Family Roles in Addiction

Substance abuse can affect the entire family. Many times, the individual suffering with drug or alcohol abuse may see their problem as only hurting themselves, when, in reality, it is far more damaging to everyone involved.

Everyone in the family system begins to adopt and create coping strategies in order to endure and navigate life with someone addicted to substances. Negative coping skills can have long term effects on family members.

Traditionally, there are six roles commonly identified in the family members that live with someone abusing substances. They are:

  • The Addicted
  • Enabler
  • Hero
  • Scapegoat
  • Mascot
  • Lost child

The Addicted

Drugs or alcohol can become the main strategy for coping with problems and/or difficult emotions for some. A dependency can develop, and the individual can begin to destroy their relationships because of their desire to manipulate, lie, and behave in negative ways to preserve their addiction. As they become more angry, unstable, isolated, guilty and shameful their actions begin to affect the whole family. At times, all the addicted can focus on is the next hit, fix, drink, or pill.

The Enabler

The key characteristic of the enabler is denial. Enablers want to protect the family and the addicted. The enabler wants to desperately maintain homeostasis and find use self-delusion to dismiss drugs or alcohol as the problem. The enabler makes excuses for the addicted and often tries to make light of a more serious issue. This role is often taken by the spouse or parent, although a child can also become an enabler.

The Hero

Often, the hero is a Type-A personality. They work hard, they are overachievers, and many times they suffer from perfectionism. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the hero attempts to create a sense of normal through their hard work and achievement. Any times the oldest child develops into the hero role. The hero may feel that with their hard work and success they can provide a sense of hope for the family. The hero can suffer greatly due to the pressure that they put on themselves. Heroes may develop high levels of anxiety as well as stress-related illness, not mention, the hero is also prone to substance use disorders.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat takes the heat in the family system; they are the one to blame. The scapegoat finds themselves as the one to relieve the other family members anxiety and negative emotions. They have a target on them for everyone else to unload their angst upon. The give the family another person to blame other than the addicted. Many times the second child develops into this scapegoat role. Male scapegoats can age into violent and aggressive individuals, while female scapegoat may develop into run-aways and engage in promiscuous activity.

The Mascot

The mascot learns to cope with stress using humor and other tactics to deflect negative emotions. The mascot is the class clown of the family, and often the youngest child. This class clown is desperate for attention of any kind and craves approval. The mascot can be a vulnerable, sensitive, and fragile person. The mascot not only uses their antics and humor to deflect stress, they also use it as a coping strategy to manage and defend against their own fear and pain. Like the hero, the mascot also may be prone to developing a substance use disorder.

The Lost Child

Often times the middle or youngest child can develop into the lost child role. They can be characteristically, shy, withdrawn, and “invisible” within the family system. The lost child tends to be looked over and does not want or get a lot of attention from the other family members. They tend to isolate and develop issues in creating intimate relationships.

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