Effects of Substance Abuse on Family Members

Substance abusers, drug addicts and alcoholics, can wreck havoc within the family. Learn what happens when families cope with a drug or alcohol problem.

Family members of those with substance abuse disorders experience a wide range of feelings and thoughts as they go through the process with their loved one. These feelings include: concern, hope, anger, frustration, disappointment and shame.

There are many reasons for concern when a loved one is abusing alcohol or drugs.

  • There is concern for the health of the abuser. Worry about the impact of the drug on the body and mind.
  • There are legal concerns including the possibility of illegal behavior while under the influence or in the process of securing drugs or alcohol, or concern for loss of job, or freedom.
  • There is concern for the costs of the abuse - possible legal and medical costs, costs of purchases made while under the influence, costs of agreements made, and contracts signed while under the influence.
  • There are also concerns for the impact of the abuse on the family and its members. The effects on the marriage, the spouse, the children and others.

There is also worry that the substance abuse might become known to others and how that will impact the family's image.

Often substance abuse takes place in the family that, from the outside, appears "perfect." The fear of the discovery of the actual acts in the family causes some families to hide the behavior and to "enable" the abuser to continue their abuse of alcohol or drugs even longer.

Hope for Recovery From Addiction

At the same time there is concern, there is often hope found in family members - hope that the person can "recover" and "get over" the problem. Sometimes the person "promises" to stop the drugging behavior, and the family tries hard to believe their promises. There may be hope each time the person "stops using" even though the "stop" may be followed be restarting the behavior.

Tragically, most of the time the promises are not kept and the drugging behavior continues or starts again. The reality is that substance abuse is usually a chronic problem and that relapses, at least early in treatment, are often "the rule" rather than the exception. With relapse, or breaking of promises, frequently the feelings of family members change from hope to anger. Anger at the lies, the behavior, the person themselves.

Often there is frustration, because the illness involves the person "splitting the family members;" pitting one against the others. One member believes and trusts, the other is suspicious and angry. The end result of this "wedging" of family members is that the behavior continues and family members "turn" on each other, with anger and frustration becoming directed not at the substance abuser, but other family members themselves.

Frequently there is also shame in the family. Early on, the family begins to "circle the wagons" to create excuses, and to deny that the problem even exists. Often, this is done to protect the sufferer (eg calling the employer and making excuses for absences), but often it is done to "protect the image" of the family. The end result, however, of the behavior is to "enable" the addict to continue in their disease.

These are but a few of the feelings experienced by family members and others concerned about and for the drug addict or alcoholic. It is important to realize that substance abuse is frequently a chronic, recurring illness that goes on for years. We often focus on the treatment of the patient, but can forget the importance of treating family members involved with the addiction patient.

We'll be discussing these issues and more on our HealthyPlace TV show on The Effect of Substance Abuse on Family Members this Tuesday night, March 31, at 5:30p PT, 7:30 CT, 8:30 ET. I hope you'll join us. Watch it live on our website and ask your personal questions.

Dr. Harry Croft is a Board-Certified Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Dr. Croft is also the co-host of the HealthyPlace TV Show.

next: When and Where to Get Help for Mental Health Issues
~ other mental health articles by Dr. Croft

APA Reference
(2009, March 30). Effects of Substance Abuse on Family Members, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 17 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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