Overcoming addiction is a family effort; when one member falls victim to substance misuse, it’s important for family and loved ones to be available for support. In many cases, family members may try to be helpful, but can unintentionally make things worse, perhaps because they do not fully understand the nature of addiction or unknowingly enable the loved one with the addiction. When someone lives with a substance use disorder, addiction family roles may become apparent as loved ones scramble to help.
How Addiction Impacts Families
Part of understanding family roles in addiction is learning how addiction affects families. Research has shown that addiction disrupts family functioning and can result in problems like marital issues, job loss, legal trouble, loss of child custody, depression and abusive behavior. As families attempt to maintain functioning in the face of addiction, family members may develop dysfunctional roles.
Six Roles of Family Members in Addiction
Given the disruption that occurs with addiction, family members may take on one of six roles as they attempt to support the loved one and heal the addiction. The six family roles in addiction are as follows.
As its name suggests, this role belongs to the person who lives with the addiction. Since addiction is a chronic brain disease, the person with the addiction will continue to misuse substances, even in the face of serious consequences. Brain changes from addiction will lead the person to compulsively seek drugs, as family and work obligations fall behind.
The Enabler (Caretaker)
The enabler takes on the caretaker role for the family member with an addiction. While they mean well, the enabler actually reinforces negative behaviors by acting as a “safety net” for the person with the addiction, so they do not experience negative repercussions from addiction. The enabler may make excuses for the person with the addiction, give them money to support their habit, or help get them out of trouble when they are arrested or fired from a job.
In a family affected by addiction, the hero is mature, goal-oriented and has high standards for themselves. The family hero is a shining light amid addiction, as they remind the family they aren’t all bad. The hero may even step in to resolve disagreements or fulfill a role the person with the addiction can no longer fill. Ultimately, the hero is seen as the “perfect child” who must take on this role to compensate for one family member’s addiction.
The family scapegoat acts out, refuses to conform and, therefore, is blamed for the family’s problems. This person takes the focus off of the individual with the addiction and makes this person feel better about themselves.
The Mascot (Clown)
Much like the scapegoat, the mascot provides a distraction from addiction, but differently. A mascot distracts the family from addiction’s stress by using humor. With a carefree personality, the family mascot can provide a source of entertainment with jokes and witty charm.
The Lost Child
Finally, the lost child is sensitive, shy and quiet. They keep their feelings to themselves and remain a neutral force within the family. By remaining quiet and blending in, the lost child refrains from calling attention to themselves or adding more stress to the family. The lost child can also be extremely independent, as they must learn to care for themselves while all the attention is on the family member with the addiction.
Importance of Recognizing Your Role
Once you become aware of family roles in addiction, you can consciously choose to overcome any dysfunctional roles you play. For instance, if you have become a “lost child,” silencing your own needs to care for the person with the addiction, you can begin to set boundaries to meet your own needs. Or, if you’re an enabler, you can stop engaging in behaviors that allow your loved one to continue with their addiction comfortably. The entire family can heal when you learn how to help someone with an addiction.
Codependency in Addiction
Codependency family roles are likely to develop when one family member has an addiction. These roles represent dysfunctional behavior patterns that occur in response to addiction. When family members become codependent, they focus all their time and attention on “fixing” the person with the addiction while neglecting their own needs.
Codependency becomes a repetitive cycle because the person doing the caretaking feels a sense of reward when they are “needed” by the person with the addiction. However, the behavior enables the addiction to continue because they continually rescue the loved one from the consequences of addiction. They may repeatedly bail the loved one out of jail, give them money or offer them a place to stay. A codependent person may even feel personally responsible for healing the addiction.
How To Help an Addict Without Enabling
If you’ve developed codependency family roles in response to a loved one’s addiction, the best thing you can do is stop enabling their behavior. You may think you are being helpful by swooping in to rescue them from their mistakes, but you’re actually allowing them to continue with their addiction, placing them at greater risk of harm.
You can stop enabling your loved one with these strategies:
- Set firm boundaries. This may require you to tell your loved one that you will not be a part of their life until they are willing to accept treatment.
- Have conversations. Talk to your loved one about treatment options, and express that you are there to support them should they choose to seek help.
- Practice self-care. Focus on meeting your own needs and practicing self-care. Since addiction affects the whole family, you must also heal from its effects.
- Remove comfort. Stop giving your loved one money or a place to stay; this allows them to remain comfortable while continuing to misuse substances.
- Avoid excuses. Do not bail your loved one out of jail or make excuses for their bad behavior; they must face the natural consequences of addiction.
Drugs and Alcohol Rehab in Orlando, Florida
If you, a family member or a loved one is struggling with a drug or alcohol use disorder, Orlando Recovery Center can help you find the addiction treatment you need to begin recovering and reclaiming your life. Our 93-bed inpatient rehab facility is located just outside downtown Orlando and is only 15 minutes from the airport; we also have a sister facility in Maitland, Florida, which offers outpatient care. Contact us today to learn about our programs or begin the admissions process.
- Schäfer, Gabriele. “Family functioning in families with alco[…]other drug addiction.” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, June 2011. Accessed August 3, 2022.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is drug addiction?” July 13, 2020. Accessed August 3, 2022.
- Sanders, Avihay; Szymanski, Kate; Fiori, Kate. “The family roles of siblings of people d[…]es and lost children.” International Journal of Psychology, 2014. Accessed August 3, 2022.
- Mental Health America. “Codependency.” Accessed August 3, 2022.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.