Family Roles in Addiction [The Addicted Family System]

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This page's content has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified addiction therapist and a board-certified physician.

This page's content has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified addiction therapist and a board-certified physician.

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Understanding the Family Roles in Addiction

Understanding the family roles in addiction is essential to begin the process of healing a family. Substance abuse or addiction creates wide ripples of negative effects around the person using or drinking. More interestingly, addiction severely alters the family dynamic. Roles reverse, roles change, as life at home must adjust to the reality of addiction. In this article, we dive into the family roles in addiction. Can you identify what role you play?
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Addiction’s Overall Impact on the Family

Addiction inflicts incalculable damage on families, regardless of which family member has the problem.

Financial hardship, strained relationships, and increased risk of abuse are the most common consequences of addiction.

However, not all families experience the same effects as every family has a different dynamic.

It’s undeniable that all family members suffer because of substance abuse.

It’s also important to know that each family member responds to the problem differently.

Some members may avoid talking to the person with addiction because they don’t want to get involved in the entire chaos that comes with substance abuse.

Some may want to confront the person and convince them to get professional help, while others may pretend that everything is normal because they think it’s best to do nothing.

How different family members respond depends on several factors, such as which family member has the substance abuse problem, whether or not there are young children in the family, and how close a family member is to the person with the addiction.

Addiction can affect a family of any social background, financial status, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, and some of these elements directly affect how a family responds to substance abuse.

For example, a religious family may approach addiction differently than a non-religious family. Similarly, wealthy families are less likely to experience financial hardship because of addiction than families that are not well-off.

Parents often tend to pay for the legal expenses of their children if they get into legal trouble because of substance abuse. 

Spouses often experience different forms of abuse if their partner has an addiction problem.

If the person with addiction is the sole breadwinner of the house, it can be extremely devastating for the entire family, and they’ll have to seek outside help.

There is also a chance that another family member turns to substance abuse to escape the whole chaos. 

Research shows that children who grow up with a family member who has an addiction problem are more likely to abuse substances later in life.

A parent with addiction is incapable of taking care of their children, which causes the children to write the parent off for months, years, or even decades.

And even when the parent becomes sober and tries to reconnect with their children, they cannot shake off the feelings of betrayal and abandonment.

The person with addiction pushes all family members to their limits and refuses to take responsibility for their actions or acknowledge the damage they have inflicted upon everyone, resulting in irredeemable marital breakdowns and broken families.

Family Roles in Addiction

All family members are affected by substance abuse or addiction in some way. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, an acclaimed expert in codependency and substance abuse, has pointed out six family roles in addiction

Through these roles, Sharon elucidates the effects of addiction in the family.

The Addict

The “addict” is the name that most clinical literature gives to the person struggling with addiction. There must be addiction within the family for family roles in addiction. People struggling with addiction have a chaotic life. 

Substance abuse is a way to cope with unpleasant feelings or difficult situations.

They also tend to evade responsibility and set wrong priorities. As the addiction progresses, they grow distant and become isolated.

The life of a person with addiction revolves around drugs or alcohol. People in active addiction seem to have no regard for other people’s feelings or how their actions affect others around them.

Often those using drugs become deceitful, angry, irritable, selfish, and even abusive. Blaming, coercion, and guilt wielding become a way of life.

Relationships over time become less important for the person with the addiction. Addiction begins to take over every part of their waking life. 

The relationships that are prioritized are centered around drug or alcohol use. 

People with addiction also exhibit dependent behaviors as they try to maintain a life of active addiction. 

They may ask other family members to do their chores, take care of their expenses, or even buy them drugs, saying they can’t live without them.

The Caretaker

The caretaker in the addicted family system tries to ease things within the family by doing things or making excuses for the person with the addiction.

Such a person refuses to acknowledge that addiction or substance abuse is a problem and therefore engages in enabling behaviors like lying to the person with the addiction.

The actions of the caretaker are usually not malicious. The caretaker doesn’t view addiction as a problem serious enough to cause distress for other family members and tries to hold the family together. 

They may even deny that the person is struggling with substance abuse completely or at least deny the severity. 

The caretaker will do anything to ensure that family secrets don’t get out and that the world doesn’t see them as dysfunctional families. 

The caretaker’s action can harm the person with addiction and other family members. The spouse often takes this role but can also be a child.

The Hero

The hero usually has a Type A personality characterized by self-control, competitiveness, hard work, and perfectionism. Some try to hold the family together through his or her achievements.

The hero seeks to give the family hope that everything will be okay. They have a driving need to do everything right, which puts a lot of pressure on them, causing anxiety and susceptibility to anxiety disorders later in life. 

The eldest child usually takes on this role, but it can be any child within the family as they feel like they have it all under control.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat of the family is the person who is blamed for most of the family’s issues, often for reasons of expediency. Interestingly enough, the person struggling with substance abuse may often be the scapegoat. The addiction problems can allow this role to fit even more.

For those who are not addicted, other family members use this person to escape their guilt or distract attention away from the person with the addiction.

Most of the family’s collective anger and frustration is directed towards the scapegoat who acts as a shield for the person with the addiction.

The scapegoat’s efforts to ameliorate a situation are dismissed or even belittled, which causes them to stop trying. 

They eventually become unable to handle their emotions and act out in anger or avoidance behavior, for example, leaving home. 

Being the scapegoat is an extremely difficult role to take on. It often gives feelings of inadequacy, despair, and a deep sense of unfairness in the family.

The Mascot

The mascot is the one who uses humor to distract everyone in a stressful situation. Mascots will try to provide comic relief during tense situations or deliberately get into trouble to distract attention from addiction. 

The youngest child usually tends to behave this way as they are desperate for others’ approval.

Supplying humor is also their way of coping with their pain and fear. They mask negative emotions by goofing around or cracking jokes during family arguments. 

As they keep their feelings bottled up, they may resort to self-medication or addiction later in life, perpetuating the cycle of substance abuse.

The Lost Child

The lost child of the addicted family system withdraws from family dysfunction to avoid feeling overwhelmed. They tend to spend time with people outside of the family unit to avoid all family conflicts.

The lost child engages in solitary activities to escape tension caused by addiction in the family.

The youngest or the middle child usually embodies this role. They are self-effacing and withdrawn and are seldom seen as the stressor in the family. 

The lost child will often defer making decisions and have difficulty developing intimate relationships.

How Parental Substance Abuse Affects the Family System

Many people start substance abuse during their early teen or young adult years. Young people with addiction may view parenthood as a reason to get sober.

Many people with addiction acknowledge the damage substance abuse has inflicted on their lives and their loved ones and want to reach sobriety to reclaim their life, but addiction’s grip can be too strong to break out of.

Parents who engage in substance abuse create a destructive environment for their children, increasing their risk of developing a substance use disorder. Research shows that the effects of parental addiction on a child’s life can begin in the uterus.

Mothers who abuse substances while carrying a child put the child at risk of physical and cognitive disabilities or even preterm birth. Prenatal exposure to drugs can also place children at risk of social difficulties and bullying, making them vulnerable to peer pressure associated with substance abuse.

Steps to Break the Cycle of the Destructive Family Roles in Addiction

Breaking the destructive cycle that comes with family roles in addiction and intergenerational traumas is hard. Like children inherit their parents’ intelligence, substance abuse can also be passed from generation to generation.

Even one person with addiction can impact the substance abuse risk of future generations down the road.

Nearly 12% of children in the U.S. live with a parent with a substance abuse problem. The impact of parental addiction is more severe on young children as young brains are more responsive and sensitive to experiences around them.

Most learning in human beings occurs in the first three years of birth. Therefore, intergenerational addiction is more prevalent in families with young children.

Although substance abuse can pass from generation to generation, families can take prudent steps to break this cycle.

Step 1: Recognize Your Role

First, you need to identify your role in the family unit. If your elder brother abuses drugs and you make excuses for him, you are the enabler or the caretaker.

This does not mean that you want your brother to keep abusing substances; rather, you want to prevent family dysfunction to protect everyone else.

But, you also need to realize that what you are doing is not beneficial for the family in the long run.

Similarly, if you don’t feel like being a part of addiction-related conversations and spend most of your time alone, you may be playing the role of the lost child.

If you joke around during serious addiction-related conversations to smooth things over, you need to recognize your role as the mascot.

If you are blamed for the family dysfunction, you must recognize that you are the family’s scapegoat.

If you put a lot of pressure on yourself and need to have it all together, you must accept that you have taken on the role of the hero.

Whatever role you are playing, recognize it with honesty. Observe your behavioral patterns and accept the role you have taken on.

It’s also possible that you have characteristics of more than one role. For example, you make excuses for the person with addiction like the enabler, and also use humor to distract attention from addiction-related topics during tense situations.

It’s important to understand that you have not chosen this role, rather it has been shaped by your personality traits. In each role, a family member is trying to cope with addiction in the best way they can.

Step 2: Recognize How The Role Has Affected You

After identifying your role or roles, you can assess how that role has affected you. As an enabler, you often lie to the rest of the family members to protect the person with the addiction.

While you may be doing this to keep the family happy, it can leave you with a guilty conscience. As a hero, you may put too much pressure on yourself to keep your family well-functioning. This can take a heavy toll on your mental health, causing episodes of anxiety and stress.

Suppose you are provoking negative attention towards yourself to distract family members from the behavior of the person with addiction. In that case, you may end up ruining your relationship with the rest of the family.

As a mascot, you may be able to alleviate the stress caused by the family member with substance abuse but masking emotions with humor will only add to your anxiety.

Step 3: Reach Out for Help 

Acknowledging that addiction has made your family dysfunctional is an important part of breaking the cycle of intergenerational addiction.

However, acknowledging the truth is not enough to save your family. It’s important to seek professional help or join support groups to work through this situation.

It’s difficult to cope with stress when a family member struggles with substance abuse.

People do everything to make things better and when their attempts are unsuccessful, they feel like giving up. But if you give, you will never be able to wipe out addiction from your life.

The first step is to get help for the family member with addiction but even if they refuse to get help, you must seek outside help for yourself and other family members.

Professional help is not only available for people directly affected by addiction. It’s also available for the family and loved ones of the individual. If you have suffered because of your loved one’s addiction problem, you must seek professional help to start your journey to emotional healing.

If other family members are unwilling to get professional help, you can receive individual therapy.

It’s the first line of defense for those living with a person affected by addiction. This type of therapy focuses on exploring the effects of your loved one’s addiction on you.

During these sessions, you work with a therapist to identify the roles you took on to deal with substance abuse in your family.

Step 4: Bring Awareness to Your Family

Addiction has devastating effects on all members of the family. Therefore, you must make them aware of different ways they can seek professional help.

Many options are available for families seeking professional help, including supportive family therapy, psychodynamic therapy, narrative therapy, trans-generational therapy, and so forth.

All types of family therapy aim to nurture positive change and development within families affected by addiction.

Step 5: Create Boundaries

When living with a loved one with an addiction problem, you must create clear boundaries with that individual and other family members.

While this may seem challenging at first, it’s extremely important for your well-being.

Start by telling others that you need time to yourself each day even if they don’t like it or think it’s selfish. If you feel something is inappropriate, you have every right to express yourself to other family members.

Personal boundaries could be regarding anything, including your need for time to yourself and the freedom to change your mind.

Step 6: Begin the Process of Inner Healing

Emotional pain is the worst kind of suffering. When you have been hurt or emotionally tortured by someone, intentionally or unintentionally, it takes a long time to repair those inner wounds.

Addiction can do something similar to people. The emotional trauma of a loved one’s addiction leaves its marks even when your loved one has recovered.

Begin the inner healing process by acknowledging, processing, accepting, and integrating those painful experiences you lived through because of your loved one’s addiction.

You need to accept the burden that’s pushing you back, let go of the negative emotions, and forgive yourself and your loved ones.

The manifestation of inner healing lies in your everyday behavior and who you become after addiction is gone from your life.

It’s also a good idea to start spiritual therapy to reconnect with your life’s purpose.

Step 7: Let Go of What You Can’t Control

The first step to breaking the cycle of intergenerational addiction is to focus your energy on things you control.

Members within an addicted family system get overwhelmed by focusing on things they have no control over, such as the individual’s choice to resort to drugs.

Some family members blame themselves for the condition of the individual with addiction. They must realize that whatever that individual did was his choice. However, they must not be blamed for the substance use disorder.

All family members must view addiction as a disease rather than the result of bad choices.

The Biggest Mistake Made in The Process of Healing From the Addicted Family System

One common mistake that almost all families affected by intergenerational addiction have made is that they don’t address the circumstances leading to the family’s first-ever addiction problem.

When a person completes rehab and returns home, their family members implement everything they learned during family therapy sessions and stay wary of the individual’s triggers. However, they often fail to change their behaviors with one another.

For example, the family member who entered rehab has resorted to substance abuse because their parents would always belittle him.

After he completes rehab, his parents treat him with respect, praise his efforts, and make him feel important. However, their behavior with their other children may not be the same and because they have seen their siblings abuse drugs, they may end up repeating their destructive behaviors.

Why the Whole Family Needs to Get Help

Substance use disorders affect all family members to some extent, regardless of their role in dealing with their loved one’s addiction.

If a family member does not seek professional help, they may have to live with the effects of addiction forever. Going to a family therapist will help you address those uncomfortable emotions that you have kept bottled up for so long.

With family therapy, they can learn to develop healthy boundaries, effectively communicate their feelings to each other, define their role within the family, and address dysfunctional interactions.

Family therapy aims to improve family dynamics by addressing conflicts and fostering trust.

Without professional help, family members may resort to other destructive behaviors, like bottling up emotions, self-medicating, growing distant, and self-harming.

All family members need professional help to reconnect with each other, bring clarity to their relationships, and remove all marks of addiction from their lives.

Further Reading

[1] Alvernia.Edu – Coping With Addiction. 6 Dysfunctional Family Roles

[1] Study: The Effects of Addiction on the Family

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Susana is a recovery writer and advocate with over 8 years in addiction recovery. She is passionate about sharing accurate and helpful information about mental health, addiction, and recovery. She holds a Bachelor’s in Christian Studies from Grand Canyon University and has over 7 years of working in the addiction field. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director


Lionel, a Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor (LISAC) with over 4 years at Cornerstone. Passionate about helping those with addiction, he has trained as an EMDR therapist  adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of addiction, providing an empathetic approach to addiction.

Articles written prior to August 2023 were also clinically reviewed by Karen Williams, LPC 

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