How Can a Dysfunctional Family Influence Addiction?

How Can a Dysfunctional Family Influence Addiction?

Read on in this article to learn the roles that family dynamics can play in addiction.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic medical disease. Stigmas associated with addiction can make it difficult to clearly understand and examine the risk factors of the disease, such as family influence.

Nonetheless, as the American Society of Addiction Medicine points out, understanding addiction and its treatment is ever-evolving. Today, it is defined as a treatable disease that involves complex interactions between genetics, life experiences, brain circuits, and more.

Dysfunctional Families and addiction couple arguing

Causes of Addiction

Many factors influence addiction. According to the American Psychological Association, while nearly half of the risk for addiction is genetic, the influences of family members, friends, the environment, and accessibility to substances are also significant components in the multi-layered structure of addiction.

People with substance use disorders become addicted by engaging in compulsive behaviors like drinking alcohol or abusing drugs. Despite the harmful consequences of these behaviors, the compulsion to continue leads to chemical changes in the brain that result in addiction and dependence.

Understanding addiction as a chronic disease with prevention and recovery rates comparable to other chronic illnesses has significantly reduced the stigma. It has also increased awareness of the roles families play in developing and treating addiction disorders.

What Is a Dysfunctional Family?

Even when children get old enough to leave their family home, the influence of their family never leaves. No family is perfect, but despite their imperfections, functional families can model healthy behaviors and help children build strong self-esteem. Dysfunctional families are less successful at fulfilling this vital role.

Nonetheless, relationship patterns, communication, and emotional-health skills people learn in childhood can be changed with hard work and awareness. Characteristics often exhibited by dysfunctional families include the following factors.


If one or more family members have an addiction that influences the family dynamic, it strains healthy communication and puts pressure on interpersonal relationships.

Fear and Unpredictability

Unpredictable behavior from one or more parents can put the family in a constant state of fear or worry. In dysfunctional families, that includes fear of abuse, violence, abandonment, and financial instability.


Control can be exerted in many ways, such as when one or both parents dominate the rest of the family through passive-aggressive behavior, threats, or actual violence. A threat to deny basic needs such as food and shelter is also a form of control.

Unrealistic Expectations

Expecting perfection from children can result in low self-esteem and emotional insecurity. Feelings of inadequacy develop when it is obvious that a child can never live up to unrealistic expectations set in dysfunctional families.

Poor Communication

Efforts to communicate may be ineffective or completely nonexistent in a dysfunctional family. Blaming, teasing, angry outbursts, periods of not speaking, or denying the existence of conflict altogether may be substituted for meaningful communication.

Abuse and Neglect

Abuse and neglect can take many forms. For example, neglect may be the absence of guidance or emotional support or the absence of financial support, while abuse can be verbal, physical, sexual, or emotional.
All these characteristics of dysfunctional families can be the cause of insecure attachment styles in children.

Attachment Style

Attachment style refers to the way children learn to bond to their parents or other primary caregivers in early childhood. According to Simply Psychology, once attachment behaviors are established, they continue to affect how the children relate to romantic partners, friends, and even how they parent their own children.

Some experts believe addiction itself could be a form of insecure attachment. The National Library of Medicine confirms research that characterizes SUDs as an expression of attachment disorder.

Addiction and Dysfunctional Family Roles

Which comes first, the addiction or dysfunctional families? It can be difficult to say.

The way a family functions before and after a member develops a substance use disorder (SUD) can directly affect addiction and treatment. In addition, the behavior of someone with a substance use disorder affects their family members.

As they try to cope with the disorder that addiction has brought into their lives, family members may gravitate to specific roles. Nevertheless, most experts theorize that those roles have existed since childhood. The presence of addiction only makes them more easily recognizable.

Other roles fulfilled in dysfunctional families include the following:

The Caretaker/Enabler

This person helps cover for and sometimes manages the person with the substance use disorder. They are often seen as martyrs, giving up their peace of mind to help their family members.

The actions of the enabler make it easier for a loved one to continue using drugs or alcohol, as they are shielded from the consequences of their own actions.

The Hero

The hero devotes their energy to fixing their loved one’s mistakes. Like the enabler, the hero helps the person with a substance use disorder avoid consequences. They may be seen as the strong one in the family who works to restore the family dynamics to their “pre-addiction” levels, even if those dynamics were dysfunctional.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is typically a sibling of the person with SUD. This person may act out, show hostility to family members, and take other actions that get negative attention. Such behavior could be interpreted as a desperate attempt to get attention in a family where everyone’s resources are focused on addiction.

The Mascot

The mascot tries to relieve the dysfunctional family’s stress through humor. They may feel powerless to improve the situation, so they turn to comedy as an outlet. The mascot’s behavior could be viewed as not taking the situation seriously or not being concerned enough about the person struggling with a substance use disorder.

The Lost Child

The lost child is the quiet family member who copes by staying under the radar. This person might excel at school or sports or devote themselves to a personal interest as a way to avoid family interaction. Without intervention, the lost child will eventually withdraw—emotionally or physically—from the dysfunctional family system.

Types of Dysfunctional Families

Addiction is often considered to be a family disease. The person with a substance use disorder is thought of as the dependent or as the person at the center of the storm.

A person facing an addiction may be seen as having an illness or a problem that needs solving. But as most families learn through the process of recovery, a substance use disorder is often the result of a family’s dysfunction, not the cause of it.

Common types of dysfunctional families include:

  • The Substance Abuse Family: Multigenerational patterns of addiction or mental health issues can be observed, creating a cycle.
  • The Conflict-Driven Family: Extreme conflict can drive individuals towards increased thoughts of self-criticism or isolating behaviors.
  • The Violent Family: Abuse and physical violence create an unsafe environment, leading to intense loneliness or bouts of extreme anger.
  • The Emotionally Detached Family: Emotional detachment can contribute to loneliness, isolation, low self-esteem, and other damage.

Overcoming the Struggle of a Dysfunctional Families

Studies show that childhood trauma can lead to substance or alcohol use disorders in adults. That includes trauma experienced as a direct result of family dysfunction as well as trauma caused by natural disasters, illnesses, and other unforeseeable events.

The more adverse childhood experiences a child survives, the higher their risk for becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs. Additionally, the way a family reacts to addiction through playing dysfunctional family roles also has an influence.

By enabling or denying the existence of the problem, family members can make it easier for the person with a substance use disorder to continue with their addiction without facing major consequences. This unintended protection may make it harder for their family members to seek or accept help.

Tips to Overcome Dysfunctional Family Systems

Individuals can seek to overcome the curse of dysfunctional family systems by:

While having a dysfunctional family can make it even more difficult to fight for recovery, individuals can overcome the obstacles of their past with the right support.