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    When Addiction is in Your Family Tree

    When you think about your family tree and look at your child, what do you notice? You may see that you’ve passed along eye and hair color or the way they smile. But what you can’t see are other things that may have been passed along like an increased risk for certain cancers, heart disease or even addiction — whether it’s to alcohol and other substances, gambling or other behaviors.

    If you have a family history of addiction, it’s especially important to make sure your child knows. As with other genetic disorders, the closer the family relationship, the greater the risk. Your child’s genes may make it more difficult to stop using substances should they start.

    Helping your child understand the risks

    A good time to talk with your child about a family history of addiction is when they enter middle school.

    For younger teens, focus on explaining the risk

    • Our family history of addiction means that you are more likely to end up with a problem than other kids who don’t have this in their family.
    • We don’t know how our family history affects our genes.
    • This is why we don’t want you drinking or using other drugs.

    For older teens, turn your focus to how family history could impact their use

    • Some brains are more hard-wired to have problems with substance use than others, especially in families like ours, where there is a history of addiction.
    • You may see friends using substances with seemingly no consequences, while your use could escalate to difficulty stopping or to addiction.
    • It takes time to develop addiction. So, while it may seem like you are not different from other kids, addiction has a way of tricking you into think you’re okay, and then it hits you. It’s an especially slippery slope for you because of your genetic make-up. This is why we don’t want you to drink or use other substances.

    If your child is adopted, you might not know their biological background. It’s still worth having conversations about genetic risks and taking precautions against using substances.

    Risk surrounding prescription medication

    For those with a family history of addiction, it’s important to understand that certain medications can put one at risk as well. Make sure your child’s prescriber is aware of family history and ask about alternative treatments that may be available. The following categories of prescription medication present increased risks for addiction:

    • Pain relievers containing opioids like Vicodin and Percocet
    • Sedatives and tranquilizers which include anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Klonopin, as well as sleep aids like Lunesta and Ambien
    • Stimulants used to treat ADHD like Adderall and Ritalin

    Protective factors

    Your child’s genetic make-up is only part of the story. Just as various factors can increase risk (e.g., mental health problems, friends or older siblings who use substances), other environmental factors can help reduce risk and act as protection.

    It may help to encourage your child to identify what characteristics, qualities, skills and assets they value among your family members. What would they want to continue? What would they just as soon leave behind? This is an opportunity to consider not just genetics, but also their environment and decisions they’ve made with respect to their well-being.

    Some ways to protect your child and reduce their risk for substance use include:

    • Monitor their activities (including online)
    • Know their friends and whereabouts
    • Ensure that any mental health problems are addressed
    • Model healthy ways of coping with stress
    • Support a strong connection with school
    • Encourage sports, hobbies and interests
    • Let your child’s pediatrician know if there is a family history of addiction or other mental health problems
    • Talk and keep talking (and listening)

    Last Updated

    December 2023