How Learned Behaviors Could Pass Your Substance Abuse On to Your Children

How Learned Behaviors Could Pass Your Substance Abuse On to Your Children

: Because children learn through observation, their risk of developing addiction later in life increases when they live with people who model such behavior

Although family history can factor in to whether or not someone develops a drug addiction, an even stronger indicator is if a child learns addictive behaviors from other people. Children learn by observing and then by doing, so adults pass along both good and bad habits to their children throughout the developmental years. When a child sees an adult abuse drugs or alcohol, she is more likely to develop those behaviors in her teen years or as an adult. For instance, a child who is not exposed to drug or alcohol abuse at a young age is far less likely to experiment with substances and repeat behaviors that lead to addiction. When an adult abuses drugs in front of his children, he is setting in motion some patterns of behavior that can lead to generational addiction.

Addiction and Genetics

Understanding the link between genetics and addiction can help recovering addicts and people with a family history of drug abuse break the cycle of drug abuse for future generations. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 40 to 60 percent of the predisposition to addiction can be attributed to genetics; this statistic means that, for many people, addictive tendencies begin with what traits and lessons parents pass along. This statistic does not mean that someone with a genetic predisposition to addiction will always become an addict, as many factors contribute to addiction besides genetics. Environment, early experimentation with drugs and alcohol, peer pressure and education all play a roll in whether or not a person struggles with substance abuse.

Genetics determines eye color, hair color, skin color, certain disease markers and a host of other variables outside of human control. And, like these other hereditary characteristics, genome wide research has allowed scientists to identify genes directly related to addictive behaviors like smoking. This type of targeted research is paving the way for new medications that can decrease someone’s risk for addiction.

Addiction and Behavior

With new research comes new understanding when it comes to the link between genetics and addiction, but experts in genetics have long known that behaviors outside of the autonomic nervous system are learned. Children are born with the ability to suck, and they build on that ability to take the breast or bottle from their parents. Most children are also born with the muscles needed to walk, but it takes a combination of biology and observation to produce the action over time. The same is true of other biological functions and observations. For example, children do not know that a surface is hot until they touch it and experience pain, so making the connection that touching something hot leads to pain is one way to learn. But children can learn not to touch hot things without pain by watching what their parents do. Parents do not touch hot stoves, and, when a child reaches out to a hot surface, parents say, “NO!”  and draw the child’s hand back. By observing, listening and modeling the adult’s behavior, a child can learn not to touch a hot stove.

In effect, by observing, listening and modeling, children learn to abuse drugs. Even when there is no genetic predisposition for addiction, children may develop addiction by watching and repeating the actions of the adults in their lives. It may seem like drinking excessively after a child goes to bed is harmless, but the child may see the behavior even if adults are unaware.

The Encyclopedia of Children’s Health defines cognitive development as the construction of thought processes (including remembering, problem solving and decision-making) from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. The developmental years are the most vulnerable when it comes to learning about addictive behaviors. Cognitive development takes place throughout childhood and adolescence and even into young adulthood. So there is never a safe time to expose children to substance abuse. No matter how mature you think your child may be, she is vulnerable to any and all modeling of addictive behaviors.

Peer pressure, curiosity, the temptation to experiment and a general lack of wisdom when it comes to consequences are all part of the road to addiction for young people. But your own actions remain the strongest influence when it comes to whether or not your children choose to use drugs.

Find Help for Drug and Alcohol Addiction

To put an end to your addiction and to protect your children and theirs from a lifetime struggle with substance abuse, realize that you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, and then get the help you need. If you understand that your behavior influences and often determines a child’s behavior, then you have taken an important step in improving. If you or a loved one struggles with addiction, then know that we are here to help you. Call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline now to speak to an admissions coordinator about available rehab options.