Understanding Family Roles in Addiction

Back, hug and family at the beach for vacation, travel or relax by the ocean on holiday

Addiction never happens in isolation. It impacts the entire family of the person afflicted, and each family member can either contribute positively or negatively to their recovery. 

However, negative influence from family members isn’t always as cut and dried as condemnation or ostracism. Often, in their desire to help or do what they think is best, loved ones can unintentionally end up hindering a person’s recovery efforts. 

Through comprehensive addiction treatment, which includes family therapy, families can acquire a better understanding of addiction and gain knowledge on how they can best provide support to their loved one. 

Understanding the distinct roles each family member plays allows them to determine their positions, establish boundaries, and recalibrate their perspectives. This ensures the highest likelihood of successful recovery for everyone involved. 

It’s important to note that humans are complex, and family roles don’t always fit into clearly defined categories. For example, it’s possible to exhibit characteristics of more than one role or to change from one to another over time. With that being said, these are the most common family roles seen within addiction:

  1. The Addicted
  2. The Hero
  3. The Scapegoat 
  4. The Enabler
  5. The Mascot
  6. The Lost Child
  7. The Victim
  8. The Rescuer

1. The Addicted

Addiction is the seed from which family roles take root, with the Addicted as the focal point. If you’re suffering from a substance use disorder or addictive behaviour, you may have seen the repercussions of your addiction ripple out across your family, changing the whole family dynamic.

As a result, you may have succumbed to negative actions towards them – being dishonest, manipulating situations, or shifting blame. 

Managing emotions may have also become challenging, leading to displays of anger or tendencies to avoid certain situations or discussions.

What’s more, the impact you have on your family may induce feelings of guilt and shame. This can sometimes be (intentionally or unintentionally) exacerbated by loved ones, thereby making your recovery more difficult. 

If your family lacks awareness and education, your behaviour can be taken out of context, leading to resentment and an accentuation of the roles below.

2. The Hero

While the title “Hero” might sound commendable, it can be somewhat misleading in this context. This member of the family often leans towards controlling behaviours and exhibits perfectionist tendencies. 

By diligently achieving personal goals, they aim to give the family an illusion of stability or the impression that everything is under control. 

Typically, this role is assumed by the eldest child; one likely to have a Type A personality and a sense of duty towards their younger siblings. However, this self-imposed leadership, and possible attempts at “strong-arming” addiction, can lead to immense stress for all involved. 

Over time, the Hero might find it increasingly difficult to manage their rising anxiety levels. Sometimes, the best thing a Hero can do is take a step back and give others room.

3. The Scapegoat

Sisters sitting by the beach

Often finding themselves bearing the brunt of various family troubles, the Scapegoat tends to be the middle child or second eldest. After years of conditioning, they feel that their lot in life is to shoulder the blame for everything. 

By absorbing the accusations and frustrations of other family members, the Scapegoat presumes it is shielding the Addicted from these emotional burdens.

However, over time, this weight can become too much to bear, leading to struggles with managing their own anger. The accumulating stress may drive them to exhibit avoidant behaviours, like distancing themselves or even leaving the family environment for extended periods.

4. The Enabler (Caretaker)

Family enablers tend to find it difficult to set clear boundaries with the person struggling with addiction. It’s possible they don’t even recognize the depth of the issue, brushing off or downplaying the Addicted’s behaviours. 

Instead of confronting the problem head-on, they might make justifications for their actions, convincing themselves that it’s not that severe. While they may believe they’re shielding their family or maintaining the peace, this approach can often hide the real magnitude of the problem. 

Ultimately, this lack of confrontation and clear boundaries can delay the Addicted seeking treatment, and inadvertently make the recovery journey more complicated for everyone involved.

5. The Mascot

Couple laughing at a multi generation family barbecue

This family member frequently employs humour to alleviate tension and conflict during family disputes or emotionally charged moments. Their incessant use of comedy stems from an underlying need: the yearning for approval and acceptance arising from a sense of fragility or insecurity. 

More often than not, it’s the youngest sibling who slips into this role, reflecting their unique position in the family hierarchy and desire to maintain harmony. At its core, their humour acts as a crutch or defence mechanism – a way to sidestep the raw and often painful emotions brought on by the presence of addiction within the family. 

Mascots hope to shield both themselves and, indirectly, other family members from the harsh realities of addiction. However, their efforts to cope can lead to the avoidance of confronting genuine family issues. Over time, this can hinder open communication and prevent healing from underlying emotional wounds.

6. The Lost Child

Typically, the middle or the youngest sibling, the Lost Child hasn’t been as central to family interactions or received as much attention as other family members. This relative invisibility can stem from various reasons, including the family’s preoccupation with the Addicted or other dominant family roles like the Hero or Scapegoat.

As a consequence of this subdued presence, the Lost Child frequently retreats into a shell, finding solace in solitary activities or hobbies. Their inclination towards isolation can sometimes be misinterpreted as introversion or independence. However, beneath the surface, there’s often a deep-seated feeling of neglect or a sense of not really belonging.

As time progresses, this pattern of detachment can spill over into their adult life, affecting their ability to form close bonds or maintain lasting relationships. The shadow of addiction in their family, coupled with their relegated role, can lead to challenges in trust, communication, and emotional intimacy in their personal relationships.

7. The Victim

The Victim can encompass two distinct perspectives. First, the one suffering from addiction might adopt this role, using it as a defence mechanism to deflect blame and responsibility. By painting themselves as the Victim, they shift attention away from their choices and behaviours, focusing instead on perceived external injustices.

Alternatively, another family member may fit this category, feeling perpetually wronged by the actions of the Addicted. They can find themselves in a cycle of emotional turmoil, deeply affected but often paralyzed to act. 

Instead of addressing the issues, Victims typically become passive. Enveloped in feelings of resignation and helplessness, they may be severely impacted by the Addicted’s behaviour, yet struggle to advocate for their own well-being.

8. The Rescuer

Individualised Treatment Program. Woman in Therapy

This person operates under the belief that, through their efforts, they can “save” the addict from their destructive habits. Similar to the Enabler, the Rescuer often shoulders responsibility for the addict’s actions, driven by the conviction that enough love or care can rectify the situation. 

However, this well-intentioned approach can sometimes perpetuate the cycle of addiction. By continually stepping in, they may prevent the Addicted from facing the consequences of their actions. This can potentially delay their realisation that genuine change is necessary. 

In their overwhelming desire to help, the Rescuer can inadvertently reinforce the Addicted’s dependency, hindering the very progress they hope to inspire.

The importance of family therapy in addiction

By participating in therapy, families gain insights into the nature of addiction, the patterns that sustain it, and their role in potentially enabling the behaviour. In most cases, family therapy isn’t just a support mechanism but an essential pillar of the recovery journey.

The reason family therapies are so effective is that they facilitate an understanding of the dynamics of addiction. This can enable families to deal with it in a way that’s most beneficial for all involved, preventing the perpetuation of substance abuse across generations. 

More than just understanding one person’s addiction, family therapy can help all family members to comprehend the collective family psyche, recognize patterns, and forge a path to holistic healing. 

Today, the efficacy of family therapy within addiction is widely recognized. For example, this study found that family-based interventions, particularly behavioural ones, are effective in reducing drug abuse and improving relationship functioning. 

Furthermore, research has shown the effectiveness of Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) within a community-based drug treatment setting. The findings indicated that the integration of MDFT in these environments enhances treatment outcomes for adolescents with drug issues.

In the battle against addiction, a united family front, backed by professional guidance, can be the force that tips the scales in favour of a successful and sustainable recovery. 

So, if your loved one is on this journey, consider the invaluable role you can play in their healing process.

Family support at Centers for Health and Healing

At Centres for Health and Healing, we recognize the pivotal role families play in addiction recovery. From our personalised treatment plans to our evidence-based therapies, our approach emphasises collective healing. 

Specialised family therapy sessions, held weekly, are designed to repair and strengthen the bonds strained by addiction. By adopting various therapeutic techniques, we tailor our sessions to meet the unique dynamics and challenges of each family.

We’ve seen for ourselves that active family involvement is often a cornerstone of successful recovery. This is why we’re committed to providing useful tools, education, and a supportive environment, empowering families to navigate the intricacies of addiction together.

If your family is seeking a path to recovery and reconnection, we’re here to guide you on that journey. Contact us today to learn about our approach to addiction treatment, and discover the transformative power of family support.

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