How to Talk to Children About Addiction in the Family

In families with a significant track record of substance addiction, parents face additional challenges when it comes to educating their children about drugs and alcohol. But by warning young people about their family history of addiction, is it possible to actually increase their risk of substance abuse? Many studies over the years have confirmed that genetic predisposition plays a significant role in who becomes addicted and who does not. Research is only beginning to explore the possible genetic variations that may be at the root of this increased risk, but the existence of a genetic predisposition is well documented. Genetics are not the only explanation for high rates of addiction within certain families. Environmental factors play a role as well, as young people are influenced by the attitudes and behavior of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, or cousins dealing with substance abuse. Various studies have found that the children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction themselves than are the children of parents without substance abuse problems. With this knowledge in hand, it is understandable and perhaps advisable for parents to warn their children when addiction runs in the family. However, there is some concern that telling young people they are at very high risk for addiction can make it more likely that they will begin to abuse one or more substances. An article in The Fix tells the story of a young man who was warned so strongly and repeatedly about his genetic predisposition to alcoholism that he believed it was inevitable. Feeling that there was no way he could drink even small amounts of alcohol without becoming addicted, he saw no reason to keep his drinking moderate and controlled. And sure enough, he did struggle with alcohol dependence for many years. There is also some concern about the power of the mind for people who know they are at risk for addiction. Studies of the placebo effect have found that the mind is able to cure or ease illness when it believes it is receiving treatment. Other studies have shown an opposite effect, finding that patients who are aware of the potential side effects of a medication are much more likely to experience those side effects. There are many more examples, still not fully understood, of the mind’s ability to influence our physical and mental health. Is it possible that people who know they face a high risk of addiction can actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The Importance of Accurate Information

It is one thing to warn young people about a family history of addiction, but it is a very different thing to paint such an unrealistic picture of addiction and their own risk that they feel trapped. It is understandably tempting for parents—especially those who have struggled with the pain of addiction themselves—to present substance use in such a sinister light that children are scared away from drugs and alcohol entirely. Unfortunately, raising children on scary but inaccurate information robs them of the ability to make informed choices. Had the young man who believed alcoholism was essentially his destiny understood that a single sip of alcohol, or occasional moderate drinking, was not going to make him an alcoholic, he would have had clear reasons to moderate his drinking from the beginning. As for the mind’s ability to influence the development of a disorder, this is entirely unresearched territory thus far. People with a family history of addiction have plenty of reasons to be cautious, but the fear that just knowing they are at risk for addiction will cause them to become addicted is not currently one of them. In this scenario, education and information are probably the best protection. People who understand the nature of addiction and the many factors in addition to genetics that contribute to the development of an addiction will be better prepared to make smart choices about substance use.

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