toll free: 844.955.3042
local tel: 561.464.6505
fax: 561.450.6637

RECO Intensive
140 NE 4th Avenue
Delray Beach, FL 33483

The Six Roles Family Members Can Fall Into While Dealing With Addiction

Unfortunately, addiction is a disease that affects not only the addicted person but everyone in their family, to the extent that it is sometimes called a family disease. One prominent framework for understanding the toll addiction can take on a family is Murray Bowen’s Family Systems theory, which posits that individuals adapt certain roles in response to a loved one’s addiction. Understanding these roles can make you more aware of the pitfalls associated with them and the way your family functions as a whole, which is why we have described them below. 

The Addict Or Victim

This is the person in the family who is suffering from a substance abuse disorder. They may struggle with shame or guilt over their actions and the toll those actions have taken on their family, but they may also blame their family for their addiction or show signs of denial that they have a problem. The addict often becomes the central figure in the family as the others adopt maladaptive roles in response to the addict’s struggles. The main risk they face is that of suffering from physical or mental health problems if they continue to abuse substances. 

The Caretaker Or Enabler

Usually a parent, this person is often the person closest to the addict, and the one who plays the largest role in enabling the addict’s behavior. They may consider themselves the “martyr” of the family and often attempt to cover up for the addict’s problems in order to smooth things over for them and the rest of the family and to avoid shame and embarrassment. But, in the long run, this behavior is detrimental in allowing the addict to feel that they can “get away” with their illness and avoid consequences. 

This enabling can take many forms: providing the addict with money and a place to live, making excuses for their actions, or helping them deal with the practical fallout of their bad choices. In the long run, this person runs the risk of becoming resentful, not focusing enough on themselves, and of stress-related illnesses as well as the risk of fueling the addict’s behavior.

The Hero

This child or parent is one who tries to be the perfect child or parent to compensate for the addict’s dysfunction. They may become perfectionists and overachievers, or become the “peacekeepers” of their household. This role can overlap somewhat with the enabler, as they may go out of their way to help the addict so that the family can maintain the veneer of normality, and they can also display denial as to the extent of the addict’s problems. In the long run, this person runs the risk of suffering from survivor’s guilt and becoming excessively approval-seeking.

The Scapegoat

Rather than an overachieving hero, a child in a family that is dealing with addiction may become a contrarian scapegoat. This child may distract the family from the issues of the substance abuser by causing their own problems, and they may end up bearing the brunt of the blame for everything that is going wrong in the family. They often have trouble with authority figures and run the risk of having issues with the law when they grow older.

The Clown Or Mascot 

Often the youngest child in a family, this person becomes the family “comedian,” in an attempt to provide comic relief from the substance abuser’s problems to other members of the family. Inside, they may feel powerlessness over the situation, so relying on humor and antics becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism.

In the long run, this person may show signs of emotional immaturity and feelings of exclusion, and may be uncomfortable when faced to slow down and confront reality honestly rather than turn everything into a joke. 

The Lost Child

This person may be a younger child who understands that there is a problem but cannot fully comprehend the situation. They may be neglected as attention is focused on the addict and other more vocal members of the family, so they become used to flying under the radar, avoiding interactions with others and hiding away both physically and emotionally. When they grow older, they may have trouble connecting with others and expressing and managing their emotions. 

None of these roles represent particularly healthy ways of coping with the situation of an addicted family member, but being aware of any maladaptive patterns you may have is a pretty good first step. 

When they are behaving more healthfully, family members do have an important part to play in the recovery process of substance abusers. They can provide invaluable emotional and practical support to their loved one as they undertake the hard work of readjusting to a substance free life.

This can mean offering to help your loved one find an appropriate treatment program, driving them to meetings or appointments, encouraging them to stick with recovery even when things get difficult, or simply spending fun, sober time with them to help keep their spirits up and help them avoid dangerous isolation. 

Finally, it’s important to remember not to get so caught up in caring for your loved one that you let your own physical or mental health suffer. Along with participating in family therapy with your recovering loved one (if applicable), you may want to seek out individual therapy to help work through the many distressing feelings your loved one’s addiction may have raised. Support groups specifically for the family members of recovering addicts like Al-Anon are also great assets in being attentive to your own mental health. 

If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, Reco Intensive’s individualized treatment program could be a perfect fit. Family therapy can help restore the relationships between recovering addicts and their loved ones as our other programs help them to work through their own issues. Contact us anytime at (561) 464-6533 if you’d like to learn more about how we help your family get back towards a brighter future.

Recent Articles

Discover a better life and call our recovery helpline today.