Family Relations and Learned Behavior

Family influences on the development of addictions can be very powerful. There are the genetic influences that have already been discussed. Families can also influence the development of addictions by example. A child who watches his parents or other adult relatives using substances or engaging in other addictive behaviors gets the message that this is acceptable. It is typical childhood behavior to want to emulate significant adults in one's life. The child is often looking for adult approval when she copies the adult's behavior.

In families where addictions are openly practiced, young people may be purposely introduced to and included in the addiction. This may be seen as an acceptable custom common to the family culture. In families where physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse may be present, it is not uncommon for a person to begin using addictive substances at an early age to escape the emotional pain. Once a person discovers that he can numb the emotional pain with addictive substances or behaviors, he typically continues this practice on into adulthood.


It is now confirmed that childhood trauma has the capability of altering the brain. Changes in the brain that occur as the result of childhood trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, can cause a person to be more susceptible to addictions.

Social learning theory has contributed significantly to understanding the social causes of addiction. Social learning theory is a psychological concept that attempts to explain through a set of observations how a person learns behaviors through social interactions. There are four stages in social learning theory that may explain a potential addict's behavior, the first of which involves attention.

The potential addict makes a conscious choice to watch others engaging in addictive behaviors. Memory is the second stage, with the individual recalling what he has observed. The third stage is imitation. In this stage, the individual repeats the behaviors that he has observed. Motivation is the fourth stage. If the addictive behavior is to be imitated and carried out, there must be some internal motivation for the individual to do so.


Once an individual becomes addicted to substances or behaviors, family attention often shifts from family issues to the addict. It is common for the addicted person to be blamed for family problems at this point. The stress of unresolved family problems can contribute to the development and perpetuation of addictions.

How does this learning theory apply to the development of addictions? The addictive behavior of a friend, family member, peer, or other admired individual gets one's attention. An addict may remember watching addictive behaviors in those people he looked up to or admired. At some point, he may have made a choice to try the addictive substance or behavior that he observed. The internal motivation he may have felt to continue using the addictive substance or behavior may have been the approval of the person being imitated, or the numbing of emotional pain, or the stimulation of the pleasure pathway in his brain. All of this may have happened at either a conscious or an unconscious level.

Responses such as stimulation of the pleasure pathway serve as positive reinforcement, which keeps the addictive behavior going. Positive reinforcement in this case is when one experiences good feelings such as mellowness, euphoria, relaxation, or a “high” after use of a substance or addictive behavior. Positive reinforcement also occurs when a person experiences acceptance from others who use addictive substances or behaviors.

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