With an estimated 15-20 million people addicted to drugs and/or alcohol the United Kingdom, a surprisingly large number of family homes contain at least one addict and in a growing number of households, more than one. Having an addict in the family, no matter their role, has a significant impact on the health, structure and hierarchy of that family. Close-knit families often suffer the worst, especially if a matriarch or patriarch are the/one of the addicts in question. An addict is unable to take care of themselves, their family or their responsibilities, resulting in a natural shift in hierarchy and power which typically tends to harm or impact every other member of the family as everyone resettles around the addict and adopt new roles and responsibilities that theoretically shouldn’t be theirs but because of addiction, are.
Because addictions create dysfunctional families and relationships, many households with an addicted member fall into standard dysfunctional family roles. In non-addicted families, there are often the Good or Hero, the Problem or Scapegoat, the Caretaker, the Lost Child, the Mascot or Family Clown, and the Mastermind or Opportunist. In the case of addictions, two of these roles are typically changed, with the Mastermind being the addict and the caretaker being the enabler.
The Various Roles Within A Family Household
We will go over each of the roles we have mentioned above in more detail below.
“The addicted person” is the first and most important change in any family role. This person is struggling with substance abuse/addiction, which may be alcohol, prescription medication, illegal drugs or a combination of all of them. In most cases, this person begins to use or drink to cope with stress, intense negative emotions or pain (physical and/or mental). This is what we refer to as “self-medicating”. They use a substance to cope with problems in their life, past traumas, stress, anxiety, mental health conditions or from dependence from recreational using/drinking but as tolerance grows, they need more and more of their substance(s) to achieve the same effects. Eventually they become physically and mentally dependent and begin to develop maladaptive substance use patterns. This can lead to changes in personality, neglecting responsibilities and personal hygiene, lying, manipulating, stealing, reckless behavior, self-isolation, anger and many other negative reactions and outcomes.
The addicted person or people(there can be more than one of each role in any given family) negatively impacts the rest of the family in every way. However, their impact on the family structure heavily depends on their own role. For example, a caretaker or provider becoming addicted could devastate a family. A child or dependent would cause problems, but nothing so severe.
“The scapegoat” is often blamed for problems, constantly in trouble and is often heavily influenced to rebel by the outcomes and consequences of being in a dysfunctional family. In many cases, the scapegoat is used by the addict as someone to blame. Scapegoats can include one or more children, a spouse, a close family member or anyone else in the family who is frequently a part of it.
For example, if someone in the house frequently says things that are blaming another person for their addiction, that person is likely the scapegoat.
- “I wouldn’t drink if Tom didn’t …”
- “I’ll stop using when Christie learns to control herself”
- “You’re driving me to shoot up. Every time you nag I can’t help it and I have to use”
- “If you wouldn’t yell so much, I might not have to drink/use as much”
- “Why can’t you just be like you were before”
- “It’s your fault that I use/drink. If you were at home more often, I wouldn’t have to use/drink”
- And the list goes on…
While it is most often the addict who uses this kind of blame, guilt or manipulation to push their problems and responsibilities off onto someone else, this kind of behavior can spread through the family, especially if multiple other people are enablers or addicts. Scapegoats can also be quite problematic on their own and may be rebellious, runaways, highly promiscuous or even substance abuse themselves as they get older or spend a prolonged period of time within the dysfunctional household.
“The Hero” can overlap with other roles but is especially common in children. This person is hardworking and overachieving and may step up to earn more money, take care of at-home responsibilities or even help care for siblings when parents or a family member are unable or unwilling to. This person fights to bring the family together and create a sense of normality within the dysfunctional household.
Again, this role can vary a great deal depending on the family dynamics. A provider may step up to take on household responsibilities and childcare in addition to their job or other commitments. A homemaker may step up to get a part-time job in addition to home responsibilities. An eldest child may work to take care of other children or adults if they are addicts. In every case, the hero strives to be the good guy, taking care of everyone, always doing the right thing and somehow “rising above” the dysfunction within the family. For example, to avoid punishment or criticism from a substance using parent, often with the intent of pretending that everything is okay.
“The Mascot” or “Family Clown” is a frequently recurring role, but not present in every family. Here, the funny person in the family attempts to deflect or distract away from the actual problems by being funny or humorous to distract or reflect the consequences of the dysfunctional family. They use comic outbursts to pretend that everything is okay, to ease tense or difficult situations in an attempt to create a sense of normality in much the same way as “the hero” doing the same by trying to make everything okay. Because this role is often taken on by either very young children or emotionally fragile members of the family, it can induce very high levels of stress in “the mascot”.
The “Lost children” are typically shy, withdrawn and tend to hide rather than face confrontations that may be tense or awkward situations. This person is often invisible, hiding or avoiding attention or confrontation, avoiding the spotlight, avoiding relationships and often spending time alone as a means of coping within the dysfunctional household.
While most frequently seen in children, the Lost Child can also be a spouse, especially next to a very loud and possibly abusive or dominant substance abuser or addict. These people often have mental health conditions as a result of being within the dysfunctional family and is also often made worse by being within the dysfunctional home environment.
”The enabler” takes on the role of the caretaker, either denying the addicts problems, denying the extent of their problems or lying to themselves with the idea that the person will get better with enough care and encouragement from others. Enablers can be a spouse, partners, parents or even children, who either work to convince themselves that the substance abuse/addiction is not a problem or continue to take care of the addicted person, enabling them to continue their substance abuse or addiction.
This role changes a great deal depending on the person addicted and the person who has adopted the enabling role. For example, a parent or caretaker may become codependent, becoming as reliant on caring for the person as the addict is on their care. Here, the enabler physically enables the addict to continue their addiction by taking care of them, paying their bills or rent, cooking food, lying to friends and family and otherwise taking steps to hide their addiction from everyone else.
In other cases, enablers can be subtler, but still just as harmful. A child or stay at home parent can deny that the addiction is a problem, even convincing the addict themselves that their addiction isn’t as bad as others make it out to be.
More Information About Each Role
In the image below, you will find more information about each of the roles, both externally and internationally. You may find out that your specific role in your family fits into more than one category, this is normal as family dynamics are fluid and often change and vary depending on the situation and which other family members are involved and which category they best fit into.
What Can Be Done About Situations Like This?
Do any of these roles sound familiar? If so, important to understand that these negative characteristics can be overcome.
Situations like this are common among any household that includes an addict or addicts and taking positive steps to ensure that everyone within the household are cared for and are given the appropriate advice and receive ongoing support.
Taking an honest look at yourself and how your family operates is a great starting point. Helpful next steps include contacting your nearest drug and alcohol service so that everyone is getting the care and support that they need AS WELL AS the addict receiving their specialist treatment and support. You may also consider joining a support group, such as Al-Anon, to help you forge down a new path that will provide support for you but will also provide information and advice about interacting with each other and the best ways to help and support each other in a positive and productive way.