When a substance use disorder (SUD) or full-blown addiction hits a family system, each member is impacted.
Sharon Wegscheider Cruse, MA, a pioneer in addiction recovery, states that there are six common family roles that are activated in a dysfunctional family system that caters to an addict.
- The Addict: This is the individual with the addiction. Their life is typically flooded with chaos and various states of disrepair. The family system in a dysfunctional state will cater to the addict and work to re-establish normalcy, thus hindering the addict from feeling the full consequence of their behavior. They remain the focal point of a family system that is caught in dysfunction. The substance becomes the prime focal point for the addict, and they will sabotage or harm anyone or anything that occludes their ability to obtain the substance.
- The Enabler: This is the person in the dysfunctional structure that is typically found making excuses for the addict, purchasing the substance, getting the addict out of trouble or the naturally-occurring consequences they need to feel to get healthy. Enablers feel “needed” when the addict is actively using, despite their vociferous complaining. The mindset of an enabler is that the addict “doesn’t really have a problem.” Their objective is to make things easy for the addict and the family so that “things can run smoothly” and “there isn’t any chaos.”
- The Hero: This is the person who often is an overachiever in school or work. They do everything right and are perfectionistic in nature. They become obsessed with being perfect, producing results, being overly self-sufficient, and never asking for help. Their thinking is often black and white, similar to the addicts, and they are notoriously unforgiving of themselves. This role takes on lots of responsibility and is susceptible to high amounts of stress. This person often overcompensates to make up for feelings of inadequacy.
- The Scapegoat: Negative energy in a dysfunctional family system has to go somewhere, and because the addict is not “cooperating” with taking the blame, it often falls on the scapegoat. When a parent is the addict, the scapegoat is often a child who deliberately causes problems as a way to get some of the attention that is directed to the addict. A scapegoat’s negative behaviors may range from getting poor grades in school, a continual loss of jobs, or they may have their own substance use disorder.
- The Mascot: The mascot uses humor to break tension in the family. Often seen as winsome, fun, carefree, and jovial, the mascot’s objective is to decrease the stress load a family carries as a result of the addict’s poor choices. Mascot’s are well liked by family members and often will sacrifice their own sense of self or quiet their opinions just to keep the peace. They are notorious people-pleasers and can read a room instantly. They are the class clown and provide comic relief as a defense against feeling their own emotions. Mascot’s often become addicts later in life.
- The Lost Child: This is the child in the family system who is erased because of the dysfunction. They learn to keep quiet, keep their emotions, thoughts, and feelings to themselves because “being invisible” keeps them safe from harm. Often the lost child is seen as exceptionally behaved because they hide in the background and often do what they are told. This child will not look for a way to distract from the behavior, instead they will withdraw. Lost children will delay decision making or struggle with it, they have trouble forming and maintaining intimate relationships, and opt for solitary activities. This child is also at risk of later addiction.
But I’m a friend, not a family member
Friend groups frequently mimic dysfunctional family structure when an addict becomes the focal point. You will see heroes, enablers, scapegoats, mascots, and lost children emerge in a circle of friends where there is one individual whose addiction dominates the interactions.
That is great information, but what should I DO with the addict?
It’s not your job to fix, cajole, encourage, rescue, or try and repair the addict. Your job is to give them the information they need to find help, but not try and force the help upon them.
It is your job to maintain your own personal boundaries, to remain safe both physically and emotionally, and if the addict is placing either of these at risk, it’s your job to take the proper steps to maintain your safety. You cannot—despite your best intentions—keep the addict safe, nor is it your job to try.
The dirty little secret of what finally heals addiction is this…
it is only when the gift of desperation hits an addict will they begin to look for a way out of the addiction and help. This is called “hitting bottom.” Some addicts have a very low bottom, meaning, they have lost everything. Others have a higher bottom, meaning, they hate the way they feel or are just sick and tired of being sick and tired, so they reach out for help. Some have to be hospitalized against their will, others find their way into the rooms of AA or to a treatment center. Every person with an SUD is different.
Your job is to provide links to the resources they need when they are ready to get help. Your job is not to do the healing for them.
If you are not sure what to do next, please call our counselors, who are standing by ready to help answer your questions.
SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health SErvices Administration provides the following resources.
- What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families
Created for family members of people with alcohol abuse or drug abuse problems. Answers questions about substance abuse, its symptoms, different types of treatment, and recovery. Addresses concerns of children of parents with substance use/abuse problems.
- Alcohol and Drug Addiction Happens in the Best of Families
Describes how alcohol and drug addiction affect the whole family. Explains how substance abuse treatment works, how family interventions can be a first step to recovery, and how to help children in families affected by alcohol abuse and drug abuse.
- It’s Not Your Fault (NACoA) (PDF | 12 KB)
Assures teens with parents who abuse alcohol or drugs that, “It’s not your fault!” and that they are not alone. Encourages teens to seek emotional support from other adults, school counselors, and youth support groups such as Alateen, and provides a resource list.
- It Feels So Bad: It Doesn’t Have To
Provides information about alcohol and drug addiction to children whose parents or friends’ parents might have substance abuse problems. Advises kids to take care of themselves by communicating about the problem and joining support groups such as Alateen.
- After an Attempt: A Guide for Taking Care of Your Family Member After Treatment in the Emergency Department
Aids family members in coping with the aftermath of a relative’s suicide attempt. Describes the emergency department treatment process, lists questions to ask about follow-up treatment, and describes how to reduce risk and ensure safety at home.
- Family Therapy Can Help: For People in Recovery From Mental Illness or Addiction
Explores the role of family therapy in recovery from mental illness or substance abuse. Explains how family therapy sessions are run and who conducts them, describes a typical session, and provides information on its effectiveness in recovery.