Many families in the United States, from all different types of backgrounds, are affected by substance abuse and drug addiction at any given time.
Contrary to what some might believe, addiction is a struggle that affects many. It can affect friends and loved ones—not just the individual who is living with the addiction.
When addiction is present in a household, one of the most common ways both the addicted individual and their loved ones cope with this is through the adoption of certain family “roles”.
What Is A Family Role?
A family role is a role, or behavioral pattern, that a person takes on in the household.
Generally, a role is adopted as a sort of coping mechanism. Family roles tend to result from a person’s response to the problem of their loved one’s substance abuse, and their way of managing the issue emotionally, mentally, or psychologically.
Within the realm of drug addiction, there are six common roles that family members affected by drug and alcohol addiction most commonly take on.
Common Family Roles In Addiction
Decades ago, addiction expert Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse identified six primary roles within families affected by alcohol use disorder, also known as alcohol addiction.
Since then, this model has also been used to describe families affected by other types of drug addictions, such as opioid addiction, cocaine addiction, and prescription drug addiction.
Although not all families have exactly six members, it’s common for family members affected by addiction to identify with characteristics of one or more of the following roles.
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Below are brief descriptions of the six family roles in addiction:
The Addicted Person
The addicted person, typically referred to in educational and research materials as the “*addict,” is the person with a substance use disorder in the household.
This person can essentially become the center of the family’s conflict. Other family members may adapt their own behavioral patterns in response to their loved one’s substance abuse.
Signs of an addicted person include:
- frequent, excessive drug use
- increased isolation from family members
- using drugs more often and in higher amounts over time
- being unable to reduce drug use or stop drug abuse
- hiding or lying about drug or alcohol use
- neglecting family, friends, work, or school as a result of drug use
- constant preoccupation with getting or using more drugs
- continuing to use drugs despite negative consequences
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms with reduced or stopped drug use
*We aim to remove all stigma associated with substance use disorders in order to best help those who need treatment. However, we include some outdated, commonly known terms to provide an overview of their meaning in context as necessary for broader understanding.
The “hero” of the family is a family member who will often try to make everything appear on the outside as if they, and the family at large, have everything together.
They may attempt to “fix” their loved one’s addiction, as well as the family dysfunction that the addiction can cause behind closed doors—beyond the public eye.
Signs of a hero include:
- assuming over-responsibility
- strives for perfection in everything
- tries to maintain a “normal” appearance for the family
- overly stressed out
- may try to hide their own emotional or mental distress
The scapegoat is someone who becomes known as the “problem child” within the household.
This person, sometimes described as the opposite of the “hero,” responds to their loved one’s addiction, and perhaps their own distress, by lashing out through acts of defiance.
Signs of a scapegoat:
- defiant behavior
- acting out in school
- worsened academic performance
- changes in employment status
- acting increasingly hostile or angry
- experiences rejection from other family members
- unintentionally diverts attention away from the addicted person
Similar to the hero, the caretaker is someone who will often go to great lengths to try and keep the family happy.
Also referred to as the “enabler,” the caretaker may cover up the mistakes of their addicted loved one and become a martyr of sorts.
Signs of a caretaker include:
- lying for their addicted loved one
- downplaying their loved one’s substance abuse
- sacrificing themselves or their own needs for the sake of shielding their loved one
- supporting their loved one’s dysfunctional substance use behaviors
- paying for their loved one’s drugs
- deep denial of the seriousness of their loved one’s addiction
- going to extreme lengths to protect the family’s “secret”
The mascot becomes something like the class clown of the family.
While they may recognize the seriousness of the situation, they’ll often mask or deflect from the problem with humor or other pleasantries.
Signs of a mascot:
- tries to lessen the stress of family members in the household
- constantly on the go or hyperactive
- deflecting from the problem with humor
- feeling powerless about how to help
- increased anxiety or depression
- difficulty managing emotions
- inability to recognize their own pain
The Lost Child
The lost child is a family member who gets left behind, so to speak, as the addicted person—and their struggles—become a focal point of the family unit.
Signs of a lost child:
- feeling neglected
- becoming withdrawn
- staying out of the way of others
- has difficulty making decisions
- struggles to form and maintain positive relationships
- increased loneliness
- feelings of depression
What Are The Costs Of Family Roles?
It’s not uncommon for family members to adopt these roles. But unfortunately, this can have a number of negative effects, both in the short-term and long-term for the entire family unit.
This can affect:
- physical health
- mental health
- emotional health
- tension in the household
- social lives of family members
- ability for family members to function normally
Some common costs, or consequences, of these changes in behavioral patterns include:
Forming A Codependency
Codependency is a dysfunctional, unbalanced relationship in which a person may enable the addicted person’s behavior and undermine their own health and wellbeing in the process.
This toxic pattern of behavior can be harmful both for the addicted loved one and the person who is co-dependent, and can ultimately undermine the relationship between the two.
Read more about codependency and substance abuse in families.
Poor Mental Health
Although drugs and alcohol can affect mental health, so too can living in a household with addiction as a constant, all-consuming presence.
The person with the substance use disorder, as well as family members, may grow more anxious, depressed, hopeless, and struggle with various aspects of their lives.
Substance abuse, and resulting family dysfunction, can divide. It can ruin relationships in some cases and cause moderate to severe distress in families in the process.
Taking on a dysfunctional role as a result of addiction may cause feelings of resentment, distrust, and disrupt normal interactions between family members.
Treatment For Families Affected By Drug Addiction
Getting treatment for a substance abuse problem can not only offer an opportunity for individual healing—but also an opportunity for the family, as a unit, to begin to heal together.
Nowadays, many drug and alcohol treatment centers offer opportunities for family members to actively participate in their loved one’s treatment and recovery process.
Some addiction recovery family treatment options include:
- family counseling
- family support groups
- addiction education opportunities
- psychodrama activities
- relapse prevention planning with families
Watching a loved one struggle with this illness can be painful. Actively participating in their recovery, however, can be empowering and instill in families a sense of hope.
It can also offer an opportunity for family members to have honest conversations with one another with the guidance of trained mental health or social service professionals.
Getting Help For A Loved One Struggling With Addiction
Healing from addiction as a family is possible. And we may be able to help you get started.
What we can do:
- identify suitable treatment programs
- explain your different treatment options
- verify your insurance
- answer questions about drug and alcohol rehab programs
Call our helpline today to learn more about addiction treatment and how to find the right treatment program for yourself or a loved one at a rehab center near you.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Alvernia University — Coping With Addiction: 6 Dysfunctional Family Roles
- PsychCentral — How Addiction Impacts the Family: 6 Family Roles in a Dysfunctional or Alcoholic Family
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse — How can family members make a difference in the life of someone needing treatment?
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: NCBI — The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice