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Handling a History of Addiction: How Family History Can Help

Feb 6, 2024

Addiction can be a sensitive subject within families, especially those that have felt the effects of the disease. As uncomfortable as it can be, it is crucial to understand how addiction and substance abuse have manifested themselves in your family. This information can help you and your loved ones understand the extent to which you are at risk of falling into addictive patterns.

Family is important, and keeping them safe is a significant part of that. Your family history, be it genetic or environmental, plays a huge role in assessing your tendencies for addiction.

Handling a History of Addiction: How Family History Can Help


The teams at our substance abuse rehab centers in Utah and Idaho are dedicated to helping people prevent and overcome addiction. We have put together some information to help you approach conversations about addiction with your family, as well as how to use that information for good. Remember that maintaining an open mind and a receptive heart can help these discussions be meaningful and insightful and can help you grow closer to one another.

Nature versus nurture.

There are many risk factors associated with addiction, and there is much debate about what puts a person at greater risk: genetics or environment. One thing is for sure, and it’s that both play monumental roles.

Your genetics can affect how your body metabolizes alcohol, nicotine, or other addictive substances. For example, the same amount of beer can affect two people differently, and those same two people may experience opioid-induced highs in distinct ways.

Genes can also determine how nerves communicate with one another when addictive substances are introduced to the system. Scientists have found multiple genes that are linked to a person’s increased risk of addiction. These genes, inherited from parents, grandparents, and so on, are essential to understanding if there is a pattern or history of addiction in your family.

A genetic predisposition to mental health disorders can also result in an increased susceptibility to addiction. Issues like anxiety and depression are common risk factors for addiction, and an inherited family risk for those diseases can provide a link between genetics and addiction.

On the other side of the scientific discussion is that the conditions of your upbringing change your risk for addiction. Being raised in a home where substance abuse and addiction were visible and familiar can affirm that those behaviors are normal and acceptable ways of processing life experiences. Additionally, having experienced trauma, abuse, or childhood neglect can factor into addiction later in life.

Studies have shown that children raised in homes where alcohol abuse is present are four times more likely to become alcoholics than children who were not raised in those environments. There is certainly proof that both genes and upbringing can put a person at risk for addiction. Knowing your family’s history—both the nature and nurture of it— is exceptionally important.

Talking about addiction.

Approaching a conversation with family can seem daunting, and you may fear negative responses. Meeting with family and expressing your love for them can help ease the tension and help you feel more comfortable asking hard-hitting questions. As we talked about earlier, there are a myriad of reasons why family history is vital to understanding addiction, and you can relay that information to those you are speaking with. This can help to show that you aren’t trying to be nosey, just trying to keep yourself and the rest of the family safe and healthy.

Ask your family if there has been anyone, past or present, who has struggled with addiction. If they don’t know of any addictions, ask if any family members have overdosed on medications, or if anyone is prone to drinking too much. You don’t necessarily have to ask for names, but a general idea of what patterns exist and what substances have been problematic can help give an idea of what your history looks like. Any information is better than none and can help you navigate how to approach addiction in your own life.

Signs of addiction.

It’s easy for people to mask or deny substance abuse. That’s why knowing what addiction looks like can be a great help in discovering if a family member is affected. Some things to look out for can be:

  • Lying about consumption levels or use at all
  • Feeling like a substance is necessary to relax, calm down, or relieve stress
  • Being unable to maintain boundaries, i.e., saying you’ll have one drink and having many more
  • Experiencing physical manifestations of withdrawals, like shaking or irritability
  • Spending unreasonable amounts of money on addictive substances

To put it simply, if there are unusual behaviors that could be related to a possible addiction, consider having a conversation or taking action. If your family members are ready to receive help, consider a drug treatment center that can help address addictive behaviors and help your loved one get on a path to health and sobriety.

While we are working towards ending the stigma around talking about addiction, there is still lots of progress to be made. If you have family members who are not comfortable with sharing a history of addiction, being aware of these behaviors can help fill in information gaps that can help you understand your risk.

Using the information for good.

Your family history is vital to protecting yourself from a possible future of addiction. The best way to use this information is to be open and honest with those closest to you. Informing your doctor about this history can influence what types of medication they prescribe and their dosage. Sharing your history with your spouse or partner can help you make a game plan about how to navigate boundaries with drugs and alcohol.

It’s also essential to incorporate this information into your own life. If there is a history of alcoholism, it may be a good idea to abstain from alcohol or only drink in social settings, or at least not by yourself. Finding healthy ways to process the stresses of life can help you avoid feeling like you need to turn to substances for relief. When things start getting hard, or beforehand if possible, consider seeing a therapist who can help you process traumas and stressors in a more clinical setting.

Stopping the cycle of addiction.

The information you gather about your family’s history with addiction shouldn’t stay with you. Sharing with your loved ones helps protect them, too. Particularly with teenagers, it’s important to discuss how risky behaviors can become addictive habits later on. Talk with them about why they should steer clear of alcohol and drugs. Make it clear to your children that they may be more likely to develop an addiction than their friends. Just because their peers are not as affected by drugs and alcohol as they are, heavy usage is not acceptable.

Although conversations about addiction and your family’s history with it can be difficult or awkward, it is better to push through those feelings. It’s time to break the stigma around those discussions and take responsibility for your future.