The initial discovery of a family member using illicit drugs is commonly met with a range of strong emotions including anger, shock, guilt and dismay.  Most studies have shown that the most common response is to try to contain the problem and keep it within the family without recourse to outside agencies or support. Often families try to restrain the person from leaving the house in an effort to stop them from using drugs. Such attempts to restrain a family member are never successful.  As the individual’s drug use becomes more problematic, the impact on day to day functioning intensifies. As a consequence the family often experiences conflict as to how to respond to the individual.

Most documented experiences of parents report a time where their lives were totally consumed by pervasive worries about the problematic substance use of the family member. A common theme is worrying about what the family member is doing, whom they are with, if they are at risk or in danger and if they, themselves, are to blame for the current situation. Family members also want to know if they could have done things differently to prevent the substance use, and if there are things they can do now to assist the individual in the future.

April, mother of Toby, explains;

‘’You become absolutely obsessed by it because, even if it is a quiet moment, you are waiting for the next disaster to unfold. You think you can make it work by persistence and you constantly strategize and say, “If I do this and this, he’ll understand”. So you constantly have these different scripts running through your head about how to make a difference or make it work in a different way. The most bizarre thing is that you become just as demented yourself”’. Everyone starts by blaming themselves, “It’s because I was too strict or not strict enough”. However, the truth is, nobody really knows why. What you have to do is deal with the problems you have right now.

Living with a family member who is misusing substances has been found to have a negative impact on the physical and psychological wellbeing of the family members. It has been estimated that problematic substance use by a family member will negatively affect at least two close family members to the extent that they will seek and require primary health care services. Parents who struggle on a day to day basis with a family members substance abuse report elevated levels of stress, anxiety, depression, domestic violence and behavior disorders.

The report commissioned by The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, The Winnable War on Drugs, (2007), found that families of illicit drug users feel ashamed and isolated because of the stigma attached to drug use and the situation will increase in severity depending on the extent of the drug use. In many cases family members have been living with the negative impacts of having the user in the family for some time and present with issues such as, marital stress and breakdown, reliance on drugs and alcohol themselves, and more commonly, anxiety and depression. There are many factors that contribute to determining how a family will respond to the discovery of substance misuse within the family. The age of the person and the quality and strength of the relationship with the family is important. Another consideration is the extent to which the substance use is disclosed, and if the individual is regarded as being in the initiation, experimental or problematic range of use. The majority of research in this area has been focussed primarily on problematic use and the strategies developed by family members in an effort to manage the predicament.

Due to the stress involved with the circumstances of coping with a young person with substance dependence or misuse, it is not surprising that family members place significant importance on the levels of support they receive from family and friends. Simply having someone to share the burden and talk to is the most common form of support sought by family members.

Drug addiction family support usually takes the form of practical support such as financial assistance or the offer of respite when things become overwhelming. The barriers to family members receiving support are many and include their own reluctance to discuss openly with others what is happening with their son or daughter, which may be based on a belief about the importance of keeping family problems within the family due to a sense of failure or shame. Family members have reported reaching out for support and finding the reactions of others had not been helpful and this had inhibited further support seeking behaviour.


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