susceptibility; not everyone with a family history of substance abuse develops a substance use disorder.

Genetic factors

If we look at genetics as the primary cause of addiction, we might find many different explanations. However, the debate on ”what causes addiction?” extends beyond genetic factors.

Let’s roll with the theory of genetics for a moment. Many people in the same family have shared genetic traits. For example, they may have the same hair colour, eye colour, or similar allergies to things like nuts or strawberries.

Gene pool

Such people may share other hereditary traits, and rather than being coincidental, the conclusion is that these traits are passed down from parent to child through specific genes.

Perhaps the above explanation is plausible – however, there are counter-arguments to what causes diseases like addiction in families, such as the nature-nurture debate.

Family history

Many theories state that a person with a family history of substance abuse is more likely to develop an addiction. According to the National Council On Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the single most reliable indicator of drug or alcohol dependence is family history.

Another study showed that specific genes could be a risk factor for substance addiction. For example, how specific genes metabolise alcohol in your system may increase your risk of addiction.

Such genes get passed down through generations, suggesting that family history profoundly increases your chances of developing a substance use disorder.

Family-oriented risk factors

Experts report several family-related risk factors that may put you at higher risk of addiction; they include:

  • One or more parents suffering from a mental health condition such as depression
  • One (or both) parents engaging in substance abuse or having an addiction to drugs or alcohol
  • Family trauma or dysfunction, including domestic abuse, aggression and conflict


Studies have shown that drug addiction and alcoholism have environmental and genetic causes.

In the United States, over twenty-eight million American children have parents who abuse alcohol, and around eleven million children in this cohort are under eighteen.

Children of addicts

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Moreover, further studies show that children of alcoholics or drug addicts are up to eight times more likely to develop a substance use disorder.

Additionally, solid genetic components suggest a higher susceptibility to alcoholism in males, particularly the sons of alcoholic fathers, who are four times more likely to become addicted to alcohol in later life.

Mental health problems

The literature on addiction shows that children of alcoholics or drug abusers experience significant physical or mental health issues and higher welfare costs than children without such family histories.

Other studies suggest a connection between child abuse and neglect and parental addiction in many studied cases.

If there was such a thing as an ”addiction gene”, having this gene passed down to you would not necessarily put you at a hundred per cent risk of developing an addiction.

However, suppose you did inherit the addiction gene from your family; in that case, you would be susceptible to addiction and substance use disorders.

It’s crucial to distinguish between having susceptibility to something and causation; the two are entirely different terms that signify unique realities. Inherently, having a specific gene increases your risk of addiction.

Environmental factors

The age-old nature-nurture debate asks a similar question but includes much broader dimensions; is behaviour learned from one’s environment or inherited?

Our environments significantly influence how we think, feel and behave. An entire discipline dedicated to environmental psychology studies human behaviour based on environmental factors. 

Many psychologists believe that one’s environment is not just about geography; it’s about other external influences such as the company a person keeps. Thus environmental psychology considers the person’s whole surroundings, location and other factors to understand what influences and shapes behaviour.

Home environment

substance abuse in families mother and daughter

Social learning begins at home -as a child develops, they model their behaviour through observations from parents and siblings.

During childhood, individuals develop social learning skills from their parents and family members. For example, children very often mirror their parent’s actions or behaviours; you may find that a child pretends to puff on a cigarette with a pencil or sips tea from a cup in the same way as their caregivers.

The above sometimes gets referred to as behaviour modelling, wherein a child models their parent’s behaviours.


Young adults and teenagers engage in similar modelling behaviours – but at a self-destructive level through drinking or drug-taking.

Such behaviours may have been observed in a person’s childhood environment where one or more parents engaged in substance abuse -resulting in the child turned teenager modelling such habits.

Studies show that when children witness aggression from their parents, they are more likely to demonstrate higher levels of aggression.

If aggression and other characteristics can get passed onto children through their environment, what’s to say that the same can’t happen with addiction?

Learning theory of addiction

The learning theory of addiction model believes that social learning is the common pathway to addiction. For example, an individual learns and engages in certain behaviours after witnessing such behaviours from another person or group of people.

In family environments where one or more family members suffer from a substance use disorder, the addict’s other family members are more likely to develop substance use problems through social learning.

Broader explanations

Although environmental factors play a significant role in addiction and substance abuse, we cannot base all our conclusions on one’s environment.

Why is this? 

Suppose you think about the many people who grow up in households with prevalent substance abuse, yet such people do not develop addictions. In that case, this dispels the social learning theory to a degree.

What might be wise would be to conclude genetic and environmental factors as key contributors to the development of addiction and substance use disorders.

Nature versus nurture

Since genetics can make a person susceptible to addiction, we may extend this learning to one’s environment, another compelling factor due to modelling behaviour and social learning theories.

Nature supposes that addiction gets inherited through genes, and nurture postulates that addiction develops through a person’s environment. However, the truth exists somewhere in the middle.

The environment cannot be entirely responsible for a person’s propensity to addiction since many non-addicted people grew up in environments where substance abuse was rife.

Just as people with no risk factors often develop addictions, those predisposed to addiction do not necessarily develop substance use disorders. Essentially, your fate is not sealed just because you tick the list of risk factors. Being predisposed to addiction does not determine your future.


substance abuse in families mother and son

Fortunately, help is available to those with addictions and their families. Various therapies help to treat the root cause of addiction and the symptoms.

In many cases of addiction, a person may get diagnosed with a concurrent disorder, meaning that substance addiction and other conditions such as depression or anxiety are present. Treatment interventions must get tailored to address and treat co-occurring disorders simultaneously. 

Effective treatments for substance use disorders include:

Contact us

If you think you or a loved one might have an addiction, don’t hesitate to contact a specialist at Centres for Health and Healing who can help.

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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