For Family Members Affected by Someone Else's Alcohol or Drug Use

Alcohol and drug misuse causes significant problems for people In Northern Ireland. Yet, there is another side to this story. One that is far too often hidden from view: the emotional costs on the family.

"The most destructive element in addiction is its steady erosion of family unity, stability, security and predictability." -Jim Orford

“Hidden Harm”, the Government in Northern Ireland’s report into the needs of children living with problematic alcohol and drug misuse states this tragic reality: “Many families with extreme burdens associated with problematic substance misuse and addiction go unnoticed.”

Chronic stress, unpredictability, sometimes violence becomes the norm.
Family members develop survival skills that can have a lasting impact. It can have a devastating impact on all the family but can be particularly damaging to the most vulnerable: children and young people.

Coping: a Dilemma for Family Members

Coping with any extreme stress, let alone the chronic stress that comes with excessive alcohol or other drug misuse is a challenge. There are no rules about how to cope. Because you have had to work it out on your own, it’s a bit like trial and error.

"Coping may not mean being resilient. It is how you tend to respond to what you are living with. For some, it may mean doing what you have to do to get by." Silent Voices, 2012

Research into the styles or coping families describe these ways as:

Tolerance: Putting Up with It

  • Being lenient, accepting and self sacrificing: i.e. cleaning up messes, fixing problems the drinker/drug user caused.
  • Shielding the drinker/drug user from the harm they do themselves.

Engaged: Trying to Regain Control

  • Trying to change the drinker/drug user and their behaviour.
  • Trying to control their drinking or drug use.
  • Taking charge of the family.

Withdrawal: Withdrawing or gaining independence

  • Putting some emotional/ physical distance between themselves and the drinker/drug user.
  • Being independent and doing something for themselves.

Each of these ways of coping has both positive benefits for the family member but can also add to their levels of stress and strain. (Orford et al 2005)

Family members are often caught between caring about the person with the alcohol or drug problem and struggling to cope. Constant and corrosive worry is one thing so many family members have in common when living with excessive alcohol/drug use and addiction.

Messages family members need to hear

While the stress and stain is there for many families across the country there is also hope. Help is there. There are messages that will help family members and particularly children and young people need to hear.

You’re not alone.
It’s not your fault.
It’s important to talk.
It’s OK to feel your feelings.
You deserve help, and there are people who can help.
Treatment can be effective
For children, you can live a good life, even if your parent continues to drink or use drugs.

Addiction: You didn’t cause it. You cannot cure it. You can’t control it.
You can take better care of yourself. This can help you and may influence others around you in a positive way.

Where can I get help and support?

The important thing to say is help is available.

The Family Intervention Service which is part of the Alcohol and You Partnership offers adult family members direct 1 to 1 support.
Telephone: (028) 9260 4422

Al-Anon is a fellowship for family members of someone with an alcohol problem. There are groups that meet all over the country
Telephone: (028) 9068 2368

Family Support Northern Ireland

Taking the Lid Off
is a self-help booklet for family members developed through the Relatives Support group that meets every Tuesday Night in Downshire Hospital. (For more information on the group contact Shimna House, Downshire Hospital)
Taking the Lid Off for Young People is also available from