If you grew up with a family history of addiction, then you know that your risk for developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol is greater. This is because of this hereditary factor. But what exactly are your risks? And is there anything you can do to reduce your risk? Addiction may have a strong hereditary link, but it doesn’t have to be your destiny. 

The environment a person grows up in affects their mental health, and scientists are beginning to understand the role of genetics in cognitive, behavioral, and substance use disorders throughout a person’s life. According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), a person whose family has a history of substance abuse is twice as likely to develop mental health issues and substance abuse problems themselves. Although the odds are stacked against those with a family history of addiction, some children, despite all obstacles in their path, overcome the odds and live a life free of addiction.

Family History Of Addiction, Now What?

Here are some things to know in order to branch out from a family tree of addiction. 

To start from the beginning, it’s important to clarify a common misconception regarding a family history of addiction. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single gene that contributes to our likelihood of becoming an alcoholic or an addict. However, genes may contribute to the vulnerability to substance abuse in a number of ways. Genetic mutations that lead to alterations in the structure and function of the brain may influence the way in which the individual responds to exposure to the substance. 

Our likelihood of drinking or using is influenced by more factors than we can count, including our genes, environment, parents, expectancies of what drinking or using drugs will do, and our individual response to alcohol. Having a family history of addiction is just one way of examining the genetic risk. 

While you can’t do anything about your genetic background, you can take steps to safeguard your health if substance use disorder is part of your family history. Experts recommend these strategies:

Research your family history of addiction.

A family history is worth talking about. Ask your parents and other relatives whether alcoholism or addiction runs in your family. Some people, particularly older individuals, may be reluctant to share such information. Let your relatives know you’re trying to gather the information to safeguard your health and, if you’re a parent, the well-being of your children.

If you’re a parent, educate your kids about their potential genetic risks. 

Letting your children know about their genetic predisposition can help them make better, informed choices. These choices about whether to drink or try recreational drugs will guide them for years to come. How early should you have the conversation? Around age 10 is a good time to have such a discussion, when kids are old enough to process the concept of genetic risks. Deciding how to explain addiction to a child can be difficult. There are many factors to consider and various approaches you could take. 

Here are some helpful tips to consider: 

  • Consider Age: While starting the conversation when your child is young is important, teaching kids about drugs and alcohol should be age-appropriate. The information you give them should be explained based on their age and in a language they will understand.
  • Be Honest: The best thing you can do is to be honest with your children about drugs and your family. If you or someone in your family struggles with addiction, tell your children the truth about those experiences. When a child asks a question, answer it truthfully. Don’t try to hide the fact that someone is struggling.
  • Explain That Addiction is A Disease: Explaining to your child that addiction is a disease may help them understand that people can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, even when they don’t intend to.
  • Talk About the Dangers: Explain to your child that the effects of drugs on them may be different from other youth. They are more likely to develop addictive behaviors following drug use compared to someone without a family history of addiction.

Disclose your family history to a potential partner. 

You don’t have to discuss a history of alcoholism or addiction in your family on a first, second or even third date, but it’s probably a good idea to talk about your family’s history with substance use disorder if your relationship becomes serious. This disclosure is a formation of trust, and a crucial step.

Choose abstinence or carefully monitor your consumption.

You don’t necessarily need to be sober if you have a family history of addiction. However it’s important to be aware of your consumption habits if you do choose to drink. People with a family history of alcohol abuse are up to 4 times more likely to develop problems with alcohol. Additionally, if you have a parent who had a drug problem, you may be up to 8 times more likely to develop an addiction. Regardless of your choice, try to monitor your use of alcohol and drugs, and reach out for help if you feel that it’s becoming a problem.

Be mindful of triggers.

Triggers are things that may make you want to drink or use drugs. Everyone has their own unique triggers.  It’s important to develop healthier ways of coping, such as practicing the stress management strategies in the following section. It’s also crucial to be aware of times when stress levels or life issues start to feel overwhelming, because that is a sign that you may need to seek counseling or another form of outside support.

Common Triggers: 

  • Excessive stress.
  • Negative moods (such as feeling depressed or anxious).
  • Financial troubles.
  • Relationship issues.
  • Problems at work.

Develop a way to manage your stresses.

It’s a good idea to implement stress management techniques regularly as a way to prevent stress from building up. Whereas everyone has a certain level of daily stress, life sometimes takes unexpected turns. You may find yourself dealing with increasing responsibilities at work or at home, for instance. Finding a way to manage these every day stresses will set you up for success when you feel a pull to turn to alcohol or drugs.

Stress Management Techniques:

  • Yoga.
  • Meditation.
  • Exercise.
  • Cultivating healthy habits.
  • Developing hobbies.
  • Connecting with friends and family.
  • Spending time in nature.
  • Volunteering in the community. 
  • Getting a pet.
  • Set aside some “me” time and do whatever you want for a few hours—or a whole day if possible.

If you have a family history of addiction, also consider these helpful tips.

  • Avoid under-age drinking or substance use; early-onset of use increases risk
  • Avoid associating with heavy drinkers or substance users
  • Manage your psychological health; seek assistance from a mental health provider if you are highly stressed, anxious or depressed
  • Participate in workplace or school prevention programs

Is Addiction a Disease?

Addiction is like most major diseases. Consider heart disease, the leading cause of death in the developed world. It’s partly due to genes and partly due to poor lifestyle choices such as bad diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. The same is true for other common diseases like adult-onset diabetes. 

Many forms of cancers are due to a combination of genes and lifestyle. But if your doctor said that you had diabetes or heart disease, you wouldn’t think you were a bad person. You would think, “What can I do to overcome this disease?” That is how you should approach addiction.

Family History of Addiction? We’re Here to Help.

The good news is this: families dealing with disordered behavior can overcome the effects of addiction and alcoholism, and more than that they do not have to go through the detrimental effects and struggles of addiction completely on their own. Addiction is no longer something that has to be hidden or ashamed of. There are treatment options and hope. Many people have reached for addiction treatment and have changed their lives. There are many addiction treatment options including self-help groups and out-patient or in-patient addiction rehab. You have already taken the first step towards addiction treatment. You have asked the question, “Do I have an addiction?” Take the next step and change your life.