My Parents Are Alcoholics…Will I Be?
Alcohol use disorder, and other addictions, do have a genetic component. There is no single cause, but family history is a strong indicator and a prominent risk factor. Having parents with alcoholism is particularly problematic. It indicates a genetic link as well as a childhood environment conducive to later substance abuse. Family history, however, does not guarantee future addiction. Awareness, management of mental health, and changing risk factors that can be controlled are essential to stopping the cycle of addiction.
Unfortunately, family history is a strong risk factor for alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism.
As with any kind of addiction, though, there is no single cause.
If your parents struggle with alcohol, you may, too. But that doesn’t mean you are destined to become an alcoholic. Understand this disease, be proactive, reduce your other risk factors, and if necessary, cut out alcohol before it becomes an issue.
Alcohol Use Disorder and Family History – The Genetic Connection
The more correct and modern term for alcoholism is alcohol use disorder. According to the diagnostic standards that addiction and mental health professionals use, this condition may be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. The term alcoholic typically refers to someone with a moderate-to-severe disorder.
The causes of any addiction are varied and complex. Alcohol use disorder may be triggered by a number of factors: genetics, environment, personality, brain chemistry, past trauma, and others. The known risk factors for alcoholism include:
- Heavy, regular alcohol use
- A family history of alcoholism
- Drinking beginning at an early age
- Mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety
- Past traumatic experiences
- Spending time with people who drink regularly
Family history is not something you can control, and unfortunately studies suggest that it accounts for between 45 and 65 percent of the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. This is significant but not insurmountable. Some of the other risk factors can be controlled, while others cannot.
Family History is Not Destiny
It is essential to know that having parents with alcohol use disorders does not guarantee that you will also become an alcoholic. Risk factors indicate risk, but they do not control your destiny. You may have a more difficult time resisting alcohol than other people do or a more exaggerated reaction to drinking. You may have to try harder to manage drinking and to be responsible with alcohol, but you do not have to become an alcoholic. It is not inevitable.
While researchers have found specific genes that contribute to heavy drinking and alcoholism, it is also important to note that part of the reason family history is a risk factor has to do with being in a similar environment as your family members. Problem drinking may run in a family due to genes but also because family members were subjected to the same environmental factors, like abuse or trauma. You can’t control your past experiences, but when you are aware of them you can manage them in healthier ways than by drinking.
Am I An Alcoholic?
Understanding the signs of an alcohol use disorder is important because it will help you watch for these in your own behaviors. Awareness is an important step in preventing or curbing problem drinking.
The criteria used to diagnose alcohol use disorder are found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Two or three criteria may mean you have a mild disorder, while the presence of more indicates a moderate or severe disorder. Those criteria include:
- Frequently using more alcohol or drinking more frequently than intended
- Repeated efforts to cut back on drinking but failing to do so
- Spending a lot of time and money on drinking and recovering from drinking
- Strong cravings for alcohol
- Regularly failing to meet responsibilities because of drinking
- Continuing to drink despite relationship issues caused by alcohol
- Giving up other activities to drink more
- Using alcohol in dangerous situations more than once
- Continuing to drink even though it causes physical or psychological problems
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol
- Feeling withdrawal when not drinking
Manage Your Risk Factors
One of the most important things you can do to avoid becoming an alcoholic is to manage the risk factors you can control. If you have been drinking heavily or regularly, consider cutting back. If you spend a lot of time with people who drink, find some new activities and social groups that don’t involve alcohol.
Perhaps most importantly, you can manage your risk factors related to mental health. Mental illness and addiction are strongly correlated. If you have an untreated mental illness, or even mental health issues that don’t lead to a diagnosis, it may contribute to unhealthy drinking patterns. By getting treatment for mental illness you can better manage drinking and cope with symptoms in healthier, more productive ways.
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Do I Need to Stop Drinking? Or Can I Be a Responsible Drinker?
Whether or not you can drink at all depends on your individual factors. With strong awareness of the risk and an understanding of what your personal motivations are for drinking, it may be possible to drink responsibly without becoming addicted. First, understand what responsible or moderate drinking looks like, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- No more than one drink per day, or seven per week, for women
- No more than two drinks per day, or 14 per week, for men
- With one drink defined as 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of liquor, five ounces of wine, or eight ounces of malt liquor
- Avoiding binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks for women or five or more drinks for men in one sitting
Another way to determine if you are able to drink responsibly is to look at the criteria for alcohol use disorder. If you can see yourself in two or more of those criteria often, you may be struggling to drink in a way that is moderate, safe, and responsible.
Could I Benefit from Treatment?
Regardless of your current relationship, you can definitely benefit from therapy to cope with the experiences of growing up with alcoholic parents. No matter how hard your parents may have tried to not let their drinking affect you, it did.
In the worst scenarios, children of alcoholic parents experienced abuse or neglect. Even in non-abusive situations, these children grow up in homes that are chaotic, unstable, and neglectful to some degree. A parent struggling with alcohol simply isn’t capable of giving a child everything they need to be healthy and whole. If you lived with one or two alcoholic parents, you are at a greater risk for:
- Abuse and violence, either experienced or witnessed
- Teenage pregnancy
- Substance abuse
- Poor academic performance
- Mental illness
- Dependence on social welfare
- Unemployment as an adult
Treatment can help you reverse these negative complications of growing up with alcoholics in the home and as parents. If your problems are holding you back from being happy or successful, from managing healthy relationships or drinking responsibly, residential treatment may be the best option.
In a residential treatment for alcoholism, you get the chance to really explore the challenges of your childhood and the impact these factors continue to have on your life. You’ll benefit from a thorough mental health and substance use evaluation to get much-needed diagnoses. These can then focus your individualized treatment plan so you get the best care possible.
In therapy, you will benefit from working with an experienced professional. They can help you explore your past, difficult memories, and problematic behaviors and thought patterns you face right now. Therapy will help you develop stronger relationships and manage or stop drinking. A good therapist can even help you reconcile with your parents if you are all open to it.
Being raised in an alcoholic household does result in a cycle of addiction in many cases. But you have the power to stop that cycle. With your awareness of the risk and by seeking professional support for drinking and mental health, you can take control of your own future and avoid letting alcohol become a dominant factor in your life.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.