Substance use disorders can run in families. Research suggests that genetics account for about 1⁄2 of a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.
Genes are the functional units of our DNA that direct the development and functioning of every cell in our bodies. Some diseases, such as sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis, are caused by a “mutation” in a single gene. But many diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and substance use disorder, involve variations in many different genes that contribute to a person’s overall level of risk and are also profoundly influenced by lifestyle and individual choices.
While we can’t change our genetics, knowing about family history of addiction empowers us to make different decisions about using addictive substances.
Addiction has a ripple effect – when a person is struggling with substance use, it affects the lives of their family, friends and community. But because of the stigma surrounding this disease, many families have kept experiences with addiction a secret and sometimes even from one another for fear of being judged or discriminated against.
Information is power when it comes to genetic risk. Be honest with young people if they have a familial history of addiction and help them reduce their risk of developing a substance use disorder, by doing things like:
- Delaying substance use until your brain has matured.
- Learning skills to help you cope with stress and express emotions in a healthy way,
- and practicing ways to refuse drugs or alcohol if they are offered to you.
Caregivers can help to strengthen protective factors for a young person who has a genetic risk for addiction by
- setting clear expectations around no alcohol, tobacco, or drug use,
- helping them to find and pursue activities they’re passionate about, such as music, sports, or art,
- and investing in resilient, healthy communities where young people can thrive and feel a sense of belonging.