Roles of Family Members Affected by Addiction

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When it comes to addiction, you’ll hear the term “family disease” used a lot. It’s true that addiction and alcoholism are far-reaching and affect not only the person suffering but the network of people connected to the individual as well. Typically, the immediate family is the first to be affected and is hurt the most through the actions of an addicted loved one. Loving an addict isn’t easy. After all, it usually comes with a band of chaos, uncertainty, fear, worry, and even resentment. Unfortunately, family members and friends may deal with these emotions in unhealthy ways. Furthermore, people may think they are helping an addict when in reality, they are enabling them.

Due to the complexity of addiction, family members often assume particular roles to cope with their emotions and attempt to restore balance to the family unit. Most of these roles are unhealthy and don’t work toward the goal of convincing a loved one to seek addiction treatment. When one person in the family needs help, it’s likely that the other family members need help as well. Before you can begin healing from the ways addiction affected your family, it’s first important to learn about the different roles family members assume when touched by drug or alcohol addiction.

Families Affected by Addiction & The Roles They Assume

Therapists and addiction experts recognize six specific and common roles that family members assume while coping with a loved one’s drug or alcohol addiction. While each role is unique, they all reflect the different ways upon which addiction affects families.

The Addict

The first and most obvious role is the addict. Without this role, its unlikely that the others would exist. Drug and alcohol addiction are complex diseases characterized by an uncontrollable impulse to abuse substances regardless of the consequences. This person won’t let anything get in the way of getting their next fix – even if it means hurting the people they love. This person may isolate, blame others for his or her behavior, lie, cheat, steal, and bring nothing but chaos into the home. As a result, it’s easy to see how family members are affected by this person’s behavior and why they assume the roles that they do.

The Enabler/Codependent

The enabler, or codependent, means well but sacrifices their own well-being in order to protect their addicted loved one. This role is usually assumed by parents or spouses who care deeply about someone and will go to any lengths to make sure that person is safe. For example, this person may show any of the following behaviors and emotions:

  • Bailing a loved one out of jail or helping a loved one financially
  • Providing food, shelter, and security to an addict who is hurting the family
  • Feel as though they are at fault for their loved one’s addiction
  • Work tirelessly to keep peace within the family unit
  • Lies or covers up the behaviors of the addicted loved one
  • Experience a state of denial – or a belief that the loved one’s addiction isn’t that bad

There are entire books, counseling groups, and support groups dedicated to helping people who suffer from codependency. Although this individual always means well, he or she simply prolongs the loved one’s addiction by enabling his or her negative behaviors. 

The Mascot

The mascot copes with the chaos of addiction in the family by using humor. This role is usually assumed by a young child but can arise in virtually any family member who is experiencing high levels of stress. Instead of confronting the problem and dealing with it directly, the mascot makes jokes, plays pranks, and tries to bring positivity and laughter to the negative home environment. This person can be thought of as the “class clown.” Although laughter is a positive thing, the mascot copes with his or her loved one’s addiction by means of avoidance – which is never a healthy coping mechanism. This comic relief may seem nice in high-stress moments, but it’s unhealthy for this person to cover up difficult emotions. As a result, some mascots are known to display behavioral problems and substance abuse problems as well.

The Hero

Is someone in your family hard-working, highly motivated, and often referred to as a perfectionist? If so, this person is likely to be the hero when a family member is suffering from addiction. The hero is just what it sounds like – an overachiever who tries to save the day through his or her own successes. This person usually believes that maybe he or she can instill a sense of normalcy in an afflicted home. The hero role is commonly assumed by an older child who tries to provide hope and happiness to the rest of the family while the addict throws everyone into chaos. Unfortunately, the hero has a heavy load of pressure on their back, leading them to experience stress, anxiety, and related illnesses.

The Scapegoat

When blaming the addict for his or her behaviors doesn’t solve anything, families sometimes place the blame on somebody else. The person who takes this misdirected blame is known as the scapegoat. Usually assumed by a sibling, this person takes the brunt of the family’s anger and frustration. Consequently, this person may begin acting out and causing problems of their own – leading to further confusion and detriment to the family unit. 

The Lost Child

The lost child, usually the youngest child in the family, is the one that feels as though he or she doesn’t belong to the rest of the family. This person feels left out, invisible, and unheard. As a younger family member, the person experiences a lot of trauma and family discord at a young age without knowing how to cope. Furthermore, with all of the attention being placed on the addict, the lost child feels alienated and alone. Not surprisingly, the lost child is the person who is likely to have trouble making decisions, forming healthy relationships, and coping with healthy ways. This person is also susceptible to developing a substance use disorder in the future. 

Find Help for an Addicted Loved One Today

It’s obvious that addiction affects families in devastating ways. It causes family members to develop specific roles as a way of coping with the turmoil of addiction. That’s why it’s so important to get help for an addicted loved one sooner rather than later. You may think that addiction is only harming your loved one, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Addiction has the ability to devastate the entire family unit. Instead of allowing substance abuse to progress in your home, contact our addiction interventionists in New Jersey today to see how we can help your family and your loved one.

Medically Reviewed: April 17, 2020

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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