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Effect of Substance Abuse on a Family

Updated: Aug 23

Addiction is not a spectator sport, eventually, the whole family gets to play" - unknown

No family member remains untouched by the actions of a substance abuser. There is a breakdown of trust, as the addicted individual may lie about finances, the frequency of their substance use, their whereabouts and so forth. They break promises they have made and they frequently come up with excuses and rationalisations for their actions. Even when the addict decides to stop using and go through a rehabilitation program, it takes a considerable length of time for the trust to be rebuilt, especially if the individual has relapsed several times. There is a loss of predictability as the individual may come home intoxicated or not at all, and plans have to be changed.


Family members may find themselves making excuses for the addict as to why they are late for work or for their lack of participation in day to day life. Responsibility rests more heavily on the members who are not suffering from a substance-related disorder. Family members may further enable the addict by taking over more and more tasks.


Family members may begin to anticipate the worst before it has even occurred. There is a lack of stability for any children involved as they cannot rely on the addicted parent and the individual becomes largely emotional unavailable to his family. Intimacy is further affected by feelings of anger, withdrawal and depression. Family members may suffer from a complete psychological breakdown, especially if there is no support system in place. The family often goes through stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression as they attempt to deal with the feelings of loss, as the person is no longer who they used to know.


The whole family may feel they have to control their emotions and what they say, so as not to "provoke" the addict and worsen the already precarious situation. The addict becomes more and more estranged from the family due to feelings of guilt and wanting to indulge in their addiction. Parents often view themselves as "bad" parents and any attempts to deal with the problem in secret worsen the situation by delaying getting professional help and isolating the family from obtaining support. Abnormal begins to become the new "normal". Children are particularly vulnerable and the scars of substance abuse in the home may continue well into adulthood.


In South Africa, we face a very prevalent and growing problem with substance abuse. Stigmatising addiction will only worsen the problem and due to the far-reaching effects of substance abuse, we as a society need to offer support to the entire system affected. We need to be solution-focused and not problem-focused, prevention and early detection are key.


Remember that there is always hope, many addicts fall several times before succeeding. Knowledge is power, equip yourself with the tools needed to be the support he/she requires and to ensure you are not enabling the user. The picture of the mosaic above shows that even when something has been damaged, it will never look the way it did before, but that doesn't mean it can't still be beautiful.



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