Coping With Addiction: 6 Dysfunctional Family Roles

Although individuals suffer, addiction is truly a family disease.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence states that addiction “stresses the family to the breaking point” and impacts family unity, mental and physical health, finances and overall family dynamics. Living with addiction also puts family members under “unusual stress” and can have a dangerous impact on both adults and children as the stages of addiction progress.

Addiction is characterized by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as the “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

In order to cope with an addict’s unpredictable behaviors, family members may adopt certain dysfunctional behavior patterns. There are six common roles individuals typically assume, often without even realizing it. In general, children take on these roles when dealing with an addicted loved one, but adults may adopt them as well.

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A Closer Look at Family Roles

The Addict

The addict is the focal point of the family. Consciously or not, family members begin to spend more time and energy dealing with the addict — helping, enabling or covering up what he or she missed out on in order to preserve the status quo. As the addict continues his or her behavior, family members may end up taking on more roles within the family without recognizing it.

The Caretaker

Also known as the enabler, this person often covers for the addict’s problems and responsibilities to keep the rest of the family happy. The caretaker is known as the “martyr of the family” because he or she not only supports the dysfunctional behavior but shields the addict from the consequences of his or her actions.

The Hero

Similar to the caretaker, the hero devotes his or her time and attention to covering up for the addict’s mistakes to maintain the appearance that the family is “normal.” The hero will do whatever he or she can to restore the dysfunctional home life behind closed doors. This individual is typically portrayed as over-responsible, self-sufficient or even a perfectionist. However, by being the “golden child/parent,” the hero may struggle with living up to the status and experience the pain of seeing the addict’s suffering up close.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the problem child — the opposite of the hero. Through acts of defiance or hostility toward other family members, the scapegoat provokes negative attention that ultimately distracts from the addict’s behavior, thus diverting the family’s attention from where it should be.

The Mascot

Known as the comedian of the group, the mascot often tries to lessen the stress caused by the addict with humor or silliness. He or she feels powerless with what’s happening and aims to prevent any family unpleasantness with antics or comedy. Negatively, the mascot is often in constant motion and becomes anxious or depressed when he or she slows down or stops.

The Lost Child

The lost child is the quiet individual who flies under the radar while other family members play their own adopted roles in dealing with the addict. The lost child stays out of the way and eventually avoids all interactions and essentially disappears.

A Note on Codependency

Over time, assuming these dysfunctional family roles when dealing with an addict can lead to codependency. While the initial reasons for adopting the roles may have been noble, the unintended consequences eventually lead to problems. Many family members take on these roles to cope with the situation and reduce the stress on themselves or others, but it only temporarily disguises the problem rather than addressing it.

While codependency roles may feel necessary and helpful, they only help to support and enable addicts and their behaviors, creating more problems for the family instead of seeking help from a professional.

Provide Help to Families

With Alvernia University’s online behavioral health degree, you can learn the skills and techniques to help people with addiction or mental illness. The program is fully online and asynchronous, letting you balance your personal and professional responsibilities while you advance your education. Graduates can move on to graduate-level studies or work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, prevention and intervention centers, assistance programs or other social agencies.

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