Support Groups for Families of Addicts and Alcoholics

  1. Article SummaryPrint
  2. How Does Addiction Affect the Families of Alcoholics and Addicts?
  3. How Are Spouses Affected by Addiction, and Where Can They Find Support?
  4. Do the Siblings of Alcoholics Need to Attend a Support Group?
  5. Are Support Groups Useful for Parents of Addicts or Alcoholics?
  6. What Happens to Children of Addicts and Alcoholics and How can Support Groups Help?

How Does Addiction Affect the Families of Alcoholics and Addicts?

The behaviors typically exhibited by substance abusers can affect the family system both directly and indirectly, eventually creating a dysfunctional environment. It's not uncommon for family members to attempt to protect the addict from the consequences of his or her behavior. They may say the addict has the flu when he's hung over or make excuses as to why she missed yet another appointment. Children avoid bringing their friends home, and they may become withdrawn in social settings.

Addiction often contributes to marital problems, as well, which may lead to separation or divorce. Physical and emotional abuse can play a role in marital breakups, and substance use often underlies abusive behavior. Addiction is a progressive disease, which means that its effects multiply as time passes.

In their attempt to control the chaos around them, family members may fragment into a collection of separate individuals attempting to coexist rather than maintaining a cohesive family unit. Their primary function as a family is to hide the truth about what's happening inside the home. There is no stability, and family members often feel they have nowhere to turn for support, comfort, or relief from the ongoing stress.

How Are Spouses Affected by Addiction, and Where Can They Find Support?

Spouses and other committed partners of addicted individuals often find themselves serving as a buffer between the addict and the rest of the world, including other family members. They alternate between enabling the addict and attempting to control his or her behavior. Their emotions can swing from one opposite to another, as they lash out in anger and then retreat into depression. Some spouses feel a deep sense of guilt, believing that they have failed the family.

Recovery for the spouse shares characteristics with the recovery process for an addict, as both depend on acknowledging the problem, learning about the disease that helped create the dysfunction, and adopting new coping skills. Support groups can be instrumental in giving spouses a safe place to express their fears, find comfort, and discover new ways of interacting with family members.

Twelve-step groups have proven effect in helping many alcoholics and addicts achieve and maintain sobriety. They provide similar results for spouses. Three well-known support groups include:

Al-Anon

This support group focuses on helping the spouses and partners of alcoholics find contentment whether the spouse is drinking or sober. During meetings, attendees discuss issues such as excessive caretaking, misplaced loyalty to abusive spouses, attempts to control other people's behavior, and self-blame.

Nar-Anon

A group similar to Al-Anon, Nar-Anon focuses on the friends and family members of addicts. Spouses can share their experiences with people who truly understand the challenges of living with an addict as they learn tips for recreating a functional family unit.

Gam-Anon

When a spouse is addicted to gambling, Gam-Anon meetings can provide a safe and supportive environment for regaining a sense of normalcy.

Co-Dependents Anonymous

The focus of this twelve-step group is helping individuals develop functional, healthy relationships. Spouses of addicts who attend the meetings learn to take care of themselves first so that they can serve as a source of strength and support for family members.

COSA

Individuals who are in a committed relationship with a sex addict have unique challenges, including feelings of shame, anger, resentment, and abandonment. Meeting with others who have similar experiences and emotions offers spouses a safe environment for sharing their fears and developing hope for the future.

Do the Siblings of Alcoholics Need to Attend a Support Group?

While age, gender, and personality influence the way each sibling will be affected, living in a household with an alcoholic impacts each family member in some manner. A range of emotions can result, including anger, jealousy, guilt, helplessness, and anxiety.

When one child is ill, the other children may be overlooked as the parents focus their attention and resources on the ailing individual. Living with the disease of alcoholism has a similar result. Because the siblings may not view substance abuse as a disease, they may develop a deep resentment for the family member who is causing the family drama. As they have been subjected to the same environmental influences that contributed to their sibling's alcoholism, they may themselves be at risk for substance abuse.

Support groups give the brothers and sisters of an alcoholic a place where they fit in. The other members of the support group are going through many of the same issues. When newcomers see group members sharing freely and being accepted without judgment, they realize it's okay to open up. They learn that their feelings are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and they discover new ways of coping with home life. While they may not need to attend a support group, the siblings of alcoholics are likely to benefit from doing so.

Are Support Groups Useful for Parents of Addicts or Alcoholics?

Parents of alcoholics and addicts often blame themselves for their children's substance abuse issues. They may even believe it's up to them to "fix" the situation. By joining a support group such as Al-Anon, they meet other parents who are struggling with their child's addictions. They also hear the stories of parents who have developed more effective ways of interacting with their addicted children.

Support groups offer parents understanding for their feelings of anger, fear, and resentment. Others in the group listen to them and provide positive input. The parents learn that addiction is a disease and come to realize that there is hope. They develop coping skills that they can use in a crisis. And they learn the crucial lesson of taking care of themselves first and letting the addict work his or her own program.

What Happens to Children of Addicts and Alcoholics and How can Support Groups Help?

When one or both parents is an addict or alcoholic, their parenting skills may erode as the disease progresses. Even if only one parent is a substance abuser, the family is likely to experience a growing level of dysfunction. As the adults in the family become less able to provide adequate parenting, younger children may turn to each other in an attempt to create a normal family.

As the dysfunction escalates, these children can become overwhelmed by powerful emotions that they are not equipped to understand. Guilt, shame, and fear lead them to walk on eggshells, trying to control a chaotic environment. Outwardly, they may appear fine, but inside there's an emotional storm brewing. Eventually, their confusing emotions may lead them to:

  • Withdraw socially
  • Shut down their emotions
  • Deny the existence of any problems
  • Act out
  • Self medicate
  • Rationalize

As adults, children of alcoholics may develop a post-traumatic stress reaction that manifests as:

  • Depression
  • Learned helplessness
  • Free-floating anxiety
  • Distorted reasoning
  • Inability to trust
  • Emotional numbness
  • Excessive vigilance
  • Inability to accept support or caring
  • Mood swings
  • High-risk behaviors
  • Survival guilt
  • Relationship issues

"A support group is often the only place where children of alcoholic or addicted parents feel that they can be themselves."A support group is often the only place where children of alcoholic or addicted parents feel that they can be themselves. Among people their own age who are going through the same thing, they have an opportunity to overcome the denial that has kept them quiet about their feelings. At last, they can express some of their troubling emotions. They learn about the process of substance abuse and come to understand that they can choose new ways of coping with life's challenges.

Support groups are available for young and adult children of substance abusers. Alateen, an offshoot of Al-Anon, is a twelve-step support program for young people between the ages of 13 and 19 years, depending on the specific group. The corresponding group for adults is Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA). Adolescents with parents who are addicted to gambling can attend Gam-A-Teen.