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Heroin’s Devastating Effect on Family & Loved Ones

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Nov 22, 2023 • 8 cited sources

One person’s heroin addiction can have a deep and lasting impact on their family. Family members often feel isolated from others and responsible for drug use and its consequences. Feelings of worry, anxiety, shame and guilt are common.[1]

You’re not responsible for someone else’s heroin use. Whether you’re a parent, sibling, spouse or child, you aren’t powerless. Understanding how heroin use changes you and how you can encourage your loved one to get help is critical. 

Heroin’s Effect on Parents 

Parents are encouraged to raise their children into healthy, happy, productive adults. When heroin enters the picture, everything can change. 

Parents often blame themselves for their children’s heroin use, and they may develop poor self-esteem and a reduced quality of life as a result.[1]

In some communities and cultures, outsiders blame parents for a child’s drug habit too. When parents blame themselves and others agree, a shame spiral can develop that isolates the parents even more. 

In severe cases, parents must step in to raise their grandchildren. Sometimes, this is a happy occurrence for the parents, as they get to help a struggling child in a meaningful way. But researchers say grandparents often struggle with the demands of raising children. In one study, a grandparent put the situation plainly by saying, “I will die young.”[2] 

Heroin’s Impact on Partners & Spouses 

Some couples use heroin together, locking their family in a spiral of drug use and addiction. Others are surprised by the heroin use and unsure of what to do next. 

Researchers say a spouse’s substance misuse can lead to the following five consequences:[3]

  • Psychological disadvantages: Running a household with heroin is stressful, and recurring fights about drug use can lead to intense anxiety. 
  • Losing family bonds: Parents and grandparents may disengage from the couple due to drug use. Sometimes, these families lose custody of their children. 
  • Insecurity: Heroin use can lead to fluctuating housing situations or homelessness. 
  • Turbulence: When one partner uses heroin, the entire household is more conflicted and less peaceful.
  • Impermanence: Spouses worry that their partners will leave them when heroin use is in the picture. 

Every couple is different, and the consequences of heroin can look a little different for your family. However, the above issues are very common when one partner uses heroin.

Heroin’s Impact on Children 

A parent’s relationship with a child can be broken at the outset due to heroin abuse. Researchers say dopamine is critical in behaviors like caring for offspring. After years of heroin abuse, the brain uses dopamine differently. Parents may find caring for their children stressful, not rewarding.[4]

A very young child can’t speak to a parent openly, but this young person may sense that the parent isn’t enjoying their time together. The child could grow up feeling less loved, nurtured and supported due to heroin abuse. 

Researchers say children living with a parent struggling with a mental illness have an up to 50% chance of developing an issue too.[5] Poor levels of attachment, and growing up in a chaotic home, could play a role.

In severe cases, heroin abuse can separate parents and children. Law enforcement officials can take children from their parents due to lasting drug abuse. Their experience in foster homes may not be pleasant.

Heroin Abuse & Sibling Relationships 

Researchers say that up to 50% of addiction risks stem from genetics.[6] Having a sibling with an addiction increases the chances you’ll develop one too. The stress of life with a brother or sister who is struggling with drug misuse can contribute too. 

Growing up with an impaired sibling means living in a stressful household. Parents may fight about how to address the issue, and you may be asked to participate in multiple drug interventions and tense conversations. 

Parents may have fewer resources for the non-impaired child. You may feel ignored or left out due to the time and attention your parents focus on your brother or sister. 

Conversely, some children grow up believing they must be perfect to make up for the other child’s deficits. You may feel intensely anxious about getting good grades, participating in sports and otherwise making your parents happy. 

Stresses don’t end when children leave the house. An impaired sibling can’t help make decisions about caring for older parents. The sober child may have to do more to keep the parents in good health as they age. 

How to Help Someone in Recovery 

While people with a heroin habit can harm the people they love in sharp and lasting ways, they can get better too. Addiction treatment works, and a loving support system can make sobriety even easier. 

These four steps can help you support someone recovering from a heroin habit:[7]

Celebrate the Wins

It’s easy to focus on all of the mistakes the person made and all the harm heroin use caused. This can make it harder to focus on the gains the person makes in recovery. 

Do your best to recognize the improvements, even if they’re small. Highlight how often the person keeps appointments, takes medications or simply improves their lifestyle. By acknowledging the person’s hard work, you’re encouraging them to stick with treatment, and this makes relapse less likely. 

Be Patient 

You’re impatient for recovery, and so is the person you love. Kicking a drug habit can take a long time. Rushing the process can prompt the person to return to drug misuse. 

Don’t lecture the person or try to make their recovery happen faster. As long as the person stays in treatment, they’re making progress.

Highlight a Healthy Lifestyle 

Treatment programs often encourage people to exercise, eat right, meditate and get enough sleep. These simple steps can help to reduce relapse triggers and promote a lasting recovery. 

You can encourage your loved one to take these steps. You could even join in and feel a little better yourself. 

Get Care

Life with an addiction is traumatic. Respect the difficulties you’ve experienced. Seek out help from a support group or counselor. 

Remember to focus on your physical and mental health too. You’ll be a more effective helper for your loved one when you’re feeling grounded. 

Where to Get Care

If the person you love isn’t in treatment (or the program hasn’t worked), you can help. A Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) program combines tools like Suboxone and counseling to help heal a heroin addiction. 

Long-standing drug use can change brain chemistry and make quitting hard. The person may feel sick and overwhelmed with cravings. MAT eases chemical imbalances, so the person can focus on building healthy habits.[8] 

Bicycle Health offers MAT via telemedicine. Your loved one meets with a talented care team via a video appointment and picks up the prescription for Suboxone at a local pharmacy. 

If your loved one hasn’t succeeded with other forms of care, MAT could be a good option. Contact us to find out more.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Flensburg O, Richert T, Fritz M. Parents of adult children with drug addiction dealing with shame and courtesy stigma. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy. 2022. 
  2. Gordon L. ‘My daughter is a drug addict’: Grandparents caring for the children of addicted parents, Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences. 2018;13(1):39-54.
  3. Maghsoudi J, Alavi M, Sabzi Z, Mancheri H. Experienced Psychosocial Problems of Women with Spouses of Substance Abusers: A Qualitative Study. Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences. 2019;7(21):3584-3591. 
  4. Suchman NE, DeCoste CL. Substance abuse and addiction: Implications for early relationships and interventions. Zero Three. 2018;38(5):17-22.
  5. Leijdesdorff S, Van Doesum K, Popma, A, et al. Prevalence of psychopathology in children of parents with mental illness and/or addiction: an up to date narrative review. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 2017;30(4):312-317. 
  6. Genetics: The blueprint of health and disease. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published August 2019. Accessed November 2, 2023.
  7. Supporting someone through recovery. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Published April 6, 2022. Accessed November 2, 2023. 
  8. Medication-assisted treatment: A primer for judicial professionals serving parents and children affected by substance use disorders. National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. Accessed November 2, 2023. 

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