Addiction in the Family Tree: Are You Doomed?

Generational Addiction, Addiction in the Family Tree

Scientific facts help dispel addiction myths and stigmas and also empower people to look more closely at the root causes for this disease. So while it’s true that heredity is approximately half of an individual’s risk for addiction, it’s also true that this family characteristic doesn’t mean you’re doomed—it’s simply another fact you have to work with to make different health decisions. Armed with this information, it’s much easier to make conscious choices about choosing treatment and long-lasting recovery with the right wellness techniques. 

Understanding the Cycle of Generational Addiction 

Some health conditions are genetic. For example, sickle cell disease, a condition that affects red blood cells, might be passed down to children if both parents are carriers of its abnormal gene. Mutations of certain genes may also cause breast and prostate cancer in multiple generations. Other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease, might also present in people if they have a genetic predisposition and something in their lifestyle or environment triggers them. 

Certain mental health disorders can also be hereditary. They include:

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • Autism
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “The genes that people are born with account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may also influence risk for drug use and addiction.” The biological risk for addiction is approximately 40–60 percent. 

One theory as to why is because some people inherit higher levels of dopamine. This “feel good” neurotransmitter is part of the brain’s reward center. Dysregulation often prompts poor impulse control. A 2023 NIDA genome study suggests “that genetic variation in dopamine signaling regulation, rather than in dopamine signaling itself, is central to addiction risk.” Additionally, the results indicated that “general addiction risk also predicted higher risk of mental and physical illness, including psychiatric disorders, suicidal behavior, respiratory disease, heart disease, and chronic pain conditions.”

Studies also indicate there’s “evidence that problem behavior such as harsh parenting, substance use, and emotional distress are transmitted across generations.” 

Additionally, according to the book Facing Addiction in America by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), adolescence is a particularly crucial time. “Well-supported scientific evidence shows that adolescence is a critical “at-risk period” for substance use and addiction. All addictive drugs, including alcohol and marijuana, have especially harmful effects on the adolescent brain, which is still undergoing significant development,” the agency states. So, teenagers are particularly vulnerable due to pre-existing or the onset of mental health issues, which may either be the catalyst for or exacerbated by alcohol or drug use. 

How Protective Factors Make a Difference

It’s critical to note that while substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) may be in your family tree, there are also essential protective factors that help mitigate risk. SAMHSA describes these as “positive countering effects.” 

For example, if a person’s parents use alcohol and other substances or struggle with unmanaged mental illness, or if a young person experiences inadequate supervision, child abuse, or maltreatment, these are serious addiction risk factors. On the other hand, if they have supportive parental involvement or other guiding adults and mentors, these are protective factors. 

SAMHSA also indicates that “risk and protective factors within one particular context—such as the family—may also influence or be influenced by factors in another context. Effective parenting has been shown to mediate the effects of multiple risk factors, including poverty, divorce, parental bereavement, and parental mental illness.”

The Addiction Policy Forum further states that while a “genetic constellation” may exist in someone’s life, protective factors in multiple categories reinforce wellness in other ways, too. “At the individual level, protective factors include positive self-image, self-control and good social skills. At the family, school and community level, they include external factors, such as parental involvement in their lives, positive mentoring relationships, participation in after-school activities and policies limiting substance availability in their neighborhood.” 

While the initial protective focus may be on children and adolescents, even adults concerned about chemical dependency and addiction can evaluate their background and family history, take stock of their current circumstances, and choose to make positive changes in their lives. This is a powerful decision to focus on a growth mindset, rather than resigning to a limiting one.  

Release the Past at Willingway

There’s not a single path to addiction. While there might be a family history of SUD or AUD, this doesn’t automatically mean you or your descendents will develop it. Dedicate yourself to having open health conversations with loved ones and cultivating better awareness of all risk factors. 

At Willingway’s Georgia and Florida addiction rehabilitation locations, we also offer a vibrant family program designed to share healing experiences, in-depth education, and progressive solutions. You and your family deserve to set a new course—let our board-certified professionals show you the way.