Mitzi Perdue: Substance abuse is sinking America's family businesses. Here’s the secret to staying strong

Just last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced its intention to dedicate an extra $144 million towards fighting the opioid crisis – a decision which, while helpful, is long overdue. Substance abuse, and opioid abuse in particular, continues to wreak havoc on this country. Ninety-one Americans die each day from opioid abuse, and drug offenders make up the large part of our nation’s incarcerated population.

It’s a health care problem, it’s a criminal justice problem – but it’s also a family problem, and it’s one that is especially challenging for families who run a family business. I’ve spent all of my life and much of my career observing and advising family businesses, and time and time again I’ve seen that substance abuse plays a large role in the sad fact that 70 percent of family-owned businesses don’t make it past one generation. The collateral damage when a family business falls apart extends to the employees, the stockholders, the lenders, the suppliers, the customers, and even the tax base and economic health of the entire community.

And, economic consequences aside, addiction has deep emotional consequences and can destroy what is an otherwise healthy family business. A longtime friend of mine recently confided in me his sorrow over his two sons, both of whom had been doing wonderfully in college – until they discovered alcohol and quickly become addicted.

My friend tried putting his sons in treatment programs, but it didn’t work. He tried tough love, but his kids wound up hating him. His business prospered, but today his children won’t speak to him. He can’t hand his business on to them, his hoped-for legacy is in tatters, and much of what gave his life meaning has vaporized. What good, he asks himself, does it do to succeed financially and fail as a family?

I was deeply saddened by my friend’s story, but even more saddened to learn that he’s not alone.

One study found that more than half of family businesses had or were struggling with an addiction issue within the family. This may sound shocking, but it stacks up with other statistics: One in ten Americans have struggled with some kind of drug abuse and one in eight with alcohol abuse. Many American families don’t know whether their life’s work will live beyond them into the next generation or whether addiction and substance abuse will have the final say.

So – what to do? How to create a substance-free family culture that can sustain a family business? How to avoid heartbreaking situations like the one my friend found himself in?

There’s no one single answer, and even among healthy families, things will look different. But I’ve generally found that among the families that last, three core values were emphasized:

Be clear. Make no bones about the fact that substance abuse is not what your family does. Parents have far more influence than they know. According to Joe Califano, former Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under President Carter and the founder of the Center on Addiction and Substance (CASA), “Parent power is the greatest weapon we have to curb substance abuse.”

He encourages parents to emphasize that substance abuse is not simply illegal but seriously dangerous, and to take the same attitude towards it that they do towards asbestos. Most parents would be in an uproar if they found out their child’s school has asbestos, but are willing to let substance abuse in school slide. And kids respond to this kind of clear condemnation: Those who know their parents would be “very upset” are more likely to abstain from drugs and alcohol than those who know their parents would only be “a little” or “not upset at all.”

Be together. Oftentimes, risky behaviors result from unloving homes. When children do not feel loved and valued by their parents, they are far more likely to look for love elsewhere – and oftentimes, that means succumbing to peer pressure to win admiration and acceptance.

Simply spending time together – without screens and without distractions – will increase family bonding and a child’s sense of worth and belonging. CASA found that teens who eat dinner with their parents fewer than three nights each week are more susceptible to smoking, drinking and drug abuse than those who eat with their parents five nights or more each week.

Be fun. Teach kids early on that you can have fun and be creative without substances. If they see you getting creative and enjoying yourself without alcohol and drugs, they’re less likely to turn to those things as a way to have fun.

Whatever you do, whether it be sports, board games, arts and crafts, or music, it’s important to intentionally set aside time to do it.

These things are important for all families that want to develop a strong family culture – but they are especially important for parents who themselves come from families that struggle with substance abuse. Creating a stable family is particularly hard when you have genetics and family patterns working against you – but not impossible.

Dr. Falk Lohoff, a scholar at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, argues that “While genetic factors can increase the risk of becoming addicted, they are not deterministic. There are also protective factors.” And one of the biggest protective factors is simple delay. CASA found that with each year of delay in substance use, the likelihood of addiction drops.

By putting the hard work in now of establishing clear values, spending quality time together and having creative, clean fun, you can create the kind of culture where your children will not only be able to perpetuate the family business, but will actually want to work for you and with you.  It’s a genuine investment that will pay dividends – for your family business, yes, but more importantly, for your family’s sense of belonging.