The Six Family Roles That Appear When Addiction Is in the Family

By The Fix staff 09/11/18

Understanding the ways that family members react to addiction can help foster healthier coping.

Drawing of framed family photos on a wall.

Addiction doesn’t just affect the person abusing substances; it can draw the entire family into patterns of deceit and destructive behavior. Even if only one family member is actively misusing substances, the dysfunction and disruption caused by addiction seeps out into the whole family. In order to cope, family members often adopt predictable roles, according to Alvernia University Online, which offers a behavioral health degree.

Understanding family roles can help loved ones heal, and can help addiction treatment professionals better serve their clients. Here are six roles that often appear in families touched by addiction:

The Addict

The one who has brought the family into the world of addiction might be the parent, child, sibling or spouse. Whatever their role in the family, this person becomes the focus of the unit, drawing everyone else into the chaos he or she creates. Because he or she is unpredictable, other family members try to anticipate his or her actions and mitigate damage to protect themselves and other loved ones. As the addiction progresses, they often become more consumed by their disease and less able to maintain family bonds.

The Caretaker

Often a parent or spouse, the caretaker scrambles to keep everything in the family how it has always been. This means covering up for the addict’s actions and protecting him or her from consequences. The caregiver might become the mediator between the person with the addiction and other members of the family who look less kindly upon his or her actions. The caretaker is an enabler, and often has a codependent relationship with the person with addiction.

The Hero

The hero — like the caretaker — is trying to maintain life as normal. The hero believes that if everything is perfect enough the family will heal or the addict will be able to overcome his or her disease. The hero turns to controlling everything he can in order to compensate for the chaos that addiction has brought to the family. A spouse in this role might take on all household responsibilities in addition to work, while a child in the hero role might maintain perfect grades.

The Scapegoat

While some family members protect themselves by becoming as perfect as they can, others shield themselves by acting out. That is the scapegoat. Often a child or sibling of the person with addiction, the scapegoat attracts negative attention to him or herself. In addition to giving the scapegoat the attention of other family members, this also helps cover the addict’s actions by distracting family members by creating less serious problems.

The Mascot

The mascot takes it upon him or herself to keep the family happy with jokes and frivolity. The mascot — who might be the child, spouse or parent of the person with addiction — is always on hand to defuse tension with a quick laugh. However, this can distract family members from talking about the issues at hand. Ultimately the mascot can become depressed when he or she is not able to improve the family’s environment in the long term.

The Lost Child

The lost child protects him or herself from the chaos of addiction by disappearing. Often the child or sibling of the person with the addiction, the lost child slips away. She doesn’t want to draw attention to herself and doesn’t want to be around the family drama. Over time this can impact family relationships because the lost child disengages from his or her role in the family.

Although it may be especially common for the caregiver or the hero, codependency can appear in any family role. Family therapy can help all members of the family address the issues that addiction has brought about, and return the family unit to a healthy balance.

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