One of the most significant impacts of addiction is the extent to which it affects the person using it and everyone around them. Family members are often destroyed by addiction, partly due to the stress of dealing with this disorder and partly because of the different roles each person plays in the larger narrative. The truth is that addiction is largely a family disease, but recovery is possible. Substance abuse doesn’t have to obliterate the lives of the addict and their family members.
Part of understanding the impact of family roles in addiction is knowing when to bring in help to treat this family disease, especially if the situation has become dire for the person struggling with addiction.
Family roles aren’t set in stone. It’s possible to heal dysfunctional family roles and separate the substance abuse and behavior of the “Dependent,” or the addicted individual, from a healthy family.
The Most Common Roles in Addicted Families
Most families dealing with addiction have individuals to fill roles that all contribute to an ongoing cycle of despair. This is one of the reasons family therapy is so important when dealing with the family dynamics of substance abuse. Each family member may play a part, sometimes without realizing they’re participating in dysfunctional family roles. This is the insidious side of substance abuse, as family roles are often at the foundation of drug use for the Dependent. Some family members may even fulfill more than one role at a time.
While these roles are often inhabited by adult children in the family, minors are sometimes thrust into these family dynamics. This makes getting family therapy as soon as possible even more critical to healing.
The Enabler is the one who sets the tone for their family members. This person is the overseer of all the other dysfunctional family roles. They try to maintain the status quo and probably don’t require the Dependent to seek substance abuse treatment. In fact, the Enabler will often provide resources, money, food, and other things the Dependent needs to continue their drug abuse. They may ignore obvious signs of mental illness from the Dependent and refrain from accessing the necessary mental health services needed to initiate recovery.
Most times, the Enabler is convinced they’re doing the right thing to keep their loved one struggling with substance abuse safe and comfortable. They attempt to smooth over any relationship wrinkles in the family and put on a happy face to the world to conceal or sanitize the Dependent’s struggles.
The family Hero is the person who wants everything to appear perfect. They put a positive spin on the entire situation, including issues related to substance abuse, and try to make other family members feel good about their roles. They also typically fail to acknowledge the need for mental health services. They may even perpetuate some of the roles if other family members are trying to break out of this negative cycle, creating even more dysfunctional family dynamics. The family Hero often ignores the harmful elements of roles like the Lost Child or the Enabler, to the detriment of those family members playing those roles.
The Scapegoat is the person who takes the focus off the Dependent, placing it on themselves instead. They’re trying to divert the family’s attention from the main issue: the Dependent’s addiction. This person tends to be noisy, rebellious, and attention-seeking in any way possible. The goal is to shift the attention of the other family members away from the fact that the Dependent needs help with substance abuse.
The Lost Child
The Lost Child is the family member who doesn’t make a lot of noise or demands of the Dependent — or anyone else in the family, for that matter. They don’t rock the boat or make their needs clear to others. The Lost Child simply stays quiet and tries to make themselves as small as possible in terms of their role in the larger family unit. The Lost Child typically feels angry, neglected, and isolated from others. They may feel lonely since they don’t prioritize their feelings amid the substance use disorder issues of their family member.
The Mascot is the person who tries to inject humor into family interactions despite the stress of substance abuse from the Dependent. Their jokes are often inappropriate for the situation or the person being targeted; in fact, they may say things in jest that are actually harmful or hurtful. This individual often makes it that much harder for the Dependent to take the possibility of recovery from substance use disorder seriously.
The Dependent (The Addict)
The Dependent, or Addict, is the star of the show. They’re always at the center of everything and the focus of everyone’s worry, anxiety, or ire. While it’s ideal for the Dependent to desire recovery, it’s not a prerequisite for the family to start down this path. Family therapy sessions can go a long way toward helping repair unhealthy family dynamics changed or harmed by substance use disorder. An addicted family member doesn’t have to create an entire dysfunctional family.
Ultimately, the family members can get help for their roles in the addiction and leave the Dependent to deal with their problem on their own. The less the family takes on the stress of addiction and all the negative emotions that come with it as their own issue, the more the Dependent is forced into a reality check that may help them see that recovery is the best possible option. The goal is a healthy family overall, and that process starts with family therapy sessions on the road to healing.
Family & Codependency
One of the reasons many family members find themselves enmeshed in the addictive behaviors of one member is the codependency factor. From the Lost Child to the Hero, many of the traits displayed in these roles have codependent undertones to them.
In short, families dealing with addiction become so accustomed to caring for the addicted individual that they begin to rely on being needed more than they realize.
Signs of Codependency
Signs of codependency include:
- Feeling anxiety or a need to “fix” things when someone has a problem
- Constantly offering unsolicited or unwanted advice on how to deal with a situation
- Feeling responsible for the thoughts, actions, and behaviors of others
- Feeling irrationally angry when solutions to help others don’t work out
- Focusing on pleasing others and allocating personal needs to the background
- Exhibiting an overriding attraction to people who “need” help fixing their lives
Overcome Dysfunctional Family Roles in Addiction
Overcoming dysfunctional family roles in addiction may seem impossible, but with help, it’s possible to transition to a healthier and happier family unit. People playing the Lost Child role or that of the Enabler don’t have to be stuck that way for good. Each family member needs to commit to a healthier unit overall, united in the idea that the family doesn’t need to be mired in addiction with the Dependent.
This process starts with recognizing the various roles and then working on how best to break out of them. It’s not an easy process and usually takes time. But with a commitment to wellness for the entire family, it’s a goal worth pursuing.
Know Where and When to Seek Help
No family should have to suffer the consequences of an addicted family member. Knowing what roles each person may be playing — knowingly or unknowingly — can help the entire family recognize and break these destructive patterns. Doing so may ultimately help save the life of a loved one dealing with substance use disorder. But you can’t do it alone.