6 Roles in Dysfunctional Families

6 Roles in Addicted Families

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Addiction can have devastating effects on families. As a way of coping, family members commonly take on 6 roles in addicted families. In this article, you’ll learn about these six roles and how addiction affects the entire family.

Alcoholism and addiction affect the entire family, not just the addict. The effects are especially profound if you grew up with an alcoholic or addicted parent. Many adult children of alcoholics (ACAs) or addicts are amazed at how accurately the six family roles outlined in this article describe the family they grew up in.

Why is addiction considered a family disease?

Alcoholism or any type of addiction affects everyone in the family in some way. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, an expert in the field of addictions and codependency, identified six primary roles in an alcoholic family as a way to highlight the effects of alcoholism on the alcoholic’s spouse and children. Her work has since been applied to dysfunctional families in general.

I want to preface this article by saying that I know that labeling people doesn’t usually feel good and often it isn’t accurate. However, it can be useful in getting a general picture of the common dynamics in families dealing with addiction. Like anything else, please take the aspects of these family roles that apply to you and your family and leave the rest. 

Individuals and family systems are complex. In reality, people don’t fall neatly into categories. You may have played more than one role at different times in your life or you may identify with a combination of these traits and coping strategies.

Addiction affects the family

Everyone in an addicted family is impacted by the addiction; everyone adopts coping strategies to deal with the stress of living with an addict and many of these coping strategies have lasting negative effects. 

These family dynamics persist even when the addict gets sober, dies, or leaves the family. And they are passed down generationally through modeling and family dynamics.

Children with an addicted parent often experience a chaotic or unpredictable home life which may include physical and emotional abuse. Even more common is emotional neglect, where the child’s emotional needs are neglected due to the chaos and focus on dealing with the alcoholic and his or her problems. 

Children may feel embarrassed and ashamed, lonely, confused, and angry. Some children cope by trying to be perfect and others cope by cracking jokes and getting into trouble.

Family members have to walk on eggshells and quickly learn that the addict dictates the mood for the entire family. Family members don’t have the opportunity to explore their own interests and feelings. Life is about keeping the peace, simply surviving, and trying to keep the family from imploding.

Addiction, and the resulting chaos, is a tightly held secret in most families experiencing addiction. Children are told overtly or covertly not to talk about what’s going on at home.

As a result, they feel shame – a sense that there’s something wrong with them, that they are somehow to blame for their parent’s addiction, stress, and erratic behavior.

6 roles in addicted families. Child hiding while parents argue.

Common roles in families struggling with addiction

The Addict

Addicts having varying degrees of functioning. For most, addiction progresses as the quantity and frequency of their drug or alcohol use increases.  Drugs and alcohol become the primary way the addict copes with problems and uncomfortable feelings.

The addict’s life revolves around drugs and alcohol – getting more, using, and recovering – despite the problems they cause.

And the the family revolves around the addict – trying to keep them happy, avoiding their anger or bad moods, cleaning up after them, fulfilling their responsibilities.

Addicts blame others for their problems. They can be angry, critical, and unpredictable. And don’t seem to care about how their actions affect others.

Over time the addict creates more and more problems, such as financial, legal, and marital problems. Although the addict may be physically present, they aren’t emotionally supportive or engaged in the family.

Other forms of dysfunction or compulsive behaviors (gambling, sex addiction, unmanaged mental health problems) can create similar family problems.

The Enabler (Caretaker)

The enabler tries to reduce harm and danger through enabling behaviors such as making excuses or doing things for the addict. The enabler denies that alcohol/drugs are a problem.

The enabler tries to control things and hold the family together through deep denial and avoidance of problems.

The enabler goes to extremes to ensure that family secrets are kept and that the rest of world views them as a happy, well-functioning family.

The enabler is often the addict’s spouse, but can also be a child.

Read more about how to stop enabling an addict or person with dysfunctional or immature behaviors.

The Hero

The hero is an overachiever, perfectionist, and extremely responsible. This child looks like he has it all together. He tries to bring esteem to the family through achieving and external validation. He’s hard-working, serious, and wants to feel in control.

Heroes put a lot of pressure on themselves; they’re highly stressed, often workaholics with Type A personalities.

The Scapegoat

The family scapegoat is blamed for all of the family problems. A scapegoat child acts out and temporarily distracts attention away from the problems of the addict. He’s rejected by his parents and doesn’t fit in.

The Mascot (Clown)

The mascot or clown tries to reduce family stress through humor, goofing around, or getting into trouble. He’s seen as immature or a class clown. Humor also becomes his defense against feeling pain and fear.

The Lost Child

The lost child is largely invisible in the family. He doesn’t get or seek attention. He’s quiet, isolated, and spends most of his time on solitary activities (such as TV, internet, books) and may escape into a fantasy world. He copes by flying under the radar.

No matter what role(s) you played in your dysfunctional family dynamics, it’s possible to overcome the effects of having an addicted parent and learn healthier coping strategies. Getting a clear and honest look at how your family of origin functioned is an important place to begin.

Many adult children of alcoholics or addicts struggle with intimacy and trust in their romantic relationships and have difficulty expressing their feelings and loving themselves.

I highly recommend working with a therapist with experience working with codependency, developmental trauma, and roles in addicted families. There are also many excellent self-help books and groups available.

Further reading

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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