Addiction is a family subject rated G for general audiences. The number of parents, partners, children, siblings and grandparents affected by drugs or drinking is enormous. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 23.5 million people got treatment in 2009. And that's just the number of people who got help. Addiction isn't picky. It spans all ages, classes, colors, creeds, faiths and nationalities. Almost everyone has an addict in the family.

The statistics get scarier. The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that addiction affects 8.3 million American children. Approximately 11 percent live with at least one addicted parent. Those children are more likely to have mental illness, depression, anxiety, and health, behavioral and learning problems. They're three times more likely to be physically, verbally or sexually abused. They are four times more likely to be neglected and become addicts themselves.

Not your family's problem?

NIDA reports untreated substance abuse adds significant costs to communities. The costs come from violence and property crimes, prison, court and criminal costs. They come from emergency room visits and visits to doctors and clinics. They come from child abuse, neglect, lost child support, foster care and welfare. They come from unemployment. The cost for illicit drug abuse alone is $181 billion annually. Treatment and recovery? Priceless.

How do we get help?

Dr. Marvin Seppala, medical director and CEO of Beyond Addictions, a detoxification and recovery service in Beaverton, Oregon, says: "Research shows multiple genes carry addiction. Fifty-five percent of the risk is genetic, but whether that gene gets activated is greatly associated with environment. For example, if someone carrying the gene for alcoholism lives in a Mormon family in Utah, where alcohol isn't part of their life, they might never be exposed and never deal with those genetic repercussions. If that same person lives with greater exposure and access, it might only take one drinking episode to ignite their addiction."

According to Dr. Seppala, the two top signs of addiction are:

  1. Loss of control of using the substance. "Drinking or drug use isn't just occasional anymore," Seppala says. "[People] go out with friends for a drink but don't come home for hours, and they've driven drunk. A single mother goes on a methamphetamine binge and neglects her 3-year-old for days. These people have lost control."
  2. Continuing to use even though it's having bad consequences. "Life is going down the drain because of abuse," says Seppala. "[Someone] is losing their job, family and money. They swear they'll never do it again, but three hours later they're smoking pot."

Dr. Seppala says that you should talk to an addict with concern. "Say, 'I'm worried about your drinking and want you to have professionals evaluate if you have a problem.' This might be less threatening than, 'You're an alcoholic.' Denial is a huge factor in addiction."

You could also stage an intervention. But, having professional guidance is important. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers tips that work for any addiction:

  • Stop cover-ups. Don't protect the alcoholic from the full consequences of drinking.
  • Time your intervention. Do it shortly after an alcohol-related argument or accident. Choose a private, calm, sober time.
  • Be specific. Use examples of how drinking has caused problems.
  • State the results. Explain what you'll do if the alcoholic doesn't get help. Don't punish, but do protect yourself from the alcoholic's problems. For example, you'll refuse to go to social activities where alcohol is served, or you'll even move out of the house. Don't make threats you won't carry out.
  • Get advance information about treatment options. If the alcoholic will get help, call immediately to make an appointment with a treatment counselor. Offer to go with the alcoholic on the first visit or AA meeting.
  • Find strength in numbers. If the alcoholic won't get help, ask a friend to talk with him or her. Gather relatives, friends and a treatment professional to confront the alcoholic. The person with the problem may need more than one intervention.
  • Get support. Groups like Nar-Anon, Al-Anon and Alateen help families understand they're not responsible for the addiction. Family members need to take care of themselves, regardless of whether the addict gets help.
  • Call the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Service. It's 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It can get you information on treatment programs in your community.

More tips

Children of addicts need special support to deal with the shame, guilt, anxiety and unpredictability of addiction. SAMHSA provides three tips:

  • Provide age-appropriate information. Stress that addiction is an illness, not a child's fault or responsibility. Teach children to make healthy lifestyle choices and that treatment for addiction is available and effective. Reinforce that children need and deserve support.
  • Teach children to identify and express feelings in healthy ways. Help them speak with safe adults. Point them toward education, support programs and counseling.
  • Develop healthy adult–child relationships. Children of addicts develop trust issues with adults. It's important to model healthy living and healthy relationships for them.

"Recovery is possible," Dr. Seppala says. "Addicts do get better. When that happens, we see miracles in people's lives."

Published on April 15, 2009; updated on May 19, 2014.