Understanding Family Roles in Addiction

Understanding family roles in addiction

Addiction doesn’t just affect one person; it affects the entire family. 

Imagine it like a ripple in a pond – when someone in the family is struggling with addiction, it can cause lots of different reactions from everyone else in the family. 

While each family is unique, there are some common reactions that families often have.

In this article, we’ll talk about how addiction can affect families and the different roles family members might take on. 

It’s important to note that defining these roles aims to provide clarity, and these characteristics aren’t limited to just what’s mentioned here. If you or a loved one find yourselves relating to these roles, seeking professional help is the best course of action.

With this in mind, let’s understand how addiction can affect your family and steps for managing it.

How Addiction Rewrites Your Family’s Story

As mentioned, addiction doesn’t just affect the person going through it. It can affect anyone who loves and cares about that person. In fact, it can even touch other families. Think of it like catching a yawn when someone else yawns – it can happen.

You see, when someone loves and lives with a person dealing with addiction, it can be pretty tough for them, too. 

Sometimes, if two people get married, and one has addiction issues, the other person might start facing similar problems. If someone decides to separate from their partner struggling with addiction, they often use fewer harmful substances. (1)

The impact of addiction can vary among family members depending on their relationship with the person going through it:

Impact on Children

Children with addicted parents face tough challenges. When both parents struggle with addiction, life can be unstable and unpredictable. 

These kids might experience a mix of neglect and abuse when their parents are using drugs or alcohol. 

As a result, they may grow up too quickly, keeping their emotions to themselves, or seek attention and comfort through negative behaviours.

Impact on Parents 

For parents of a child with addiction, it’s a battle they fight in their hearts and minds. They carry a heavy burden of concern, worrying about their child’s well-being and what lies ahead.

Often, a child battling addiction doesn’t have a stable job, and any money they do have tends to fuel their addiction. This leaves parents in a constant tug-of-war, torn between providing support and fearing they might inadvertently feed the addiction.

Emotions run deep, with shame and guilt taking center stage. Parents struggle with the weight of their child’s choices, sometimes blaming themselves for their child’s journey into the clutches of addiction. (3)

Impact on Family Life

Families connected to someone facing an addiction often suffer alongside their loved ones. As addiction takes hold and tightens its grip, family life can spiral into turmoil. 

Each day brings new uncertainties, leaving family members helpless to change the course. Along this challenging path, families may encounter a range of difficulties, including: (2)

  • Emotional distress
  • Financial strain
  • Legal complications
  • Unwanted conflicts and disturbances
  • Conflicts in love life

Common Family Roles in Addiction

Each family member may respond differently to having a loved one with a substance use disorder. It’s not uncommon for family members to adopt specific roles as a way to regain a sense of control or cope with the problems around them: (4)

The Addicted Individual

For the family member battling substance use, life is trapped in the grip of addiction. Their world revolves around obtaining and using addictive substances, leading to a transformation in their behaviour, which may include:

  • Persisting with the addiction, even when facing severe consequences.
  • Neglecting their duties at work, home, or school.
  • Wrestling with intense cravings for the substance(s)
  • Developing tolerance, where they need more of the substance to get the same effects.
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms when unable to use

The Caretaker 

This person tries to shield the family member with addiction from the consequences of their substance use. 

Instead of letting them face the fallout of their actions, the enabler steps in to manage the aftermath themselves. 

They might even put their own needs on the back burner to ensure the family member with addiction is cared for

The Hero

In families battling addiction, it’s often the eldest child who steps into the role of the hero. 

Just like the enabler, the hero is driven by a deep sense of responsibility for the family member with addiction. 

They strive to care for and protect them, often becoming a pillar of support for the entire family. This reliance on the hero can become quite heavy, leaving them feeling overwhelmed.

The Scapegoat

Amid addiction’s shadow over a family, the scapegoat emerges as the one who tries to divert everyone’s attention away from the family member with addiction. 

They resort to negative behaviours, often as a way to steer the focus elsewhere. 

Surprisingly, despite witnessing the consequences of addiction, the scapegoat is the family member most likely to get tangled in substance use themselves. This risky path can set the stage for a host of future personal and professional challenges.

The Mascot

It’s the family member who strives to shield the family from further distress by using humour or charm. While this coping mechanism can provide temporary relief, it can pave the way for challenges in adulthood. 

Mascots may find it challenging to manage problems effectively and form healthy relationships as they grow.

The Lost Child

The lost child often goes unnoticed. Their needs and achievements seldom gain recognition from other family members. 

They might withdraw from family life, battling loneliness and sadness. As a result, the lost child often struggles to form meaningful relationships with others.

These family roles in addiction are like masks hiding strong feelings about the person with addiction and the family situation.

For instance, the lost child feels guilty, lonely, neglected, and angry because of the addiction and how the family acts. They feel all alone and powerless, so they try to avoid the problem, hoping it will disappear.

On the other hand, the mascot feels ashamed, embarrassed, and angry too. Instead of dealing with the addiction head-on, they use jokes and sarcasm to make it seem less important or to make fun of it. (4)

Do you recognize any of these roles in your family? 

If you do, it’s crucial to know that these challenging traits can be changed. It all begins with an honest self-reflection and examining how your family functions. 

Taking these first steps, you might consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for guidance and also finding support through a group of people who understand.

Wondering what family therapy looks like?

Family support is like a group therapy session designed specifically for families. It’s all about helping family members understand each other better, providing mutual support, and working together through challenging situations.

What’s great about this type of treatment is that it’s based on solid evidence. Family therapists lead these support sessions and can serve as the primary treatment method or complement other therapies.

The healing process usually begins when you enter our centre.

At the Centres For Health & Healing, we believe that getting involved in your loved one’s recovery journey increases their long-term success of healing and also supports your family’s functioning and overall mental health of all family members.

Now is the time to begin your family’s journey to health and wellness.

If you or your loved one could benefit from our family therapy, get in touch with us.


  1. Maghsoudi J, Alavi M, Sabzi Z, Mancheri H. Experienced Psychosocial Problems of Women with Spouses of Substance Abusers: A Qualitative Study. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. 2019 Oct 13;7(21):3584-3591. doi: 10.3889/oamjms.2019.729. PMID: 32010381; PMCID: PMC6986502.
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