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Can You Predict if Your Children Will be Addicts?

What causes addiction? Where does addiction come from? These questions have baffled scientists for decades. The disease of addiction, which is a mental illness, is a complex one that is affected by genetics, environmental causes, and many other factors.

Although it’s impossible to predict with complete accuracy whether someone will be an addict or not, parents, especially parents who have substance abuse in their history, may worry about whether their children will face the same struggles that they have. As we learn more about addiction, and treating it like what it is—a disease, not a moral failing—we are also learning about where addiction comes from and how to treat it before it becomes a life-threatening problem.

I Got My Addiction From My Mom’s Side Of The Family

One of the most common questions people ask about addiction is whether or not it is hereditary. Just like the color of your eyes, or the shape of your fingers, a person’s DNA may also hold clues about whether they are predisposed to addiction. According to Learn Genetics, a genetic research center in Utah, addiction has an inherited component, which means it can run in the family. By looking at large families and learning about addictive behaviors, scientists can see how addiction occurs in people who are genetically linked.

Does that mean that if your dad is an alcoholic, you will be too? Not necessarily. One of the center’s lead scientists, Dr. Glen Hanson, says, “Just because you are prone to addiction doesn’t mean you’re going to become addicted. It just means you’ve got to be careful.” Careful can mean different things to different people with different levels of addiction susceptibility. It may mean that you must avoid heavy drinking entirely, or it may mean that your addictive behavior won’t show up until you are at retirement age. It’s impossible to predict when, how, or whether someone will become a full blown addict because human lives are so varied and complex.

Of Course I’m An Addict, Look At My Crazy Childhood

There is no test for addiction. Doctors can’t take a blood sample or cheek swab and say with certainty, “This person is hard-wired for substance abuse disorder.” (A urine analysis is another story!) In fact, many people with substance addiction seem perfectly normal. Their parents aren’t alcoholics or addicts. They didn’t face trauma or abuse. At some point, they simply became unable to control when, where, and how they would use drugs or alcohol. Since human beings are so complicated and have such varied life experiences, scientists have studied non-human animals to find out how addiction genes are passed.

They’ve learned that certain genes are more prevalent in humans who have an addiction, but that these genes, or alleles, can be activated by the presence of the substance. For example, the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene DRD2 is more common in people addicted to alcohol or cocaine. But if the person never took the first drink or the first hit, that allele might not have expressed itself. Or maybe the allele is more common, but not a predictor of the addictive behavior: someone with this gene expression might be an addict genetically but have no desire to drink. Obviously, there’s more to addiction that just genetics.

The Branch of My Family Tree Is the One With All the Nuts

Alcohol and drugs are often described as “coping mechanisms” by people who deal with substance abuse. Self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or even prescription pills is common in people with addiction. Usually, this pattern of drinking and using is kick-started by unmanageable emotions, such as fear, emotional pain, stress, or trauma.

Other mental illnesses, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder, and sleep disorders frequently co-occur in people who are already grappling with alcohol and drugs. Studying where these other mental illnesses come from could be the key to learning more about addiction. For example, if someone suffers from chronic depression or mood swings, they may be at a higher risk for substance abuse, as well. Moods or temperaments can run in families, too—and they can be more easily traced to environmental factors.

There’s No Chart or Test for Addiction, But That Could Change

Although there’s no simple diagnostic tool for addiction or alcoholism, we’re learning more about the causes and conditions that create an addict. When one or both parents are addicts or alcoholics, that may influence a child’s likelihood to develop a substance abuse disorder. However, it’s just as likely that the child will have no mental illness at all! It’s impossible to say for sure.

By treating addiction like what it is—a potentially life-threatening but treatable mental illness—we increase the odds of more people with addiction staying sober, thriving, and raising healthy families of their own.