How addiction in the family can affect your teen

Jun 18, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. ET
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Talking to your teens about alcohol and drug abuse is never an easy conversation. But what about when you have a history of addiction in your family? When a family member struggles with addiction, the conversation needs to change.

Alcohol and drug addiction can derail a young life so quickly that parents don't even see it coming. Talking openly and honestly about addiction is the key to keeping your children safe from making a life-altering choice. If you have anyone in your family who is an addict, the stakes may be even higher. Many in the addiction field believe there may be a genetic component to addiction.

Is there an addiction gene?

Think of someone you know who struggles with addiction — does he or she also have a family member with addiction issues? There are a lot of other factors involved in the process of becoming an addict, but there may be a genetic component as well. Beth Burgess is an addictions specialist and author of two books on addiction. "Although there are no definitive statistics, it is estimated that genetic factors are roughly half responsible in the development of an addiction, with the other half of risk factors made up of environment, mental health stressors etc.," she shares. "Addicts tend to inherit faulty dopamine-processing systems through the genes — the part of the brain involved with reward and craving, as well as possibly some behavioral features like impulsivity."

There are others in the field who don't feel that genetics is an issue in addiction. "I disagree with the genetic component, since blended and adoptive families have the same patterns," says Monique Prince, MSW. "With that being said, it is important not to beat around the bush, but to explain openly that the family member is an addict and that because the teen has grown up in a dysfunctional, addicted environment that those behaviors become part of the neurological makeup of the brain," she adds. This may be one area where it is difficult to separate nature from nurture.

How to talk about family addiction

All parents need to have an open dialogue about drug and alcohol addiction — but it's even more critical for those who have family members who are addicts. Hiding the fact that a family member has struggles with drugs, alcohol or prescription medications may seem easier, but it's a bad idea. "I would say that honesty is always the best policy when speaking to teens, especially regarding sensitive subjects such as addiction history in the family," shares Josephine Healy, a primary therapist at Lighthouse Recovery Institute. "Covering up a family history of addiction could be somewhat detrimental to the trusting relationship that is developed between a parent and a teenager."

Your goal in talking to your teen about your family history isn't to scare him or to shame your relative — it's really about giving your teen the tools he needs to monitor his own behavior, and to help him see that even someone he knows and loves has been affected by addiction. "It is important to let teenagers know that some people have addictive personalities, which makes them more likely to get caught up in problems with alcohol or drugs," says Burgess. She says that any addictive behaviors that affect family members can be used as an example, and not just those involving substance abuse. Even family members who have problems controlling sugar intake, coffee or smoking cigarettes are good examples of addictive behavior, as is compulsive video game playing.

Talk about signs and triggers

"The trick is to give teenagers clear warning signs of an addiction developing," says Burgess. This empowers them, once they do try alcohol, to know the warning signs to watch out for. Burgess says to watch for "early signs like drinking much more than their friends, feeling compelled to drink more after having only one drink and making excuses to drink at times that are not appropriate." Make sure your child understands that there is a higher potential that she might develop an addiction problem based on family history of addiction. "I would ensure the teen that, as a parent, you are coming from a loving and caring place and if the teen is battling a personal addiction, you will be there to support him or her on a road to recovery," says Healy.

Anastasia Pollack, LCMHC, is a clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Center. "It is very important that teens understand what addiction is and their potential for addiction, especially when someone in the family is suffering from addiction," she says. Being aware of potential triggers and signs can hopefully make an impact on the choices our children will make in the future regarding drugs and alcohol.

A family history of addiction doesn't doom your kids to a life of dodging or battling an addiction of their own. "Most serious addictions are caused by a predisposition and a period of heavy drinking, often brought on by a stressor of some kind," adds Burgess. "If young people make a very conscious effort to be moderate in the amount they drink at all times, they may avoid the trap entirely." So in this instance, parents are advised to be open and honest so their teens might be less likely to suffer from addiction problems of their own.

More on teens and addiction

The pain of parenting an addict
Modern-day teen addictions
Heroin: Easier for your teen to score than beer