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6 Common Roles Families Fill When Addiction Is Present

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Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health, published in 2017, 8.7 million children live with parents who have a substance use disorder.

So, what is addiction? As a society, we throw around the word “addiction” in everyday language:

I’m addicted to the Mochas at Starbucks.

I’m addicted to that nail polish.

I’m addicted to that new reality show.

Psychology Today” defines addiction as a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.

I was married to a recovering addict for seven years. My son had just turned two, and my daughter was 4 months old when their father and I separated. For me, attempting to raise two children with a spouse who was battling addiction was overwhelming — emotionally and physically. Their father and I had a common goal: To provide our children with a safe, loving, nurturing environment.

But, the addiction took center stage. We became a family battling addiction. Our entire family system adjusted to the addiction. And, it was time to get back to a place where the well-being of the children took center stage.

A family system includes the social interactions, patterns and interdependence that is present between members of the family. Within a family, there exists rules, roles each member adopts and relationships that are formed. When substance abuse is present — within a family — the rules, roles and relationships typically become organized around the parent with a substance use disorder for the purpose of maintaining the family’s equilibrium. When something changes (for instance, the using increases), the roles of the family system shift in an effort to adapt to this new behavior and reestablish any equilibrium that may have been lost.

Marni Low says, “This readjustment builds on the family’s strength, resiliency and coping mechanisms.”

Six roles exist within the family system when substance abuse is present, easily-changing roles that can also move from one family member to the next, and depend on several factors. These include when the substance abuse began, the developmental stages of the children, age and gender of each family member.

The enabler:

This role is typically taken by the spouse, who does not have a substance use disorder. If the person with a substance use disorder is a single parent, the role is often taken by the oldest child or the child who is closest to the parent. They’re typically in denial regarding the severity of the addiction. They often go to great lengths to cover for the addict, which may include paying the bills, taking the kids to school and keeping communication open with other family and friends. They often hope to present an image of peace to those who aren’t part of the immediate family. Their behavior can be a result of an internalized fear, shame, anger and guilt.

The hero:

Parentification is the distortion or lack of boundaries between and among family subsystems, such that children take on roles and responsibilities usually reserved for adults.

This family member is often the child who appears confident and overachieving. They are often a perfectionist. They may receive perfect grades and be a star athlete. They adopt the role of parentification to include things like cooking food for a younger sibling or providing support to the parent without a substance use disorder. They may feel they need to increase their responsibilities at home. Their behavior can be a result of an internalized guilt, inadequacy and anxiety.

The scapegoat:

This family member is often the child who expresses deviant behavior at home and at school. They may express deviant behavior through adulthood and have issues with the law. The negative attention they receive can allow them to separate from their family system. They seek ways to connect with systems outside their home environment. Their behavior can be a result of internalized anger and resentment toward the parent with a substance use disorder and the chaos that exists in their home.

The mascot:

This family member is the child who often makes the remaining family members laugh. They may use comedy to deal with the challenging situations that result from their unstable home environment. They know they bring some relief to their family, even if it means sacrificing their own needs.

The lost child:

This family member is the child who is often withdrawn from the family. They don’t seem to connect with anyone inside their family. They find it challenging to socialize with others. They often engage in fantasy play. Their behavior can be a result of wanting to disassociate themselves from the chaos at home.

The addict:

The addict may experience a strong feeling of remorse, guilt or shame for the pain they’ve caused their family. The addict may experience a conflicting feeling of not wanting to stop using, although they see the consequences. Or, they may want to stop using, but find themselves unable to, as addiction is a disease. Their family may be resentful and angry the addict doesn’t seem like they want to stop using. The addict may be resentful and angry with their family for putting pressure on them to quit.

If substance abuse is present in your family system, it’s important to recognize what role(s) each member plays. In addition, it’s important to note roles we take on in childhood often transition into behavioral patterns we continue as adults. As adults, these behaviors often appear within our own relationships and family systems. The effects of substance abuse on a family system can be significant and create a pattern for the children that moves into the next generation. It’s important to seek help so the family can learn to function based on healthy rules, roles and relationships.


Facing Addiction With the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Getty image by aarrows

Originally published: June 12, 2021
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