The ABC’s of Addiction Recovery: “F” is for Family Dysfunction

Addiction hurts more than the addict. Actually, it affects every member of the addict’s immediate family in some way. In fact, they all usually share the same psychological and emotional torment that comes with substance addiction. These are the driving forces behind addiction-based family dysfunction.


Family Dysfunction During Active Addiction

Every family is different, and so each situation involving addiction will be different. Because of this, there is no way of determining any universal cause-and-effect relationship between substance abuse and family dysfunction. However, it is very common for most families struggling with addiction to take on specific roles to maintain some sense of normalcy. Not including the addict, five roles develop in response to substance abuse:


The Enabler

The Enabler is, of course, the most well-known (and damaging) role of any on this list. Many experts in the field of addiction treatment warn families to avoid enabling behaviors. Actions that enable a loved one’s addiction only make the situation worse. However, when someone takes on the role of the Enabler, it’s almost always with good intentions. In fact, the Enabler of the addicted household is usually the one who takes responsibility for keeping the family functional during trying times, like an addiction.

The role of Enabler is usually taken on by the addict’s parent, sibling, or spouse. This role is characterized by:

  • handling the addict’s finances
  • carrying out the addict’s responsibilities
  • taking responsibility for the addict’s mistakes
  • making excuses or justifications for the addict’s actions or behavior

Several desires motivate these and other actions outside of protecting the addict. These might include wanting to:

  • avoid familial conflict
  • keep peace in the household
  • maintain control over the situation
  • reduce the family’s anxiety and stress
  • prevent social or professional embarrassment

Unfortunately, the Enabler’s actions do more harm than good. Even though the Enabler is only trying to help, his or her interference only perpetuates the addict’s problem rather than offering any kind of solution to it. Additionally, the stress on the Enabler puts his or her own long-term mental and emotional health at risk.


The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat in the household takes on the blame for the rest of the family’s problems. The person in this role perceivably creates issues that turn attention away from the addicted family member. Whether the Scapegoat’s protection of the addict is purposeful or not, (s)he almost always takes the brunt of the family’s collective anger and resentment.

Most of the time, the role of the Scapegoat is taken on by a child in the family— usually a middle child. However, the Scapegoat can also be an adult, like an uncle, aunt or cousin of the addict. The Scapegoat’s behaviors typically include:

  • acting out at home
  • misbehaving at in school
  • showing poor performance at work
  • showing defiance toward authority figures

Some people purposely take on the role of Scapegoat to protect an addicted loved one. However, this is not always the case. Scapegoats are usually forced into their roles by others in the family who can’t cope with the reality of addiction in their household. In fact, the Enabler usually assigns the Scapegoat role to the “troublemaker” of the family. So, a lot of the Scapegoat’s behavior— like opposing authority— might actually be self-defensive.

In cases like this, children who grow up in the role of the Scapegoat tend to experience many emotional problems in adult life. Usually, this includes problems with trying to form healthy, intimate relationships with others outside of the family.


The Mascot

In a household hurt by addiction, one individual will usually assume the role of the Mascot. The Mascot, like the Scapegoat, serves as a distraction from the addict and the substance abuse. However, the Mascot typically uses humor to capture the family’s attention. And unlike the Scapegoat, the Mascot usually goes along with the role willingly and will continue to in order to bring comfort to the household during the loved one’s active addiction.

This role is usually taken on by one of the youngest members of the family. Typically, the Mascot is a child or teenager. Using humor to deflect worry and fear characterizes the Mascot’s desire to:

  • please the family
  • protect the addicted loved one
  • provide a form of emotional support
  • mask inner pain and fear of the situation

More than anything else, the Mascot’s use of humor is usually a superficial defense mechanism against feelings of fear, embarrassment, guilt, or even anger. (S)he is fully aware of the situation and worries for the addict as much as anyone else in the household. So, the Mascot purposely uses words and actions to draw attention for any of the reasons listed above.

Unfortunately, the Mascot’s antics could actually perpetuate addiction as much as the Enabler’s. This is especially true if the Mascot takes attention away from treatment options. Additionally, the person in the Mascot role is much more likely than anyone else in the household to also develop an addiction— especially one that involves “self-medication” with prescriptions drugs or alcohol.


The Hero

Unlike the Enabler and the Mascot, the Hero does not “protect” the addict. In fact, the Hero is usually the one in the family to sweep the addict’s problems under the rug. This is because the Hero’s focus is on helping the family, not the addict. Unlike the others on this list, the Hero’s task is to keep up family appearances and maintaining a good reputation through his or her own personal success. Most of the time, the Hero is the shining example set for the Scapegoat (i.e., “Why can’t you be more like the Hero?”)

The Hero is usually the eldest child of the addict’s immediate family, whether it’s a sibling or a cousin. Additionally, this role is usually assumed by a Type A personality— someone who is:

  • driven
  • ambitious
  • overachieving
  • perfectionistic

This particular role in an addicted household is characterized by:

  • The “go big or go home” mindset
  • Taking charge in social and business settings
  • The desire to do everything “right” the first time
  • Maintaining household responsibilities that exceed expectations
  • Giving the family positive things to focus on (i.e., success in school, work, etc.)

The stress that comes with this role is just as damaging as any other on this list. After all, the Hero’s primary focus is to, in a sense, provide hope for the rest of the family. This desire, coupled with a borderline obsession with normalcy and perfection, can put an extreme amount of pressure on the Hero as responsibilities continue to pile up and tensions run high.

If the loved one’s addiction is not addressed, the impact on the Hero may include emotional repression and stress-related mental illnesses (like anxiety) later in life.


The Lost Child

The Lost Child is the family member who is both socially and emotionally withdrawn as a result of the loved one’s substance addiction. (S)he cares very deeply for the addict but doesn’t necessarily know how to show it or how to help. Most of the time, the Lost Child keeps his or her distance just to avoid conflict or family drama. As a result, (s)he comes off as shy and reserved.

The youngest member of the family typically adopts this role. The person in this role could be a sibling, young cousin or even a child of the addict. In most cases, and as the name might suggest, the Lost Child is actually just a child. This role is characterized by:

  • isolation at family gatherings
  • frequent solitary activities like “play pretend”
  • exclusion from serious or “adult” conversations
  • having trouble with integrating into social situations

Others might describe the Lost Child as the “invisible” family member since (s)he doesn’t receive or even seek a lot of attention. Sometimes, this is because the Lost Child will forfeit the family’s care in a misguided effort to shift it to the addict’s needs. If the Lost Child continues to be overlooked by the rest of the family in an addicted household, it could lead to problems with decision-making and emotional intimacy down the road.


Managing Family Dysfunction and Addiction with TTC Care

If you or someone in your family is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, please call The Treatment Center’s Residential Addiction Care facility at 844-310-9549. Our team of addiction treatment experts can help you regain your sobriety and a healthy dynamic for your household through our family-based programs and services.

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