Dysfunctional Family Roles Support Addictive Behaviors


In families that are impacted by addiction, every family member plays a role. In many cases, these roles aren’t taken up with conscious intent; instead, they often “just happen.”

Every person has their way of dealing with crisis, and those tendencies manifest themselves in family roles. The following is an overview of the most common roles people play.

If someone in your family is struggling with an addiction, you will likely find yourself (and your family members) described below. You may also find that you play more than one role, though you tend towards one role in particular.

Acknowledging and understanding these roles is an important step toward recovery for the addict, and functional living for the entire family.

The Cast of Characters

The Addict — The easiest role to spot is that of “addict.” This, of course, is the person who struggles with drug or alcohol abuse. This person becomes the focal point of the family. All other roles are developed around this one. As the addict’s life spins increasingly out of control, other family roles become stronger and more deeply embedded in the psyche and general habits of the rest of the family.

The Scapegoat — The scapegoat is the family rebel. His main purpose is to take attention off the addict and her addiction. He — rather than the addict — becomes the reason for the family’s problems. By shifting blame, the family preserves some sense of normalcy and control. He often does poorly in school, and may engage in criminal behavior.

The Jester — The jester is the family version of the “class clown.” She relies on humor to alleviate stress and fear. She’s often viewed as being immature, but secretly the family is glad for her ability to distract, and she’s often the most popular member of the family. This person’s jokes can sometimes be inappropriate and hurtful, and can make recovery more difficult for the addict.

The Lost Child — This family member is quiet, reserved, and rarely makes any demands on the family. He sees the troubles the family is already facing, and doesn’t want to cause more, so he lingers silently on the fringes — not really involved, but not entirely absent either. Because he is so low maintenance, his meek behavior is reinforced.

The Hero — This person is often very accomplished, either in school or a vocation or both. She is sometimes a workaholic. Her role serves two purposes — she offers the family a distraction (they can focus on his success rather than the addict’s addiction), and she allows the family to downplay their problems. After all, the family can’t be that bad if one of them is able to achieve so much, right?

The Enabler – Sometimes called the caretaker, this family member is the glue that holds the others together. The enabler makes excuses for the addict’s behavior, and often for the behavior of other family members as well. She is so busy tending the family’s needs that hers never get met. She gets lost in a flutter of activity that’s all designed to make her family look good to the outside world. Her goal is to keep up appearances.

Developing Healthy Support Systems

Though the specifics may vary, most of these roles are based on feelings of guilt, fear, shame and helplessness. Family members don’t know how to address the addict’s behavior (especially is she’s unwilling to get help) so their roles become their coping mechanisms.

If addiction is to be effectively treated, these roles have to be treated, too. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the addict to slip back into his addictive patterns. He’s got a full support system waiting for him at home. Family members need, instead, to learn healthy ways to support the addict; ways that encourage him away from his addictive behavior rather than towards it.

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