Dr. Beau Nelson

man and son genetics

You may have heard it said that “addiction is a family disease.” That’s true in more ways than one, but in its most fundamental sense, it means that addiction often runs in families— and, that like other diseases, such as breast cancer and diabetes, alcoholism and drug addiction can be genetically inherited.

In fact, genetics can play a pretty big part in substance use disorders:

  • Research has found that when a parent or close relative has been affected by addiction, children are significantly more vulnerable to addiction (purely on the basis of their genetics).
  • And, “at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug addiction can be linked to genetic factors,” in the words of the American Psychological Association.

How to Parent Children Who Are Genetically at Risk for Addiction

Such statistics can be scary for anyone wondering how to parent when addiction runs in their family. (And, the high genetic inheritability of addiction is a good reason to exercise vigilance when raising a child with a family history.) On that note, the following are some tips for moms and dads who may be wondering how to parent a child with a genetic predisposition for addiction:

  • First, don’t panic. Sometimes we can overreact to the point that we create more of a problem. When you’re afraid, you’re more susceptible to parenting from a place of fear or alarmism. The result can be to catastrophize, which can have the opposite effect of what you’re intending. For example, a child who hears you catastrophizing about what could happen if they drink a beer or smoke a joint may dismiss what you’re telling them, because they’re smart enough to know it’s exaggerative; the catastrophizing may in fact give them more impetus to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Equally problematic, a child who has heard all about their high chances of developing an addiction could become fatalistic and, in essence, appropriate that as their self-narrative.
  • Second, remember that addiction is far more complex than genetics alone. After all, many children of alcoholics end up just fine, while many people without a genetic predisposition develop addictions. Substance use disorders are always the result of a complex interplay of genetic, physical, mental, psychological, emotional and environmental factors. This can actually be good news, because it means you don’t have to panic over a child with high genetic risk factors for addiction. There are things you can do to help your child stay healthy.
  • Third, talk honestly and matter-of-factly with your child about a family history of addiction and keep an open line of communication with them. This is really important because the shame and stigma of addiction can be very common family dynamics that encourage the keeping of secrets. The fact that Mom was a drunk until Suzie was in sixth grade or Uncle Bob is hooked on painkillers, can be issues we’d prefer not to mention. But starting in fourth grade, children can be made aware of these things in age-appropriate conversations.

When you talk with your children, take a relational approach. The goal is not to be “the enforcer” but rather to build a relationship of trust in which they can feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns. Speak directly about a family history of addiction and how this puts them at higher genetic risk for developing addiction. Let them know that while they will need to make their own decisions about alcohol, they need to be mindful of the risks based on their genetics.

  • Teach your child healthy coping skills. Kids mainly use drugs and alcohol for the same reason that adults mainly use drugs and alcohol— as a tool for coping with stress, anxiety and difficult or uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. And, kids are more stressed-out than ever these days. A friend whose son is in 7th grade at a private school recently shared that 54 percent of that student body reported feeling stressed-out and anxious. 54 percent. A 2018 article in The Washington Post chronicled rising  rates of anxiety and depression among teens. The main culprit, according to its sources? Social media.

Set healthy limits for your child around social media and Smartphone use. Encourage them to get together in person with friends, stay active through exercise and exercise healthy sleep hygiene. Invite them to confide in you or a good friend when they are feeling anxious or worried about something.

If they seem to be stressed-out over a longer period of time, address the issue together. Invite them to share what is stressing them out, so that together you can tackle the problem. They may need to pull back on one or two Honors classes or drop an extracurricular activity.

In some cases, you may be able to identify the source of their stress when they cannot. For example, they may need stricter boundaries with respect to their social media use. Try to broach the subject in a loving and relational way before setting those healthier boundaries. You can tell your child what you’re observing, how that is impacting you (how you are feeling concerned), and the importance of intervening with healthier boundaries.

  • Give your child opportunities to experience natural highs. Natural highs are pleasurable experiences that increase your dopamine levels. For people in early recovery, these sorts of experiences can boost resilience to relapse. For kids with a genetic predisposition for addiction, provide the fun alternative that makes drugs and alcohol seem uninteresting.

Some examples of natural highs might be a trip to the amusement park, white water rafting, jet skiing, rock climbing, scuba diving, or—if they’re into hiking—climbing a mountain. While natural highs can be expensive, they’re great treats for kids to look forward to and wonderful relationship-building opportunities as well. It is that parent-child relationship, after all, which can be a critical protective factor for a child with a family history of addiction.

  • Create healthy family norms. Family norms are behaviors that happen regularly enough that they define your family culture. Ideally, these defining behaviors should be positive ones that help to insulate your child from addiction.

Here is an example of a positive norm that I heard recently: let your child know in a gentle and loving way that you will be waiting up for them when they come home late from a party. When they come home, give them a hug, look them in the eye, and see if you can smell anything on their breath or clothes. When your child knows this is a norm, they will be less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Some other norms that parents can put into place for their children:

  • Dropping off and picking up your child from a late-night party
  • Showing up unannounced at a party with a friendly donation of pizza or donuts
  • Hosting really fun, sober parties at your home
  • Giving your child an easy out from peer invitations to experiment with drugs or alcohol: This can mean establishing a simple communication protocol with your child. Say, for example, that Ricky is at a party where his friends are pressuring him to vape, and Ricky is feeling uncomfortable. With an agreed-upon protocol for precisely these sorts of situations, you can help Ricky by being his easy excuse for not vaping. In this case, that might look like Ricky texting the cue that he needs your help and you following suit, with a text he can then share with his friends: something along the lines of, “Something has come up and I need you home immediately.” That’s a rock-solid excuse for why Ricky can’t vape and an easy out from the peer pressure.

Two More Addiction Prevention Tools – Negative Consequences and a Healthy Parent-Child Relationship
Ultimately, no parent can prevent their child from experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Kids will experiment, and that’s just part of growing up. But there is good news even here. Often, a really bad hangover can be a better teacher than the very best parenting advice. While it’s incredibly hard for any parent to watch their child suffer from a poor decision, often those negative consequences will be the very thing that a child needs to make wiser choices in the future.

In the end, when you’re prioritizing your relationship with your child, that is your best defense against addiction. When kids know their parents are unconditionally in their court and are emotionally available, that builds their self-esteem and helps them feel grounded. From there, it’s a lot easier to “just say ‘no’” to their addiction genes.

Dr. Beau Nelson heads the Clinical Services department at FHE Health, a nationally recognized behavioral health provider treating addiction and mental health conditions. Learn more about FHE Health’s treatment programs here. https://fherehab.com/