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Teens Ask: Can I Inherit Addiction from My Parents?

Man pouring alcohol into a glass with a mother and daughter in the background.

“You really remind me of your mom/dad when you …”

Almost everyone has heard some version of this sentence at one time or another. It’s an observation comparing a trait, attitude, or characteristic in someone to a similar feature seen in his or her parent(s).

Adolescents might be on the receiving end of such remarks more than adults or younger kids because, during this developmental stage, similarities to their adult mothers and fathers might be more apparent to the casual observer. However, such reasoning might also compel teenagers to wonder whether they are destined to succumb to addiction if they have addicted parents.

Addiction is Genetic and Complex

The short answer to the title question is "yes, it’s possible."

Scientists have known for quite some time that addiction has a genetic component. Contrary to what some may think, there is no single “addiction gene” in the human body, but rather a collection of genetic material which influences the likelihood of addiction. To confuse matters further, not every person will possess one or more of these genes, and those who do may never display a penchant for addiction.

How “Heritable” is Addiction?

Though research into this field is ongoing, scientists have determined that the heritability (i.e., the portion of the variation of a trait that is attributed to genetic factors) of addiction is about fifty percent, or .5. Though that may sound high, it pales in comparison to the heritability of such characteristics as height (.9), schizophrenia (.8), or smoking (.75). That said, it is higher than so-called “psychological interests” such as how investigative, social, or artistic a person is (from .31 to .39).

Drug Types, Extended Family, and Addiction Variability 

Moreover, the impact of the genetics of addiction can vary from drug to drug. For example, a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics revealed that the typical heritability of addiction to opiates or cocaine is much higher (around .7) than it is to cannabis, hallucinogens, or stimulants (around .4). 

While genetics play a role in drug dependence, such family heritability doesn’t necessarily come from a person’s parents. For example, while a female is more likely to receive the genetic material for addiction from her mother or paternal grandmother, there’s a correspondingly high probability of a male’s paternal grandfather or maternal uncle passing down such genes.

Father and Mother drinking and smoking in front of a child.

Using This Knowledge to Stop Substance Misuse

The good news is that researchers are making strides in their journey from identifying addiction-linked genes to finding substantive causal factors of substance dependence. Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that the lack of a specific dopamine receptor in the brain known as D2 may someday predict how probable it will be for an individual to become addicted to cocaine or heroin. 

In addition, research overseen by Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto indicates that a person whose blood pressure actually spikes after consuming three or four alcoholic drinks in a 15-minute period (instead of falling like it should when exposed to a depressant) may be more susceptible to alcoholism. Peterson also states that anyone who experiences an “opiate-like effect” while their blood alcohol level is rising (i.e., someone who feels that they “can’t stop drinking”) may also be at higher risk of becoming dependent on alcohol.

Teens: You Have The Power

Does all this research mean that someone who is genetically predisposed to substance use disorder is destined for a discouraging life of addiction, recurrence of use, and despair? Certainly not.

Remember, almost half of the features that correlate with addiction are environmental, meaning that they can potentially be addressed or eliminated. Some of these factors include living in a dysfunctional family environment, suffering from behavioral problems, or experimenting with drugs or alcohol prior to high school.

There’s one important caveat to addiction; you can’t become dependent on something to which you are never exposed. In other words, embracing strategies to avoid the temptation of drugs and alcohol altogether will reduce the chances of experimenting with these substances in the first place. For parents, this can mean actively supporting your teen and maintaining open lines of honest communication. Some anti-drug programs have also demonstrated success in lowering the rate of substance misusers in the adolescent population.

In short, genetics isn’t everything when it comes to addiction. Teens ultimately have control over their lives and the decisions they make; so if they choose to eschew alcohol or drugs and act accordingly, they won’t have to worry about developing a substance use disorder.

Mother, father and daughter smiling.

If you're concerned that you're subject to substance use disorder,  contact us today to see how we can help.

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