The Addicted Family

When addiction grips one member of the family, no one is left unaffected. Whether it is patterns of codependency observed in a spouse, predictable roles assumed by children, or the burden of child-rearing placed on grandparents, patterns of addictive behavior are insidious, and often leave only chaos in their wake.

Photo:  Annie Spratt

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that one out of five U.S. adults have lived with an alcoholic relative in their youth. It is also reported that children of alcoholics are more likely to have difficulty with emotional regulation, and are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.

Guilt, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, anger and depression are among the emotions experienced by those in close relation to someone who is lost to addictive ways. The family, left in disarray from an unstable and unpredictable family member in active addiction, often lends itself to employing survival mechanisms in order to cope. 

Some predictable roles have emerged from the research that often describe the different roles that members of addicted families have learned to play:

The Enabler: Otherwise known as the “caretaker”, it becomes the job of the enabler to cover for the addict’s behavior and consequences and to keep the family running smoothly. The enabler is the key player that makes all of the other roles possible, as they play the most direct part in keeping the person struggling with addictive patterns shielded from their responsibilities, thus allowing them to continue on their path. 

Reasons for their behavior include some denial about the severity of their loved one’s problem, although they also may be motivated by an attempt to prevent embarrassment, reduce anxiety, avoid conflict or maintain some semblance of control over a seemingly hopeless situation. 

The Hero: Generally thought to be assumed by an older child in the family who takes on extra responsibility at home, and uses scholastic achievements or other areas of excellence to distract from the problem behavior, the hero plays another crucial role in the family.  Often they become “parentified” in some of their responsibilities, and free up the enabler to take care of the addicted person. The hero tends to believe on some level of consciousness that if they can be “good enough”, perhaps their loved one will turn from their ways.

The Scapegoat: The role of the scapegoat in the family is clear: distract at all costs. They may intuitively understand their purpose to distract the family by rebelling or misbehaving, and keep the attention away from the true problem at hand. This may look like poor academic achievement, delinquent behavior, aggression towards others and similar risk taking behaviors. 

Looking through the lens of maintaining family homeostasis, the scapegoat may believe that if they act out, perhaps the person in active addiction will re-adhere to family morals. On the other hand, they may escalate their behaviors if the addicted person seeks penance at all, or may end up being the reason the family ends up in treatment in the first place.

The Mascot: Humor is the tool of the mascot, as they are tasked with the responsibility of bringing levity and laughter to the family. In an uncomfortable home environment, they offer momentary relief in their quest to avoid powerlessness. These antics may stick with the mascot into adulthood, and they may have difficulty facing the seriousness of the situation in the present. 

The Lost Child: Flying under the radar is the preferred method of operation for the “lost” child, as they will often isolate themselves and engage in fantasy worlds to cope with family stress. They will be sure not to act out or cause a scene, as they routinely sacrifice their own needs for relationship for the safety of their own mind. This may become a problem in future relationships, as they tend to have difficulty attaching to others. 

Among those who are impacted by the disease of addiction, perhaps no one suffers as much as the children. Without stability and predictability in their youth, they are at risk for incorporating lifelong maladaptive patterns of relating to others through their maladaptive worldview. 

While the roles defined above are far from conclusive, they offer a framework from which to begin the discussion of the impacts of childhood experiences and the resulting survival strategies. 

At Peace Club, we understand the effects of living with an addicted parent can be felt well into adulthood. We know that while addiction can be destructive to families, it is often generational in nature, and requires a whole-family approach. Contact us today to discover how to begin the journey of recovery and to save yourself and your family from the cycle of addiction. As an attempt to support families in our community, we offer a free family group on the first Monday of every month from 5:30-6:30pm. If you’re interested in details, please email us

FamilyDenny KolschComment