Addiction tends to run in families. However, this does not necessarily mean that it is a genetic disorder. There are many factors that influence a family and its behavioral dynamic. Some of these influences can make the children of people with addictions more likely to develop addictions themselves.
In this article, we will discuss the idea of addiction being genetic. We will also describe some of the hereditary factors that can be passed on from parent to child that may contribute to addiction.
What is addiction?
Addiction is a very complicated disorder. There are many factors that can influence an individual’s likelihood of developing an addiction. Some of these factors are environmental, whereas others may involve genetics.
Addiction is marked by the pathological pursuit or habitual use of a certain behavior or substance, despite the emergence of negative outcomes in the individual’s life. Addiction can occur with drugs, like alcohol or cocaine, or to certain behaviors, such as having sex or gambling.
Most addictions are characterized by the individual repeatedly seeking behaviors that they deem pleasurable.
In an individual who has no addictions, most pleasure is obtained through stimulation of the brain’s dopamine reward system. This system naturally kicks off when we do things that are good for our survival, such as eating healthy food, having sex, or getting lots of exercise.
People without addiction tend to find these activities fulfilling enough that they don’t need to turn to drugs, alcohol, or sex to find fulfillment.
However, those people who do develop addictions may have, or may develop, problems in their dopamine reward system. This is especially true with drugs, including those which directly stimulate the release of dopamine.
Using drugs allows us to feel a sensation of reward and achievement despite not having actually done anything. This is one of the reasons that it’s so easy to fall into addiction. The dopamine reward cycle is a natural reward that we experience as a result of our effort. Drugs allow us to engage the same system and feel pleasure several orders of magnitude more than we would naturally.
Process Addiction vs. Substance Addiction
Addiction to drugs and alcohol is a bit different than addiction to things like sex or gambling.
These latter types of addiction are called process addictions or behavioral addictions, and they generally create problems in the brain because of their repeatedly triggering the dopamine system. This can actually lead to long-term changes in the way that the brain works and perceives pleasure. However, process addictions are generally not as dangerous as active drug addiction.
Addiction to drugs and alcohol is difficult and dangerous because these substances directly influence the way that the brain and body works. In addition to stimulating the reward pathway, drugs have their own complicated effects within the body.
Psychoactive drugs influence a large number of different systems in the body which can drastically alter our behavior. Over a period of long-term usage, these drugs can actually change the way that our bodies work.
This means that addiction to drugs can be twofold. In addition to creating the habitual cycle of dopamine stimulation, drugs have a similar effect in multiple systems in the body. Instead of just bombarding your dopamine system, you may also be attacking systems like serotonin or GABA.
Drug addiction also can cause withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms occur when your body attempts to maintain balance when its natural systems are being bombarded. The body constantly strives to be in a state of balance. When this balance is interrupted, such as by the use of drugs or alcohol, the body must then compensate.
Take amphetamines for example. Amphetamines tend to cause a significant release of dopamine in the body. This is not what the brain is used to. In an attempt to restore the brain to a balanced state, the body goes through a process known as downregulation. This is a term used to describe when the receptors that dopamine affects basically shrink back or desensitize themselves. In this way, the body is attempting to operate under its standard level of dopamine.
This is what leads to the development of drug tolerance. People tend to need increasingly large doses of drugs as they continue to use them. This is because the body is downregulating its receptors and you need to have more of the drug in order to feel the same effect.
This is also one of the factors that lead to withdrawal symptoms. When you suddenly stop using these drugs, your brain will still be downregulated. This means that it won’t be able to respond to the normal amount of dopamine present.
Downregulation may lead to permanent or semi-permanent genetic changes. These, in turn, may be passed on to the children of addicted parents. We will discuss this in more detail below.
Some drugs, like alcohol, also repress certain neurotransmitters, such as glutamate. When you suddenly stop taking alcohol, and your body responds by going back to a standard production of neurotransmitters, you will actually be feeling a higher production of glutamate because during your drinking, your body was trying to produce more in an effort to counteract the alcohol. This can lead to some of the withdrawal symptoms of glutamate rebound such as nervousness and anxiety.
Genetics and hereditary factors can make someone more likely to develop both a behavioral addiction and a substance addiction.
Is addiction genetic?
Studies have revealed that children who are born to addicted parents are much more likely to develop addictions themselves. This has led to some speculation on whether or not the addiction itself is a genetic disorder.
Addiction and heredity
Research has revealed that about half of a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction rests solely on their genetic makeup. This discovery has led to a lot of fascinating discoveries in this area.
First, you need to know what genetics actually means. Genetics is a branch of science that deals with the study of genes — components of our DNA. Our genes are a large part of what makes us who we are: how we act, how our body functions, how we respond to the world, etc.
Certain genetic changes and mutations can increase the likelihood of people developing certain diseases and conditions. Some disorders, called single-gene disorders, can be attributed to a single gene. Other complicated disorders, such as addiction, may be related to a number of different genes.
A large-scale study involving more than a hundred scientists evaluated information from a number of people with addictions to nicotine and alcohol They correlated this data with information regarding genetics and identified more than 400 genetic locations and 566 specific variants that may influence addiction.
Certain genetic locations, such as the genes CUL3, PDE4B, and PTGER3, were involved in all of the people with addictions.
While the answer is clearly not cut-and-dry, this research indicates that genetics can play a profound role in an individual’s chances of developing an addiction.
Epigenetics & addiction
One of the leading areas of research in regards to addiction and genetics is the branch called epigenetics. Epigenetics describes the functional changes that can occur in our genes based on bodily responses to our environment. Certain environmental cues or situations can actually change the structure and expression of our genes.
One such example of this is caused by drug use. Regular cocaine users often experience marked DNA. When this happens, the triggered genetic response causes the body to produce more of the same proteins that are found among people who have addictions.
Drug use can also affect the function of components called histones. These are basically foundations that our genes coil around. The genes can tighten up or relax around the histone to control whether or not they are expressed.
Drug use can alter the way that our histones and genes interact producing responses inherent to addiction.
These genetic factors may be passed down from parent to child, further encouraging the development of addiction.
How addiction can be passed down through families
In addition to the genetic impact that can contribute to addiction, there are a number of other factors in the family dynamic that can lead to family members passing on their addictions. Here are a few examples.
Trauma and intergenerational trauma
Trauma is one of the leading causes of addiction. Trauma occurs when the mind is overwhelmed by certain experiences that it cannot cope with. The trauma is then stored in the psyche or in the body and usually manifests as irrational fears, anxieties, or mood problems.
We are not educated about how to overcome trauma in school. As such, many people are unaware of how to manage trauma. Many are entirely unaware that they even have trauma. This is especially true in older generations, as well as for men, a population which has historically been discouraged from studying their emotions.
Rather than having the opportunity to work on their traumas and emotional difficulties, many people from older generations, especially men, began to use drugs or alcohol to cope with their unwanted feelings. While these drugs may help them stifle the feelings of the trauma, they do nothing to actually heal it.
If you do not successfully heal trauma, then you will continue to act out the same behaviors and beliefs that were instilled by it. If you do not change these beliefs, then you will usually behave in a manner that projects the trauma forward on to those around you.
Take, for example, a man who has been emotionally neglected by his mother. As a result, he may have developed the tendency to push people away and assert his independence because he felt that he had to provide everything for himself.
This trauma response might then be pushed forward onto his children. Believing that they should be capable of providing for themselves and meeting their own emotional needs, he may be distant from them. This, in turn, could lead to them developing the very same traumatic response from emotional neglect,
This passing on of trauma is called intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma explains how parents who don’t work through their own issues can unintentionally force their children to deal with the same problems.
Emotional neglect and bad parenting
People who have serious addictions often struggle to form relationships with other people. This is because addiction is a form of relationship itself: the relationship between the user and the substance that they’re addicted to.
This relationship becomes paramount in their life because they need to take care of it before they can take care of anything else. For example, a serious alcoholic who goes through withdrawal symptoms will not be able to take care of his children unless he drinks beforehand.
Unfortunately, even if the parent is drinking specifically to manage their withdrawal symptoms so that they can be a better parent, the reality is that a drunk or addicted parent is not ideal. They often will have difficulty remaining emotionally available for their children. Alcohol specifically is known for causing emotional instability, angry outbursts, and unpredictability.
In addition to that, time that could be spent catering to the children might be spent nursing hangovers or going to the liquor store in order to get alcohol to avoid withdrawal.
Whether the result is negligence, physical or emotional abuse, or distancing, all of these actions can have a profound impact on the developing child. This can create wounds, another form of trauma, which are serious risk factors for addiction. If the parent was addicted, then the child may see that and consider it a viable solution for their emotional difficulties. This leads us into our next section, modeling.
Children are highly vulnerable and easily imprinted. If a child is being raised by an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent, then there are a number of challenging ideas and beliefs that may be set into motion.
Children tend to model their own beliefs and behaviors after their parents, whether or not they want to. If they see their parents being emotionally distant, aggressive, repressing their desires or fears, and habitually drinking, then they naturally imprint these behaviors.
This means that, as the child grows up, they may continue to act out these destructive behaviors. All of these issues can increase the likelihood of developing an addiction, and if the parents themselves used addiction as a coping mechanism, the children may see that as a viable solution.
Children may also develop addictive tendencies by observing casual or recreational drug use. Children who watch their parents drinking whenever they have friends over may begin to consider this as normal behavior.
Children who are raised in the homes of addicted parents may develop feelings of shame or embarrassment regarding their parents’ behavior.
This may discourage them from inviting friends over. This lack of freedom may adversely affect their social life and, thus, their mental health and self-esteem.
Mental health problems and low self-esteem are among the biggest contributing factors for addiction. Children who do not feel comfortable to freely express themselves may be more likely to use drugs or alcohol to compensate for their low feelings of self-worth.
Parents with addictions may develop a codependent relationship with their children.
Rather than focusing on managing their own addiction and its underlying issues, they may focus too heavily on the emotional health of their children. While it’s important to remain aware of and connected to your child’s emotions, it can become problematic when this relationship becomes codependent.
If this is the case, parents may become coddling. They may become so overwhelmed with concern for their children that they begin to live vicariously through them. In doing this, they may forcibly assert what they believe to be the best course of action for their children.
This type of behavior ultimately stifles their children’s creative and social freedom. This can lead to deep trauma wounds that can later manifest as addiction.
Addiction is a very complicated disorder that can be the result of a number of different factors. Genetics, environment, and family dynamics can all increase the likelihood of children and teenagers developing addictions.
Understanding the relationship between family, genetics, and addiction can help people prepare for addictions. It can also help people understand what they need to work on in order to overcome their addictions.