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There are several reasons one would want to know if alcoholism runs in the family; you either fear that you/loved one might be an alcoholic and inherited the alcoholism from a parent or ancestor, or you believe that you/loved one is an alcoholic and may pass it on to a child.
While the answer is not cut-and-dry, those with alcoholic parents show an increased risk of alcohol use disorders and developing an addiction to alcohol.
Will I Become an Alcoholic If My Parents Are?
No, you are not destined to become an alcoholic just because your parents were an alcoholic. Alcoholism is a progressive disease that worsens with the continued use of alcohol, but is not present at all if an individual abstains completely from alcohol.
The expression ‘alcoholic parent, alcoholic child’ was common for generations, but we’re hoping to help dispel this notion in multiple ways. The inaccuracy of that statement is that it is absolute; it infers that, as a rule, a child of an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic – which could be damaging for those who have an alcoholic parent. It makes the inevitability of familial alcoholism seem guaranteed, when studies have shown a wide range of outcomes, including some individuals who never develop any symptoms or risks at all. Similarly, while there is a genetic component to alcohol tolerance, there have been largely inconclusive results about an alcohol dependence gene being hereditary.
When it comes down to it, the environmental elements of growing up with an alcoholic parent are just as impactful, if not more than genetic predisposition. Each individual risk factor added to a childhood household (including lack of parental supervision, unchecked aggressive behavior, and availability of alcohol) can contribute to an increase in the likelihood of substance abuse.
Genetics and Alcohol
We mentioned that there does seem to be a genetic aspect to higher alcohol tolerance – research shows that genetics are responsible for about half of an individual’s risk for developing alcohol use disorder. Some can be personality-based, and the majority are surprisingly physical traits exhibited while drinking that discourage excess. Having a lower alcohol tolerance, or having a gene variant that lowers the rate of metabolic processing for alcohol will socially deter people from drinking too much (as it won’t be pleasant).
It is estimated that while there are over a dozen genes that contribute to a tendency towards alcohol abuse, each on its own shows a limited correlation to alcoholism without environmental stressors. Therefore, the more genes present, the higher the likelihood is of developing AUD, and thus we can infer that genetics do play some role.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that resignation to alcohol abuse is never okay. Not only is alcoholism a progressive disease, it is a fatal one. You or your family member can get the proper help needed to overcome alcoholism or problematic drinking, and is not bound to addiction by heredity or genetics. Support from family and friends will make this battle all the easier.
Environmental Factors for Alcohol Use
Environmental influences are other components that can lead to alcohol addiction, either singularly or as they interact with other factors. These can be related to childhood or upbringing, family environment, social situations, or with a significant other.
Growing Up Around Alcohol
Being exposed to alcohol at an early age can normalize it, and having an absence of positive parental guidance can leave the door open to dangerous self-discovery. Growing up around alcohol alone will not cause an individual to develop an alcohol use disorder, and it can increase the chance of engaging in alcohol use that could sow the seeds of progressive alcoholism.
Problematic Drinking and Alcoholic Behaviors Are Normalized
Similarly, being exposed to a culture of binge drinking or harmful drinking patterns throughout adolescence can increase the likelihood of engaging in those same problematic drinking behaviors and subsequent alcohol addiction.
Enabling an Alcoholic
Even more prevalent than these factors is engaging in enabling and sympathetic drinking with a significant other who is abusing alcohol. We don’t learn to change our behaviors if our behaviors are tolerated. Reciprocal drinking is common early in relationships, and it is often hard to discern if someone is not aware of the signs. However, as the relationship progresses and you get to know each other better, if you notice that the drinking behaviors are problematic and don’t say anything, your inaction is enabling the problem to continue.
Mental Illness and Alcohol Addiction
There is a distinct link between substance abuse problems and mental health issues such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression. A dual diagnosis (or a diagnosis of two or more co-occurring disorders) is a precipitous, dangerous situation where alcohol use and the mental health issues are prone to exacerbating one another. Dual diagnosis with one of the diagnoses being an alcohol use disorder is best treated in an alcohol and mental health treatment program that recognizes the co-occurring disorders and treats both with an integrated approach.
Co-occurring substance abuse and mental health issues are extremely common – roughly 50 percent of people with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse. Self-medication for mental health problems is common and can lead to addiction. Any use of alcohol is not recommended if an underlying mental health condition is present, and overuse of alcohol should be considered a huge warning flag for the development of progressive alcoholism.
Because of a wide range of wild symptoms that blend into each other, recognizing a dual diagnosis can be difficult. The symptoms of each can also look vastly different from one person to the next. Additionally, not all mental health issues are the same; some mental health issues such as schizophrenia require vastly different considerations than anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other co-occurring disorders.
A professional addiction interventionist will perform an assessment of the substance use issues and can determine if further testing for dual diagnosis is necessary, or – if the dual diagnosis is well established – can recommend the treatment continuum that best suits the diagnoses.
Risk of Developing Addiction via Genetics
The belief that there are differences between a hereditary passing of an alcoholism gene and genetic influences provides guidelines and hope. Knowing that addiction is preventable and treatable allows for watching out for symptoms and warning signs working to prevent development. Considerations for prevention of future alcohol problems can include:
- Knowing about family history of alcoholism.
- Identifying if your current situation is classified as “high risk”
- Identifying unhealthy coping strategies in family members
- Knowing common symptoms of alcohol abuse and taking action when they arise
- Educating someone with a mental health concern about the danger of dual-diagnosis
It is easy to see these preventative measures on paper, and we understand they might not resonate until someone you know has developed a substance use disorder. With addiction, we always recommend being compassionate yet proactive, and to seek alcohol addiction help immediately if the problems with alcohol in your family have progressed into a dangerous situation.
Find Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Getting treatment for a family member who suffers from alcohol use disorder is paramount for them to be healthy long-term.
At Family First Intervention, we have worked hard to educate families on alcoholism and recovery from alcohol addiction. We have decades of experience in helping families take the difficult, yet necessary, first steps towards alcohol recovery.
If you are looking to make a positive change for your family, please reach out today: we’d like to help.