At Bay Area Recovery Center, we frequently meet with the families and loved ones of individuals suffering from addiction and substance use disorders. Addiction can cause an incredible amount of emotional pain within a family. There are often feelings of betrayal, distrust, confusion and anger from the family toward the individual who is addicted to a substance. Most times the families and loved ones will ask us, “Why are they like this? Was it something I did, or were they born this way?”. This is basically the age-old question of Nature vs. Nurture.
Is Addiction Passed Down Through Genetics?
When trying to explain human behavior, people will often view the behavior from one of two perspectives. People do the things they do either because that is just who they are; they were born that way (the Nature perspective). Or people do the things they do because of something that happened to them in the past, their environment or their circumstances (the Nurture perspective). It can be problematic to take either of these views as the only reason a loved one struggles with addiction.
If someone believes their child is addicted to drugs and alcohol because it is genetic and they have alcoholism in their family, this could then lead to the belief that there is nothing that can be done. It is in their genes so they are doomed to drink and use drugs the rest of their lives. This type of black and white thinking can lead to blame and shame within the family.
Taking the opposite point of view can have the same outcome. When people take the Nurture perspective and believe that their loved one struggles with drugs and alcohol solely because of something that happened to them, blame and shame can spread in the family as well. Parents may blame themselves or each other for the way the child was raised. Children may develop shame as they believe they “weren’t good enough” for their parent who is currently struggling with addiction.
The Truth Behind Why Addiction Happens
The truth of it is, there is not one sole reason that a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. The reason people become dependent on substances is not just genetic or just a traumatic event. It is not Nature or Nurture. It is most likely a mix of both. Modern research has shown that for any one person struggling with addiction it is very difficult to determine a single cause as to why they have become addicted. These days, most professionals in the substance abuse treatment field focus mainly on what are called risk factors and protective factors.
What are Risk Factors and Protective Factors in Dealing with Addiction?
Risk factors are elements of a person’s life, both biological (Nature) and environmental (Nurture), that have been found to increase the likelihood of someone developing a substance use disorder. Risk factors for addiction include a family history of addiction, in conjunction with mental health issues, lack of stable housing, poverty, trauma and adverse childhood experiences, impulsive temperament, negative peer group, and early exposure to drugs and alcohol.
Reasons Why Some Do Not Get Addicted
Protective factors are elements of a person’s life that decrease the likelihood of someone developing a substance use disorder. Protective factors include stable housing, delayed exposure to alcohol and drugs, family cohesion, participation in after-school activities, positive self-image, impulse control, and positive peer group.
It is important to know that these factors have been found to increase or decrease the likelihood of addiction, they do not cause addiction in and of themselves. Just because an individual has more risk factors than protective factors does not mean they will develop a substance use disorder. Someone could grow up in poverty with an extensive family history of substance abuse, and not develop an addiction issue. On the flip side, someone could have all the protective factors in the world, come from an affluent home, have no family history of mental illness or addiction, not experience any traumatic event, and still find themselves struggling with a substance use disorder.
With the knowledge of risk and protective factors, families can work toward creating an environment that encourages recovery from substance use disorders, or prevents them all together. It is natural to want to know why a loved one is struggling with addiction, whether it is Nature vs. Nurture. The truth is there may not be a good answer to that question. Many people don’t have an answer as to why they develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, and they might never get one.
There is recovery from addiction and substance use disorders. Recovery involves developing new and different behaviors, beliefs, and thoughts. It encompasses change in many different areas of life. It includes doing something about it. If you or someone you know suffer from addiction or a substance use disorder, the most important question isn’t Why? but What now?