Whether alcohol or gambling is the drug of choice, addiction devastates families and creates chaos.
Addiction and codependency expert Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, Ph.D., identifies six roles in families battling drug and alcohol addiction. She says these roles are not meant to label people but explain how each person copes with the addiction. See below for details.
The Dependent is the substance user. Fueled by shame, Dependents use substances to self-soothe and numb guilt and other painful emotions.
However, as addiction seizes control, the drug of choice claims center stage, demanding priority over family.
In contrast, the Enabler is often the Dependent’s spouse, who caretakes the Dependent through his addiction. Enablers justify and minimize the substance use, often downplaying the severity of the problem.
However, by shielding the Dependent from the consequences of his actions, the Enabler helps maintain the addiction, giving the Dependent no incentive to change.
Unfortunately, some Enablers live in denial until a tragedy forces them to face the truth.
Next, Heroes are often the oldest children, who help the family appear normal to outsiders. For instance, Heroes fulfill the parenting duties as the Dependent sinks deeper into addiction, and the Enabler caretakes him.
Heroes are mature beyond their years, acting as miniature mothers and fathers to their younger siblings. Although Heroes draw their self-worth from handling these adult tasks, they later long for the childhood they missed.
Fourth, Mascots are the family clowns who lighten the family’s mood. Although these spirited children defuse the family’s tension with their antics, their behavior masks their fears.
Mascots gain attention by entertaining others, but they are more fragile than they appear. In addition, Mascots are the most vulnerable family members, whether or not they show it.
Next, the Scapegoat is the identified problem child who shoulders the family’s burdens. Scapegoats often engage in substance use and other risky behaviors to shift the family’s focus away from the Dependent’s substance use.
On the other hand, Scapegoats force the family into action because their rebellion is hard to ignore. Yet, Scapegoats are also more vulnerable than they seem. However, their frustrated family members may fail to recognize the pain driving their behavior.
6. Lost Child
Finally, the Lost Child retreats into her inner world to escape the family chaos. While her siblings try to shift attention to other family members, the Lost Child withdraws into the comfort of solitude instead.
According to author and addiction expert Michael Reiter, Ph.D., this isolation harms mental health and increases depression and suicide risk.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please see here for resources and support groups.
This post has been adapted from the original, which first appeared on our previous blog, My Recovery Zone, in May 2021.
Center for Growth. (2021). The addictive family system. https://www.thecenterforgrowth.com/tips/the-addictive-family-system
Meadows. (2021, August 30). Family roles in addiction and impact on recovery. https://www.themeadows.com/blog/family-roles-in-addiction-and-impact-on-recovery/
Reiter, M. D. (2019). Substance abuse and the family: Assessment and treatment (2nd ed.). Taylor & Francis.