Wouldn’t it be great to know who will become an addict? If so, we could provide prevention services to thwart the development of this disease. The disease of addiction is complex and is affected by genetics, environmental causes and other factors. It needs to be treated before it becomes a life-threatening problem.
A person’s DNA holds clues to whether they are predisposed to addiction. It has an inherited component, which means it can run in the family, and a young person needs to be careful. There is no easy diagnostic test but there are certain genes that are more prevalent in people who have an addiction. They are not predetermined to addiction, but they are more vulnerable. One study showed that children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction. (Merikangas, Stolar, Stevens, Goulet, 1998).
I talked with five members of a recovery support group. Although they were aware that addiction has a genetic component, no one in their family had warned them of their personal susceptibility. Why? It’s not the things that people talk about. They were given the message that it was shameful to air their dirty laundry.
But your genes are not your destiny. There’s more to addiction than just genes. Environment, social norms, lifestyle, and history of trauma all impact addiction.
Monkey see, monkey do. Some families use recreational substances together. They approve its use and enable addiction. I’ve seen two generations of family members enter drug treatment together. We’ve all heard of the parent who supplies beer at the graduation party. I’ve been told that drinking and driving on country roads is an acceptable form of entertainment because after all “that’s what my father did when he was a kid.” Sometimes communities turn a blind eye by letting under-aged kids purchase alcohol, or let them drink at bars. Perhaps children learn that alcohol and drugs are an acceptable means of coping with stress. Or, they turn to substances in response to trauma, violence and abuse.
What should you look for if you are a parent? Members of the recovery support group recommend that you look for signs of vulnerability in your child.
● Know your child’s friends, friend’s families and associates for negative influences.
● Also, look for protective influences. It is said that it takes three healthy adults to produce a healthy young man or woman. Do they have a close relationship with another adult that you trust?
● Examine how your child deals with stress. Are they using healthy coping skills?
● Examine how they think. Are they using sound reasoning skills or are they impulsive risk takers? The rational part of the brain is not fully developed until age 25.
● Examine why they may use a substance. Are they seeking fun, companionship, or are they trying to escape? Find an alternative to achieve these ends without turning to substances.
● Have they experienced some kind of trauma? Parental monitoring decreases the likelihood of trauma. They may need counseling.
● Foster your child’s dreams, achievements and aspirations to keep them engaged in healthy activities.
If you have a history of addictions in your family, and you see vulnerability in your child, I recommend that your child has periodic checkups. Have their doctor explain genetic predispositions to them in a way that they can understand. Also, see a counselor periodically
to assess vulnerability to drug and alcohol misuse. Addiction is treatable. Don’t wait until it is out of control.