Family Roles in Addiction

The impact of addiction is rarely limited to the individual who develops the disorder. The ways that loved ones are affected often fall into patterns that are referred to as family roles in addiction. Being able to recognize these roles can help break the destructive cycle of addiction and empower family members to process their experiences in a healthy manner.  

Why Is Addiction Called a Family Disorder?

Addiction is often referred to as a family disorder. There are two main reasons for this:

  • Addiction frequently runs in families. When one or both parents struggle with compulsive substance abuse, their children have an increased risk of also abusing and becoming addicted to alcohol or other drugs.
  • When one person in a family develops an addiction, the entire family can be affected. The impact of addiction can include maladaptive behaviors, altered family dynamics, and dysfunctional relationships.

For the purposes of today’s post, we are going to discuss the ways that entire families can be negatively impacted by addiction. In particular, we will focus on what many experts have identified as common family roles in addiction.

What Are the Family Roles in Addiction?

If you research family roles in addiction, you will find that different sources name and define these roles in different ways. Even the number of roles can vary. Some sources identify six family roles in addiction, while others list seven or even eight. 

The following are examples of the more common family roles in addiction:

The Addict (aka The Dependent)

The addict is often a parent, but this role can also be filled by a child. This is the person whose behavioral health disorder is the source of such disruption. This is also the person who becomes the focal point of the family, forcing the others to change in response to their ongoing struggles.

Since they are usually unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their actions (and the effects that these actions have on others), the addict/dependent will often blame one or more of the other family members for the chaos that they have unleashed. This is one of the many factors that can keep them and their loved ones trapped in the downward spiral of addiction.

The Caretaker (aka The Enabler)

The caretaker/enabler believes that they are providing essential support for the addict But what they’re actually doing is allowing the addict to continue their destructive behaviors. They may make excuses for the addict, lie to cover up the problems they’ve caused, or simply deny that things are as bad as they are.

For the caretaker, the outward appearance of a happy and healthy family takes precedence over doing what would be necessary to actually ensure the well-being of those whose lives are being disrupted. The caretaker is often the spouse or partner of the addict, though in some cases a child of the addict fills this family role in addiction

The Hero

The hero is usually the child of an addicted parent. They hold themselves to an incredibly high standard, with the goal of distracting from or making up for the addict’s behavior by becoming an overachiever. 

The hero is likely to have excellent attendance, do extremely well in school, take on multiple extracurricular activities, and otherwise appear to be a model student and perfect child. Internally, the hero often struggles with deep anxiety and a fear that even the slightest shortcoming will be evidence that they have failed their family.

The Scapegoat

Regardless of the image that they attempt to project to the outside world, the family members of someone who struggles with addiction are often overcome with anger and resentment. Since the dynamic that they have created doesn’t allow them to blame the person who is the source of their problems, they instead direct these emotions toward the scapegoat.

The scapegoat attracts this negative attention by acting out, causing problems at home and in school, and otherwise assuming the role of “problem child.”

The Mascot

The mascot is sometimes referred to as the clown. They use humor as a means of coping with their parent’s struggles. Their actions may include serving as the “class clown” in school and/or attempting to defuse tension within the household with jokes or goofy antics. 

It’s important to understand that the mascot’s comedic attempts typically aren’t a true representation of their mindset. They are often burdened with a level of stress, fear, and/or frustration that is beyond their capacity to deal with directly. Thus, they resort to humor. Unfortunately, when their efforts don’t have their desired effect (which isn’t uncommon), this can only serve to exacerbate their emotional distress.

The Lost Child

The hero, scapegoat, and mascot are characterized by their actions. The lost child is often defined by what they don’t do. They don’t interact with other family members, they don’t cause problems, and they don’t engage in obvious attempts to respond to the addict’s behaviors. 

In short, the lost child simply disappears. They may turn inward, spending a considerable amount of time alone and rarely calling attention to themselves.

The lost child may give the appearance of self-sufficiency. However, as is also the case with the mascot, hero, and scapegoat, their true thoughts and feelings are unlikely to align with the image that they present to others. Inside, they are likely to be experiencing a sense of deep loneliness or inadequacy.

Find Addiction Treatment at Lake Avenue Recovery in Worcester

Helping adults end their substance abuse and achieve lasting recovery can be a vital part of the effort to help their loved ones break free from the constraining family roles in addiction. 

Lake Avenue Recovery Center offers personalized outpatient care for adults who are struggling with addictions, as well as those whose addictive behaviors are accompanied by certain dual diagnosis disorders.

Our addiction treatment center in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a safe and welcoming environment where patients receive customized service and comprehensive support from a team of highly skilled professionals. To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact Us page or call our center today.