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Family Roles: Coping With An Addicted Loved One

Addiction is a disease that affects the whole family. Every family is different and has different ways of coping with the addiction. No matter how well the intentions are family members often move into unhealthy roles to cope with an addict in the family.

These roles often help give the appearance of a healthy family and take the focus off of the addict. However, these roles typically avoid self-reflection and avoid focusing on the issue at hand. There are 6 family roles identified and they can be embodied by different family members.

Some people may always fill one role while others may shift between several family roles. It is important to understand the roles and to identify the effects of your behaviors to move towards healing.

Addicted Family Member

This person is usually seen as resistant to treatment as they feel their addiction helps cover deeper family issues. They are often seen as the only one in the family who needs help and this can cause them to feel frustrated and angry that they are the only one with a “problem”. As their addiction escalates everyone tends to focus on this family member and they are blinded to their own involvement in the addiction.

The Caretaker

The caretaker is the family member who tries to keep everyone happy while ignoring the real issue at hand. This family member can be a parent or it can be a child assuming this role. The caretaker can be seen as an enabler; they want to prevent breakdowns and prevent the addict from hitting “rock-bottom”. 

While trying to help the caretaker often encourages other family members to fit dysfunctional family roles. By attempting to keep the family together and hiding the truth the caretaker actually prevents the family from healing and moving forward. Typically, caretakers suffer from feelings of fear and inadequacy especially if they blame themselves for the addicts suffering and behavior.

The Hero

The hero is usually seen as high functioning and well balanced. They help the family appear as a “normal” happy family. The hero is hard working and often becomes obsessed with succeeding and demonstrating responsibility. This can lead to high stress, issues with perfectionism and wanting to be able to control their environment and all situations.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is typically cast aside and blamed for family problems that do not have anything to do with them. This blame diverts attention away from the addicts’ behaviors. The scapegoat carries misplaced blame for family problems. They can become defiant and get into trouble because they have learned that negative attention is better than no attention.

This family member often feels rejected, unloved and isolated from the rest of the family. As they carry this unjust guilt into their lives, they can become untrusting of others in their relationships.

The Mascot

The mascot in the family uses their humor and silliness to distract from serious family issues. They feel immense pressure to make situations less tense. These acts of silliness come from a place of anxiety. Mascots tend to bend over backwards for others.

They use their humor to put off dealing with pain, fear and to hide their feelings. They typically have lots of people in their lives who enjoy their company but they still feel isolated and alone.

The Lost Child

The lost child is the only family role that occurs through inaction. This family member blends into the background to avoid “rocking the boat” and to remain safe. The lost child typically feels ignored and neglected though parents may show them off to appear as a “normal” family since this family member is viewed well behaved and even-keeled.

The lost child is generally a loner and may struggle with social skills and self-esteem. Family members of an addict often assume a number of these roles trying to help but instead of helping these roles lead to codependency. This can frequently steer families to avoid healthy communication and disguise the problem instead of addressing the issue at hand. Knowing the dysfunction and the role you play can help generate stronger relationships in your life.

As much as you may want to help the whole family and your loved ones, you cannot forget to take care of yourself. Starting the healing process can be as simples as recognizing the roles we play, being open and honest so that the whole family can heal. If you recognize yourself in one or some of these roles reaching out to a professional and starting therapy is a great first step.

Women's Integrative Counseling of North Carolina

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