Addiction is a family disease – substance abuse doesn’t just affect the one using the drugs or alcohol. Each and every person is affected. Even more than feeling an impact, each person takes on one of several addicted family roles.
Every person impacted by a family member or friend’s addiction utilizes strategies to help them cope with the impact of the addiction. The following 11 roles illustrate the various ways family members adjust to a loved one’s substance abuse.
Though these roles are based on a hypothetical family dealing with addiction, you may be able to relate to one or more of the roles, if you have a friend or family member dealing with addiction:
1. The Addict
One of the most significant family roles in substance abuse is that of the addict. In this role, alcohol or drugs become the chosen coping strategy for difficult situations. They also become the center of the addict’s universe. Rather than focusing on how to meet obligations, interact with friends and family, and enjoy life, the addict is often focused on where, when, and how to get the next fix.
2. The Enabler
The State of Oklahoma published a series of family roles in addiction worksheets that discuss the characteristics of each of the family roles. According to these worksheets, enabler’s attempt to maintain control at any cost. An enabler typically takes on this role as a way to protect – to protect the addict from serious health, legal, financial, or social consequences and to protect the family’s reputation. To do so, the enabler attempts to remove the consequences, and in doing so, inadvertantly can remove the addict’s motivation to quit drinking or using drugs.
Some examples of removing consequences include lying to family and friends about the addiction, bailing your loved one out of jail or fighting legal charges, or making excuses to others about your loved one’s behavior, financial situation, or health. If consequences do happen, the enabler often shoulders this burden, cleaning up the mess and trying to regain a sense of normalcy.
3. The Hero
The hero is often the oldest child and typically tries to be the one to hold the family together or bring pride to the family through his or her own accomplishments. They work hard and tend to be perfectionistic. This attempt to bring hope to the family and hold the family together can put a significant amount of stress on the “hero”, leading to anxiety, depression, burn-out, or other significant mental or physical health issues.
4. The Codependent Partner
The codependent partner is one who centers his or her entire life around the addict. Nearly every waking moment is spent focusing on or worrying about the person with the substance abuse problem. They may spend hours researching types of treatment, health consequences of addiction, or how to change an addict. They also usually begin to ignore their own needs, career, and responsibilities, throwing 100% of their efforts into helping the person with the addiction. Ultimately, their identity is tied up in the addict’s choices and they take on the person with the addiction’s successes and setbacks as their own.
5. The Mascot
The mascot is typically the youngest child in the family or the family member that thrives in the spotlight. They tend to try to defuse tense situations or arguments by interjecting humor and deflecting attention towards their lighthearted antics or jokes. Many times, the comedy is a way of coping with sadness, anger, fear, or anxiety associated with the family member’s addiction or giving the perspective of being stronger than he or she feels.
6. The Lost Children
The lost children in the family are almost the opposite of the mascot. Lost children tend to be shy, withdrawn, and “invisible”. They try not to be the center of attention and tend to “get lost in the shuffle” during crises periods or day-to-day chaos. The lost children try not to “make waves” and don’t often voice their displeasure or anxiety about the situation. They likely also avoid acting out in school so as to not draw attention to themselves. They typically feel more comfortable engaged in solitary activities. “Lost children” often appear distant and disconnected with the rest of the family.
Some “lost children” take on this role involuntarily when their needs are ignored due to a parent’s addiction resulting in a lack of care. It can also happen if a sibling with an addiction requires an disproportional amount of their parents’ time and the lost child’s needs fall to the wayside.
7. The Scapegoat
The scapegoat can be a middle child, a sibling, or other family member who is blamed for the family problems. This can sometimes also be a child with disabilities, behavior issues, or health issues who is told that he or she is the “reason I drink”. Sometimes, the scapegoat can be a spouse or partner who the addict blames for “causing” the addiction. For example, the addict might say, “your spending habits put a lot of stress on me to provide, causing me to need to drink to cope with the stress”. The scapegoat might be blamed so much that they end up underperforming at work or school as a way to “deserve” the blame they get.
8. The Caregiver
Many times, children of addicted parents take on this role. This frequently happens when the child still lives at home, with caretaking duties starting in early childhood. Children may neglect their schoolwork or avoid social engagements in order to cook, clean, and otherwise care for their parents. This can lead to the child feeling immense guilt, especially if the parent’s addiction escalates or the parent overdoses or loses their life due to substance abuse. The caregiver child also tends to take on the child-rearing duties for any siblings in the home as well.
9. The Denier
Deniers typically are skeptical about the severity of the addiction or might even deny the problem exists in the first place. They may believe that the person with the addiction made the choice to drink or use drugs and can thus make the choice to stop. Deniers might also think that the addict is only trying to seek attention.
Often, this denial isn’t the result of lack of understanding or knowledge about addiction. Rather, the pain of a loved one’s addiction is so overwhelming that the denial serves as protection against the pain. However, these denials can also lead to the addict not receiving treatment, especially if the denier is a parent who firmly believes his or her child would never use drugs or alcohol, despite evidence to the contrary.
10. The Unaware
The unaware tend to fall into two categories: those too young to understand what’s happening and those too distant be be involved. For those too young, they often still feel the repercussions of addiction, especially if their needs are not being adequately met, but they are too young to understand why their needs are being neglected.
Those that are too distant might be so by choice or by circumstance. Either they are distant because they know of the addiction, yet don’t want to be involved in any way, or they are a friend or family member who is unaware because of the addiction being hidden. The unaware person might also simply decide to cut the addict out of his or her life.
11. The Supporter
While the first 10 family roles all negatively impact the family unit as a whole, the role of the supporter is one that can have a positive impact. The supporter establishes and enforces appropriate personal and family boundaries, including boundaries regarding interactions with the addict, finances, and substance use in the house.
The supporter also understands that in order to help others, he or she must first care for themselves. They offer concern and assistance to the addict, yet also engages in self-care and focuses on his or her own responsibilities and obligations.
A supporter helps the family member heal by encouraging treatment, while respecting the person with the substance abuse disorder’s autonomy to make decisions. A supporter will also help foster long-term recovery by encouraging a sober lifestyle. His or her identity is not wrapped up in the success or setbacks of the addict, but the supporter can make healthy changes in his or her own life to promote safe coping strategies and clean living.
What Can We Do As A Family To Help?
While there are many addiction family roles that enable addiction or negatively impact friends and family members, being a supporter is the best role you can play while your loved one heals and recovers. SMART Recovery offers a wonderful Family Roles in Addiction handout that emphasizes the healthy ways you can support your loved one in his or her recovery. If you are currently in a role other than supporter, you can break out of that role and help re-establish healthy family dynamics. Support groups for family or friends of addicts can connect you with others who have been on this journey and can support you in your role as a family member or friend of someone with a substance abuse disorder. You might also consider individual or family therapy. This can give you a neutral third party who can help you heal from the trauma of addiction in the family and support the entire family in establishing healthy boundaries and relationships within the family unit. If you have a friend or family member with a substance use disorder, we are there to support you in your own healing and recovery, as well as that of your loved one. We have family programs to assist the whole family during this time. Give us a call today.
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.