Understanding and Supporting Families Impacted by Addiction

Family Praying Together

Reprinted with permission from NACoA, The National Ass'n for Children of Alcoholics

People suffering from alcohol or drug addiction may find themselves increasingly isolated from their families.  The effects of these illnesses an also extend beyond the nuclear family.  Extended family members may have a range of emotions, including abandonment, anxiety, fear, anger, concern, embarrassment, guilt, and even the desire to ignore or cut ties with the person dependent on alcohol and/or drugs.  However there is hope, and family members can play a critical role in supporting loved ones on their path of recovery, especially when they too avail themselves of recovery support programs for affected children and other family members.  Ultimately, the individual healing of each strengthens the potential for bringing healing to the entire family. 

A child or other affected family member needs to recognize that he or she is not the cause of a relative’s alcohol or drug abuse problem.  It is equally important to understand that, even though people can’t necessarily “cure” their relative’s addiction, they can help the family member through the recovery process by supporting and encouraging their recovery efforts and – at the same time – working on their own recovery from the pain and confusion caused by the presence of addiction in their own lives.

Understanding and addressing substance use disorders just like any other chronic disease can help family members know how to best support the member of their family who suffers from the disorder.  The SAMHSA publication What is Substance Abuse Treatment?  A Booklet for Families is an excellent source of information.  http://kap.samhsa.gov/products/brochures/pdfs/WhatIsTx.pdf

SAMHSA’s Children’s Program Kit, which is a free multi-media curriculum for all school age children, is a tool-kit for treatment and prevention providers, school-based student assistance programs, and faith-based and youth-serving agencies to help them provide structured activities and educational support groups for children and youth impacted by addiction in their homes.  The activities help the children make sense of what they are experiencing at home, cope with the stress of their families’ alcohol and substance abuse problems and strengthen their potential for resilience and healthier lives.  The activities are enjoyable as well as enlightening, and this encourages continued participation in the supportive learning process they facilitate.  The Kit is based on four cornerstones:

  •  Children deserve to have their own recovery and healing
  • Children deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, value, and worth
  • Children deserve to be listened to and heard, and
  •  Children deserve the opportunity to be kids.

Additional information about the Children’s Program Kit can be obtained by calling the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. (1-888-554-2627)

Beginning Steps Towards Helping Affected Family Members

1.       Encourage them to participate in a family support group such as Al-Anon/Alateen or Families Anonymous.  At these support groups, one can find others who have family members or close friends with substance use disorders.  Listening to stories can help some people overcome negative internal perceptions about substance use disorders.

2.       Support their becoming involved in the family member’s treatment and recovery and help them to understand that substance use disorders can be treated just as other diseases can be.

3.       Encourage emotionally healthy congregants to volunteer to be a mentor for a child who has a parent or close relative with a substance use disorder.  Mentors may serve as crucial educators and support figures, promoting learning and capability, providing exposure to positive influences, increasing a sense of efficacy, and helping youth realize their full potential. (Note:  Establishing a mentor-mentee relationship should always be approached, however, with a great deal of sensitivity, tact and care.)

4.       Encourage pediatricians, schools, and other people who routinely interact with children to identify children of parents who have substance use disorders and intervene to provide support.  Contact NACoA for more information (www.nacoa.org).

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5.       Consult helpful organizations to learn more about overcoming stigma and substance use disorders.  (See “helpful Links” page of this website.)