Family of origin issues and addiction

Family of origin issues can get in the way of healthy emotional development and fuel addiction. This is why we explore family conditions – to help identify events that interfered with the maturation process and learn new ways of coping. We review the top 3 family-of-origin issues that contribute to addiction here.

minute read

Top 3 Family-of-Origin Issues that Contribute to Addiction

If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

– Anonymous

What causes addiction?

Addiction – in all its forms – arises from the over-reliance of a single behavior to cope with the frustrations and struggles of life. Can’t find a job? Have a drink. Worried that nobody likes you? Go hit the casino. Mad that your girlfriend wants to go out with her friends rather than watch TV with you? Smoke a bowl. Over the course of time, one’s personal panacea becomes a habitual and compulsive behavior that is used to deal with any and all feelings of discomfort. The addict stays faithful to the behavior even after it has lost its effectiveness because it is the only tool he has.

The process of growing up should lead to a wide and complex array of problem-solving skills; addiction is often a sign that something got in the way of a child’s emotional development. We must explore the conditions inside the addict’s family-of-origin in order to identify the barriers that interfered with the maturation process. It is never too late to get “unstuck” and fill in the gaps of your emotional toolkit, but before this can happen, you must first deal with family history that continues to impact current functioning. I have identified several family-of-origin themes during my years of work in the field of addiction. They are:

1. The proper fit between the addict’s innate self and his environment was not nurtured;

2. Disruptive events like divorce or death were not accommodated during delicate developmental milestones; and/or

3. The addict suffered (or witnessed) physical or emotional abuse.

All three scenarios shut down the maturation process in a child because he is trapped inside a situation that does not work for him and he feels defeated. Internal drive and motivation are turned off and the child goes into survival mode, reaching for the first (or most impactful) coping behavior that he can find – often that is the wonderfully numbing out effect of drugs and alcohol.

Goodness of Fit

The field of Ecology teaches that a species’ survival and success depends on what is called goodness of fit. That is, does the environment favor the species’ innate characteristics or does it put it at a comparative disadvantage? For example, penguins would not fare well in the Sahara Desert and reptiles “struggle” in the Antarctic. Similarly, we all are born with innate tendencies, talents, and characteristics that help to define who we are and we thrive when directed toward activities and environments that best fit our personalities.

Forcing a child into something that fits the expectations of parents or society, but does not match his own disposition, will lead to habitual failure and feelings of shame. You’re in trouble if you are drawn to quiet and self-reflective pursuits but your dad keeps pushing you to be a football star. Conversely, kids with huge amounts of impulsive, physical energy often suffer significantly when forced to sit at a desk for six to eight hours a day in school. People rapidly lose the necessary internal drive for exploration and learning when forced to function in a way that is contrary to their natures. They feel as if they can’t do anything right and shut down emotionally. Many people turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with this situation and enter a numbed-out state that makes it all just “go away.”


Successfully navigating developmental milestones like potty training, first day at daycare/school, introduction to dating, etc. can be an exhausting and drawn-out process. The child needs “all hands on deck” while passing through to the next level of maturation. What happens, however, if the child’s “crew” is distracted and unable to attend to her developmental needs? What happens if Mommy and Daddy are going through an ugly divorce when she’s learning how to be a “big girl” and use the potty by herself? What about the family that relocates from a rural town to a big city when their pre-teen is entering middle school?

Often, the necessary transition to a higher stage does not happen completely – or at least not in a way that creates positive and satisfying feelings – and the child is left with a large gap in her development. It is difficult to push through the frustrations and disappointments of life when you don’t feel like a real adult and when you don’t really have the tools of experience and lessons learned to see you through. Drugs and alcohol give a person the courage to get through these difficulties. However they tend to lose their effectiveness over the course of time, leaving one with no other way to cope.


Normal human development is very difficult for children who are constantly ducking for cover. Misery loves company, and if you live with someone who is miserable, they expect you to join them. The abuser hates to see others succeed because it diminishes his self-worth. Therefore, he constantly puts others down in order to disrupt their accomplishment and he builds himself up by stealing another person’s sense of worth through acts of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Obviously, this leads to horrible and chronic self-esteem problems for the victims, forcing them to resort to any available method to survive their days – numbing out with drugs and alcohol is one of the easiest and most effective options out there.

Humans need a wide assortment of tools to accomplish our work in this world. Unfortunately, if your growing-up environment was not appropriate for your developmental needs, you tend to develop and become overly reliant on the one or two coping strategies that helped you survive as a kid. If substance abuse was once your best survival mechanism, it is now likely getting in the way of living a productive and satisfying adult life. Whether you are just beginning to face your addiction issues or are already in treatment or recovery, identifying and repairing some of these family-of-origin factors will be a big step in the right direction.

About the author
Nachshon Zohari is a licensed clinical social worker and the Program Administrator for Mental Health and Substance Treatment in a major U.S. city. His private practice includes individual, couples and family counseling; parenting classes; substance abuse education and treatment; and individual and group clinical supervision. He is an expert in the holistic practice of family focused addiction treatment.
I am ready to call
i Who Answers?