Addicts family roles

Addict’s Family


5- Addicts Family Roles


Families are organized around roles, rules, rituals, boundaries, and hierarchy. This organizational structure serves to promote the well-being of the family and the happiness of its members. But having an addict in the family distorts this structure and family members assume roles that naturally don’t belong to them. Instead of living authentic lives, members abandon their identity and needs and become get enmeshed in the life of their addicted loved one.


  • Addicts family roles
  • Survival roles
  • Dysfunctional traits


Addicts family roles

When there is an addict in the family, the natural order of things is upended. Rules and boundaries that help a family function well are bent – or abandoned outright – in response to the addict’s disruptive presence. With time and energy spent covering up for the addict or trying to control his behavior or drug use, family members lose their way. The parents or children or brothers or sisters of the addict consciously and unconsciously adapt to the situation in ways that undermine the health of the family and of each member. These changes in roles and rules occur in a vain attempt at finding stability and safety amid an atmosphere of tension, fear, chaos, mistrust and unpredictability brought by addiction.

When addiction hits the home, members of the family begin to take on roles they were never intended to assume. The wife of the alcoholic is forced to take on increased responsibility as head of the household, making decisions and tackling tasks that rightly should be shared with her husband. If the situation persists, the husband alcoholic is eventually relegated to the role of “misbehaving child” – or the relationship may become highly acrimonious and adversarial. In the meantime, the children take on unnatural roles as they try to compensate for life in a dysfunctional family, as they try to exert control in a situation that seems out of control. The children may also be trying to support their mother in her efforts to preserve the integrity of the family unit. One of the children may become what is known of as the “hero child”, the one who excels in academic or athletic achievements outside the home. Another child, usually the youngest, becomes the” mascot.” The mascot provides comic relief in order to decompress the tensions within the family. The end result of this compensatory role-playing is the loss of the inherent uniqueness of each individual within the family.

Shame rules in families that harbour addicts in their midst. Though addiction is no more a moral failing than diabetes or any other medical condition, the natural reaction of families is to keep the problem a secret. Unspoken rules are created, and each family member knows enough not to tell anyone outside the home. Family members become highly invested in manufacturing an appearance of normalcy for the outside world. That this appearance does not correlate with the sad reality within the family unit is a further source of shame and stress.


Survival roles

In order to endure years of addiction in the home, family members unconsciously take on a variety of “survival roles” to preserve the integrity and safety of their family. Though these roles may help them cope with the addict in the family at the time, in the long run this perverted role-playing may rob them of their identity and potential for happiness.


The following are some survival roles family members adopt to cope with and survive addiction in the home:

Addicts family roles - Survival roles


1. Enabler

The enabler means well but their efforts are counterproductive – for the addict and for themselves. This person is usually the closest to the addicted person, and their aim is to help the addict. But the reality is that they do things that allow the addicted person to continue their behavior without facing the consequences. For example, they might cover up or make excuses for the addict’s behavior at work or school or with friends. Or the enabler will take care of tasks that should be attended to by the addict, like paying bills, or work around the house, or getting the car serviced – or a hundred other things that the addict should be taking care of but is unable or unwilling to do. The enabler does all this because it is painful for them to confront the reality of their predicament and is desperate to protect themselves and their family. In the end, though, the enabler is left exhausted and angry – and the addict is no closer to getting better. In fact, the addict is getting the message that they don’t have to confront their drug problem because someone will always be there to save them.


2. Hero

This person is usually the oldest child in the family and their role is to over achieve, to be over responsible. They will typically be model students and, later, very career-oriented. In families wracked by shame and guilt over addiction in the home, here is a family member they can point to with pride. This child may take on the responsibilities of the addict father and become the family breadwinner at an early age. Or he may become the surrogate husband, giving his mother the emotional support she should be getting from her spouse. Heroes are seen as having it all together, as being mature and responsible. The price for putting all their energy into achieving, though, is that these heroes of the family rarely feel good inside. Instead of being in touch with who they are and what they require, they have sacrificed their emotional lives trying to preserve the family unit.


3. Scapegoat

In families made dysfunctional by addiction, one of the children will assume the role of the troublesome child. Here is someone whose bad behavior can be acknowledged by family members – unlike that of the addict. The scapegoat brings the family together in a perverse way, and can make them feel good about themselves by comparison. This child also provides family members with a focus that enables them to avoid facing their own problems. In a situation at the breaking point with stress over the addict’s behavior, the scapegoat becomes a means of releasing anger and frustration.


4. Lost Child

This role is assumed by the child who has decided that the best way of surviving in the home made unsafe by addiction is to keep a low profile. This child is often the one who has not received as much love and care as his siblings. The lost child goes unnoticed and can disappear for hours. They learn not to ask questions that might upset others, and they recognize that the best way to avoid attracting critical attention is to keep to themselves. Because they are “out of sight, they are also out of mind”, and usually feel unimportant.


5. Mascot

Often the youngest child in the family assumes this role. By the time this child comes along, the family dynamic has deteriorated to a serious state of dysfunction. This is the child who is coddled and kidded, who is a source of amusement for family members. The older siblings are well practiced in their various compensatory survival roles, and their tendency is to want to protect the youngest member. They may withhold information from this child and pretend for his sake that all is well. Yet despite all the efforts to protect this child from the truth, he cannot help but discover over time that something is drastically wrong with his family dynamic. Though he may not be able to name it as addiction, it affects him just the same.


Dysfunctional traits

In addition to the roles that family members adopt to survive addiction, there are also dysfunctional traits common among family members coping with addiction. As tension mounts within the family, the pressure to seek a solution increases. Hopefully, the family will break through the denial that surrounds the disease, and acknowledge the primary problem is addiction. It is usually at this point that members begin to look outside the family for help in solving their problem.


Some of the dysfunctional traits family members may exhibit are:

Addict's family dysfunctional traits


1. Socially conscious

This family member is concerned with how the outside world perceives his family. In an attempt to counter the crippling shame that comes from growing up with an addict in the home, this member will throw himself into school work and then, later, into achieving in the business world. Hiding the truth of his family life from the world means everything. This person will lose himself as he strives above all to win the good opinion of others.


2. Troubled person

This family member acts irresponsibly and generally fails to achieve much in his life. He gets into trouble regularly, causing mayhem inside and outside the home. His bad behavior is used by others in the family to divert attention away from the real problem of addiction.


3. Clown

This family member’s way of coping is by playing the clown, by amusing everyone. The reality of living with addiction is too painful to face, so this member of the family releases tension around the house by making light of everything and joking.


4. Rescuer

There is usually one family member who feels overly responsible for maintaining a semblance of order and safety in the home. This family member tries to help the addict and others in the family in an attempt to reduce the levels of tension, anxiety, hurt, and pain. Unable to deal with the emotional turmoil within himself, he busies himself in efforts to counter the harm done the family by having an addict in its midst.


5. People Pleaser

This family member loses himself in putting all his energy into pleasing those around him. This person’s strategy is to make others like him, in the belief that he will then be able to like himself. He seeks approval constantly, is very conscious of how his family looks to those outside, strives to be perfect, and attempts to charm the world. The sad result is he becomes incapable of making decisions based on his own needs and wants.


6. Non-feeler

This family member deals with addiction in his family by pretending it doesn’t exist. He refuses to acknowledge there is a problem and rejects any suggestion to the contrary. It is usually the father who falls prey to this inability to see reality. He simply cannot accept that his son or daughter is an addict. His ego will not allow it, and so he keeps his emotions bottled up. In the end, though, his refusal to accept the predicament in the family leaves him cold and out of touch with life – and with himself.

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