Understanding Family Roles in Addiction


Understanding Family Roles in Addiction

The problems linked to addiction go beyond merely affecting the addict’s life. Eventually, the implications of a drug or alcohol use disorder spiral out into their loved ones, causing relationships to become strained and putting an enormous amount of stress on these family members. That’s what we mean when we say, “Addiction is a family disease.” You aren’t only hurting yourself by continuing down your path of self-destruction — you are harming the people who care most about you.

How Does Substance Abuse Harm Family Members?

An extensive body of research has detailed how substance abuse places tremendous mental, physical, emotional, social and financial strain on families — to the extent that researchers at Harvard classified addiction as “toxic stress,” meaning “strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity” that creates a physiological response, including increased vulnerability to mental and and physical health problems like depression, high blood pressure and cognitive impairment.

When an addiction becomes part of the family, the resulting stress often leads to dysfunctional relationships and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as denial, deflection and emotional withdrawal. It also shifts the roles family members play within the household.

6 Dysfunctional Family Roles

Family members may adopt specific dysfunctional roles to help deal with an addict’s unpredictable behaviors. There are six common roles children and adults surrounding an addicted loved one typically assume, often without even realizing it.

  1. The Addict: The addicted person is the source of the family’s problems and the focal point of the conflict associated with their self-destructive tendencies.
  2. The Caretaker: Also known as the enabler, this person adopts a pattern of covering for the addict and smoothing their path in a misguided attempt to help. An enabler often does things like paying the addict’s bills when they lose their job, or lying to people to mask the extent of the addiction.
  3. The Hero: The hero tries to control the problem by overachieving to create a sense of normalcy in the family. The oldest child is often the one to take on this role, assuming an undue amount of pressure as they strive to outperform everyone else. Because perfectionism accompanies the hero role, they are also more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety-related disorders.
  4. The Scapegoat: The scapegoat is the person who is willing to shift the blame of the addict’s behavior onto themselves. In this role, the scapegoat acts as a secondary target of the family’s anger, while shielding the addicted loved one from the resentment and shame associated with their disease. Frequently, an older boy scapegoat will attract attention by acting out violently, while girls will turn to risky sexual behavior.
  5. The Lost Child: The middle or youngest son or daughter in the family often assumes the role of “lost child,” becoming withdrawn and unwilling to participate in group activities. The presence of alcoholism magnifies existing tendencies of shyness, making them avoid the spotlight whenever possible.
  6. The Mascot: The mascot tries to deflect the stress and tension in the household by using humor. Often, a mascot is the youngest child, who is desperate for others’ approval. Providing comic relief insulates the mascot from intense feelings of pain and fear. Mascots often continue the cycle of addiction by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol as adults.

We’re Here When You Need Us

In many situations, a professionally managed family intervention is the only thing that eventually succeeds in convincing an addicted person to seek treatment. After each family member confronts the addict with a prepared statement about how the addiction has harmed them and made their lives more of a struggle, it can break through the layers of denial and help the addict come to terms with their need to undergo drug and alcohol detox and enter a qualified treatment program.

If your loved one is struggling with addiction, family therapy is an integral part of helping you understand the role you played in the progression of the disease and provide the groundwork for healing and moving on. If you have questions about our program offerings, contact us today.

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