Parents’ greatest fear is that their kids will become addicted to drugs and alcohol
This is according to a Parent Co. survey with over 1500 participants. Fear of drug and alcohol addiction vastly outweighed concerns about terrorism, economic collapse, crime, and war. When we shared the results of this survey, comments from readers could be grouped into three categories:
- Parents saying “Of course this is our biggest fear!”
- Parents asking if it’s possible to analyze their kids’ behavior and attitudes for signs of future addiction.
- Parents asking about the factors that contribute to future addiction.
We set out to research these answers with help from AddictionWise, an online service for families and friends of addicts. (More on AddictionWise below.)
From harmful substance abuse of alcohol or drugs or cigarettes to gambling, sex, food, or exercise, addiction can manifest in many forms.
While research continues to explore the scope of addiction and addictive behavior, the bottom line is that science has yet to isolate an “addictive personality.”
However, there’s strong evidence that some people are born vulnerable to addiction. It’s also often possible to predict a child’s’ risk of future addiction.
Genetics, relationships in childhood, environmental and social influences, adolescent experimentation, and the existence of an underlying personality disorder may ultimately contribute to the development of addiction and addictive behaviors.
The biggest indicators of future addiction problems are:
- Genetics – a family history of addiction
- Association with drug-abusing peers
- Drug and alcohol experimentation in adolescence
It’s important to note that parental understanding of the mechanics of addiction is a powerful preventive tool.
A history of family addiction may be the strongest indicator of future addiction.
Many studies have shown that children of addicts have a much greater chance of becoming addicts themselves. Environmental factors may play a role, but a history of family addiction may be the strongest indicator of a child’s future addiction risks.
According to Doug Sellman of the National Addiction Center, heritability runs at about 50% of the cause of addiction.
Dr. A. Thomas McLellan has determined that though more research is needed on the topic, genetics has a critical role in whether or not an individual will develop an addiction, just as chronic illness can be passed from one generation to another.
“[We] have firmly established that undercontrolled temperament comes before any involvement in gambling.” – Wendy Slutske, who is a professor of psychological science at the University of Missouri
In the past few years, research has focused on how “undercontrolled” temperaments in children strongly correlate to a future probability of addiction.
A large-scale, long-term, longitudinal study from New Zealand found that undercontrolled three-year-0lds were more than three times as likely to become addicted to drugs and twice as likely to have problems with gambling as young adults than their peers with the most self-control.”
Aspects of an “undercontrolled temperament” include:
- a lack of self-control, including rapidly shifting emotions
- impulsive and willful behavior
- relatively high levels of negative feelings such as alienation and negative emotion
- less conscientiousness and less social agreeability compared to peers
Even after factors like IQ, gender, and socioeconomic status were accounted for the association with addiction still held. And when the “undercontrolled” children were assessed as adults, they hadn’t changed all that much. (This is also shown in this California Child Q-Set study.)
About 10% of children in the study exhibited an undercontrolled temperament.
Relationships With Peers and Adults
Children who have poor relationships with peers and adults are more at risk for addiction.
A child’s environment and family additionally can affect the development of addictive habits. Dr. Robert B. Millman has advocated that children who have poor relationships with peers and adults are more at risk for addiction whereas those with positive relationships are at less risk. Dr. Hatterer also confers with this perspective and elaborates a child who suffers abuse is also at risk for developing an addiction later in life.
Moreover, Dr. Hatterer articulates that a lack of consistent parenting throughout childhood also influences future addictive behavior patterns.
Drug experimentation in adolescence
Association with drug-abusing peers is often the most immediate risk for exposing adolescents to drug abuse and delinquent behavior. – Drugabuse.gov
A 30-year prospective study found that early-exposed adolescents remained at an increased risk for poor outcomes. Approximately 50% of adolescents exposed to alcohol and drugs before age 15 had no conduct-problem history, yet were still at an increased risk for adult substance dependence.
Likewise, children who feel isolated or alienated are at risk for addictions. They may lack self-confidence and not know how to reach out to others for their emotional needs. .These children may eventually turn to addictive substances to cope.
According to David Sack M.D:
“For peer groups where substance abuse is the norm, the future looks bleak. Nine out of 10 people who end up addicted started drinking, smoking or using drugs by age 18, CASA reports. One in four high school students who drinks or uses drugs becomes addicted. Drinking at an early age is linked to dangerous binge drinking in young adulthood. Many people come to treatment with histories of drug abuse spanning decades, or the majority of their young lives, making the recovery process more challenging.”
When a child has suffered a trauma such as physical, mental, or sexual abuse; the death of a parent; or neglect, she may turn to addictive behaviors or substances to help cope with her pain and stress. This is especially true if she hasn’t been taught healthy coping strategies.
Changes in Brain Chemistry vs. “Addictive Personality.”
There’s aren’t always signs of addictive traits in childhood. For many people, addiction is a progressive disease.
Addiction isn’t necessarily the consequence of an “addictive personality” (which technically doesn’t exist; see below) as much as a result of changes in brain chemistry.
Dr. Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, contends that “voluntary and controllable” drug and alcohol use can eventually morph into a daily addiction. Continued drug use alters the brain’s functioning and structure.
Leshner even considers drug addiction a form of brain disease.
“The development of addiction is like a vicious cycle: Chronic drug use not only realigns a person’s priorities but also may alter key brain areas necessary for judgment and self-control, further reducing the individual’s ability to control or stop their drug use. This is why, despite popular belief, willpower alone is often insufficient to overcome an addiction. Drug use has compromised the very parts of the brain that make it possible to “say no.” – Drugabuse.gov
A child with increased risk of addiction isn’t destined to become an addict.
Addiction typically begins as a symptom, not a cause, of personal and social maladjustment.
Addiction is a complex process. Many people gamble, drink, and take drugs without becoming addicted.
Addiction should always be viewed in the context of an person’s developmental history. It’s most often the result of a biological or behavioral predisposition. For example, many studies show that depressed or impulsive people are more likely to drink and take drugs.
But addictive tendencies don’t mean a child will inevitably become an addict. Parental understanding of the mechanics of addiction is also a powerful preventive tool. Families can help provide protection from later drug abuse when there is:
- a strong bond between children and parents
- parental involvement in the child’s life; and
- clear limits and consistent enforcement of discipline.
Research shows that parents and caregivers can help kids learn to practice self-control, which is a major factor in future prevention. Even undercontrolled children can outgrow self-control problems over time, and learned to rein in their impulses as well as their peers who showed earlier mastery.
“Addictive Personality” vs Personality Disorders
Commonality is evident among different addictions, though research hasn’t found psychological characteristics specific to a so-called “addictive personality.”
Psychologist Hans Jugen Eysenck posited that addictive habits serve an important functionality to the individual with an addiction, specific to their personality.
Notably, the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association most recently in 2013) does not classify an “addictive personality” as a personality disorder. Rather, addictive characteristics can underlie or co-exist with a personality disorder that manifests in “maladaptive cognitive, emotive, and behavior patterns,” such as social deviance from accepted societal norms.
Maladaptive behavior patterns, exemplified by the inability to implement effective coping strategies, delay gratification, and empathize in addition to black-and-white thinking, impulsive and irrational behavior, moodiness, sensation-seeking and a lack of forward-thinking skills, are possible signs of an addictive personality.
An individual with an addictive personality may also highly value nonconformity or deviant behavior and have difficulty making commitments and setting goals.
Furthermore, an existing personality disorder can lead to substance abuse as coping mechanism. An “addictive personality” or addictive habits have the propensity to reinforce an existing personality disorder.
Personality disorders are categorized into three clusters: A, B, and C.
Cluster A disorders, distinguished by “odd, eccentric thinking of behavior” include paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal personality disorders, that stem from genetics and brain chemistry.
Cluster B includes antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Cluster B disorders, characterized by over-emotional, selfish, and unpredictable thinking and behavior, are diagnosed more regularly than Cluster A as these disorders have roots in childhood.
Cluster C includes avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders, which are predominantly disorders identified by anxiety and fear. Though a person may be diagnosed with one personality disorder, he or she may also exhibit signs of another personality disorder.