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Addiction can have profound and far-reaching effects on a family unit

Addiction is a complex issue that can affect the emotional, psychological and social dynamics of the family

The family structure and dynamic can be thrown into disarray when a person’s addiction manoeuvres itself into every aspect of their lives including the home. Partners, spouses and children become the unintended victims and familial roles become distorted and damaged. However, family also plays a vital role in recovery.

“Addiction can have profound and far-reaching effects on a family unit,” says Jason Loughnane, Tabor Group Family Services Officer. “It is a complex issue that impacts the emotional, psychological and social dynamics of the family. Addiction often leads to a breakdown of trust due to deceit and manipulation, which in turn also leads to communication issues arising, as the open and honest communication that is essential for healthy family relationships doesn’t exist and discussions about the problem are avoided, leading to misunderstandings and even isolation.”

As a result, family life in a household with addiction can become chaotic and unpredictable, with feelings of helplessness and issues such as emotional and financial struggles, legal issues and possible violence making home life difficult and challenging.

“Family members will often experience a broad range of emotions. Anger, frustration, guilt and sadness emerge, causing strain to the relationships, stress and deterioration of mental health,” says Loughnane. “Family members may blame the person with the addiction or each other for the situation, leading to a breakdown in relationships and further emotional distress. Sometimes, a co-dependent dynamic develops, with family members inadvertently enabling the addictive behaviour of their loved one, contributing to this broad range of emotions.”


As addictions take hold, behaviours and priorities change which can regularly lead to a person abandoning their ordinary responsibilities such as parenting, work and financial commitments, causing unnecessary strain on an increasingly burdened family unit.

“The financial impact in particular can be significant due to the expense related to addiction whether it’s in obtaining substances or even seeking treatment,” says Loughnane. “We have seen the steady increase in families presenting with drug-related intimidation, with threats to their lives and homes, often to repay debts, leaving families fearing for their safety and impacting their mental health.”

While families often bear the burden of addiction, the family unit can also play a vital role in managing addiction and recovery

Family members react to and navigate addiction differently depending on their role in the home, the emotions that the changes resulting from addiction bring up for them, and their personalities and experiences. Their behaviours may also change to make sense of the transformations that are occurring within the household.

“Parents often start with shock, denial, guilt and blame when faced with a child’s addiction. They might become angry at the situation, worry about their child’s safety and fear for their health and future, and feel a strong urge to fix things. This can lead to enabling behaviours and codependency,” says Loughnane.

“Siblings might feel confused and unsure how to react, especially if they are younger and do not fully understand what addiction entails. They can feel neglected, or even jealous due to the attention the addicted individual receives. They may also develop protective instincts and try to shield their sibling from the consequences of their behaviour, with many siblings having a strong desire to help their brother or sister overcome addiction. Some also experience anger and resentment if their own lives are affected.”

Research has found that children in households with a parent suffering from addiction may have unmet needs or develop unhealthy attachment patterns. A role reversal may also take place, as children become carers for their parents, taking on responsibilities they should not ordinarily oversee. This role reversal can create isolation “due to the shame and embarrassment about the addiction”, says Loughnane.

“The mental and physical health of families suffer, with increased stress and potential for anxiety and depression. Children, who are particularly vulnerable, experience disruptions, lack of stability and sometimes even danger, leading to lasting emotional consequences. Addiction can even extend to future generations, as patterns of behaviour and coping mechanisms can be passed down.”

While families often bear the burden of addiction, the family unit can also play a vital role in managing addiction and recovery. Family support can occur through recognising the problem and intervening; supporting and finding treatment options; supporting a recovery plan; sharing important information with professionals ensuring the appropriate care is found; maintaining health records; encouraging and supporting treatment and being mindful of behavioural changes that may suggest relapse; removing triggers from the home environment; encouraging a healthy lifestyle; creating a supportive environment; and advocating for loved ones.

“Supporting a loved one who is struggling with addiction within the family unit and home setting can be challenging, but it’s also crucial for their recovery, and there are many ways family members can provide effective support,” says Loughnane. “Education is always the first step to learn more about addiction – its causes, effects and the recovery process.

“Understanding the nature of addiction can help approach the situation with empathy and knowledge and help develop an environment of open and honest communication within the home, which can be an essential support. Family members should encourage their loved ones to share their thoughts and feelings without judgment, while also being able to express their own concerns and emotions calmly and constructively.”

Recovery has no timeline and is considered to be a life-long route. It requires daily work and support. As such, the family unit is consistently involved either directly or indirectly, meaning it’s important for loved ones to be mindful of their own support and care.

“Establishing clear and healthy boundaries to protect yourself and your family is essential when living with addiction,” says Loughnane. “These boundaries might involve not enabling addictive behaviour, avoiding codependent dynamics, and developing self-care actions. It’s important for family members to realise that recovery is a journey, with its ups and downs, and that you need to be patient with your loved one’s progress and sometimes even setbacks, showing empathy by acknowledging their struggles while celebrating their successes.”

Dr Sarah-Anne Bennett, GP with, also notes that general practitioners addressing addiction concerns that are brought up by a significant other can pose challenges, as it involves complex emotions and decisions about an individual’s welfare, as well as the family unit.

“Balancing care for the wellbeing of the patient while preserving trust and seeking suitable assistance requires a process guided by empathy and a dedication to the overall wellbeing of all involved,” says Bennett. “Support should not only be focused on the addict, but also on the significant others living with someone facing addiction.

“There is an array of resources and services available for them that should also be integrated into the overall treatment advice. Details about Family Support Programmes accessible nationwide in Ireland, along with contact information for the 24 Local and Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Forces, can be obtained via the Irish Community Action on Alcohol Network (ICAAN).”

“One of the main things for a family member to remember is to take care of yourself,” says Loughnane. Supporting someone with an addiction can be emotionally draining. Make sure you prioritise your own wellbeing through self-care, seeking support networks and setting aside time for activities you enjoy. Remember, in order to be able to support your loved one you need to look after yourself first.”


Addiction series

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family