Addiction is a complicated, often chronic condition that can affect everyone around a person struggling, including families and children.
For children, growing up with a parent who has an addiction can be very difficult. In some cases, it can put children in a position of becoming something of a parent themselves. Thereby, creating what’s known as a role reversal.
Preventing role reversal, or healing from its effects, is possible with preventative measures and treatment. Find more information here about what role reversal is and how to find help.
What Are Family Roles In Addiction?
Family members often take on some sort of role in a family. The leader. Someone who is first to take care of others. Or, someone who will make others laugh when times are tough.
Family roles in households affected by addiction can develop similarly.
Through research, experts have identified roles that children and other family members will often take on in order to cope with a loved one’s alcohol or drug abuse.
These roles include:
- the person with the addiction
- the hero
- the caretaker (“enabler”)
- the lost child
- the mascot
- the scapegoat
These roles will often develop within the home, but they can also develop outside of the home among adult children of parents with a drug or alcohol addiction.
This process can occur unintentionally and may cause strain between family members, as each develops their own way of responding to the problem and its repercussions.
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What Does It Mean To Reverse Roles?
Addiction researchers and treatment professionals use the phrase ‘reversal of roles’ to describe a functional or emotional role reversal between an addicted parent and child.
Essentially, this will involve a child sacrificing their needs to take care of the needs of their addicted parent, who may be intoxicated or otherwise incapable of attending to their own needs.
This phenomenon is also referred to as “role reversal” or “parentification.”
What Does Role Reversal Between Addicted Parents And Children Look Like?
What this looks like in practice can vary depending on the family, the environment, and the relational dynamics between the specific parent(s) and child.
Generally, however, this will involve a child assuming the responsibilities of a parent.
Examples of this might include:
- taking on work to provide for their family
- keeping up with the bills
- taking care of younger siblings
- blaming themselves for a parent’s substance abuse
What Are The Effects Of Role Reversal?
Parentification, or role reversal, can be a traumatic experience for a child, with lasting effects.
This can essentially restrict a child from fully being a child, depriving them of what one could call a “normal” experience of childhood.
A role reversal can force a child into a position of growing up early, requiring them to become self-reliant at an early age and take on the responsibilities of an adult.
Unfortunately, studies show that this can have lasting consequences on a person through childhood into adolescence and adulthood.
For instance, some consequences of this may include:
- behavioral problems
- low self-worth or self-esteem
- intense feelings of shame and guilt
- suicidal tendencies
- increased risk for substance abuse
- pressure to be a “good child”
- future relationship or intimacy problems
But, suffice to say, not everyone will react to this role reversal in the same way.
And some protective factors—such as the presence of a stable adult, e.g. a grandparent—can help prevent this dysfunctional relationship and offer a greater likelihood for resiliency.
How To Cope With A Parent’s Addiction
Healing from the effects of a parent’s addiction, and coping with a parent’s substance abuse, is possible with time, compassion, patience for yourself, and ideally some form of treatment.
But what this looks like for you or a loved one will depend on their own personal needs, as well as factors such as age and closeness to their addicted parent.
To start, here are some tips for how to cope with a parent’s addiction:
Seek Professional Support
Regardless of whether your parent has sought help for their substance abuse, seeking help from a counselor or therapist can be helpful for children of parents with addiction.
If your parent has not gotten treatment or is still actively addicted to drugs, this may offer an opportunity for you to look after your own health and begin your own healing process.
This can also offer an opportunity to:
- learn more about addiction
- receive insight from a professional
- process your own thoughts and feelings
- learn how to set clear boundaries with your parent
- learn supportive coping skills and strategies
Asking for help, particularly after experiencing a role reversal in childhood or adulthood, isn’t always easy.
However, this may be encouraged if you have previously struggled with the effects of this dynamic, or are currently grappling with this in your own life.
Take Care Of Your Own Needs
Taking on a parental role as a child often results in a child neglecting their own needs.
For some, this can carry on into adulthood, making it difficult for a person to put themselves and their needs first.
Part of the process of healing from this experience, then, will involve learning how to take care of your needs, and recognizing the importance of doing so for your own health and well-being.
Encourage But Don’t Force
One of the most important boundaries children of a parent with an addiction can set is the role that they play in their parent’s decision to either continue using substances or to seek help.
The truth is, there can be repercussions to trying to force a parent into treatment or repeatedly applying pressure in such a way that makes them feel as if there is no other choice.
Ultimately, recovery is a path that people with addiction have to take for themselves and choose willingly.
You can encourage a parent, and support their positive choices, but it’s not your responsibility to ensure they are able to get well.
Break The Cycle
Children of parents with addiction are at a higher risk of developing their own substance abuse problems, and mental health problems, later in life.
In addition, children who inadvertently swap roles with their parents may also be susceptible to falling into a vicious cycle of role reversal that can be difficult to break without help.
What can help with this:
- having the presence of another stable adult
- finding a support group
- building a support network with others who have gone through similar experiences
Find Treatment For Yourself Or An Addicted Loved One
Whether you’re the child of a parent with addiction or struggle with drug or alcohol abuse yourself, addiction treatment options that are capable of meeting your needs may be available.
Let us help you find your path towards healing. Call us today to learn more about drug addiction, addiction treatment, and finding treatment options for yourself or a loved one 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
- Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy — The role reversal in families of adult children of alcoholics
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: NCBI — The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed — Role reversals in families of substance misusers: a transgenerational phenomenon