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Family members affected by addiction

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

Person at sunset
Person at sunset

Family members often have significant health and social problems. Unemployment and financial difficulties, relationship problems, marriage breakdowns and parenting difficulties are particularly prominent. Despite the difficulties, many are reluctant to seek help. The reasons for this include:

  • Uncertainty over what amounts to an alcohol or drug ‘problem’.

  • Families’ views of drinking levels could be easily undermined, disregarded or dismissed by the drinker as mere personal opinion or judgment.

  • There is a strong need to keep trying to maintain a ‘normal life’, even if it means concealing someone’s problematic behaviours.

  • Addiction problems, particularly drinking behaviour, develops over a period of time – it ‘creeps up’ on people and they are slow to recognise that things are getting worse.

  • Society’s attitudes to alcohol – alcohol use is legal and generally people are more tolerant of it than drug problems.


Families affected by alcohol and/or drug use often live lives of emotional turmoil characterised by confusion, denial and secrecy. They may go for years suffering the effects of a loved one’s alcohol or drug use and face numerous barriers to reaching out for support, such as:

  • The shame and stigma that comes with addiction makes it difficult to talk about family secrets to ‘outsiders’ .

  • Support isn’t always available or easy to find. Family members who have tried to discuss their problem may have felt discouraged by the attitude or lack of knowledge of healthcare professionals.

  • Difficulty in clearly identifying the nature of the problem. Families struggle to identify what constitutes an ‘alcohol problem’.

  • Some family members don’t recognise their own needs.

The Tipping Point

The tipping point for change comes when it feels impossible to keep the problem contained within the family unit. This might be due to:

  • The person’s persistent refusal or failure to cut down or stop using.

  • Extreme behaviour - this might include debts, financial embarrassment, or fights.

  • Aggression and violence in the home.

  • Increased frequency of problem use.

  • The family member realises that all their attempts to manage the problem are just not working.

Start making changes

  • Accept you have no control over someone else's actions.

  • Become willing to talk about your concerns and reach out for help and support.

  • Be optimistic that change is possible.

  • Treat change as a marathon, not a sprint - it is often a slow process.

The charity Adfam’s ‘Out of Focus report (2013) found that even when families do decide to take action, preliminary experiences of seeking help can be just as fraught as the struggles which precede it – for example not being taken seriously by GPs.

It is important that families are able to recognise drinking problems at an earlier stage. Without drinkers and their families being able to identify the problems they face and seek help to address them, the pernicious effects of alcohol misuse will continue to grow.

Recognise the signs

How can you, as a concerned friend or family member, tell whether someone has crossed the threshold of recreational drug use and social drinking? Look for these symptoms:

  • Frequent uncontrolled drinking episodes and drinking until drunk.

  • Organising their whole lifestyle around drinking or drug taking.

  • Getting into trouble with the law.

  • Injuring themselves as a consequence of substance abuse.

  • Using alcohol or drugs to decrease anxiety or sadness or escape the problems of daily living.

  • Lying about or trying to hide drinking and drug-taking habits.

  • Feeling irritable, resentful, or unreasonable when not drinking or high.

  • Bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual (drug addicts).

  • Deterioration of physical appearance and personal grooming habits.

  • Drop in attendance and performance at work or school.

  • Unexplained need for money or financial problems – may borrow or steal to satisfy habits.

  • Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviours.

  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation, or unsteadiness

  • Lack of motivation; appears lethargic or “spaced out”.

(adapted from Universal Employee Wellness)

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