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Family Roles in Addiction

One of the things we know with certainty about addiction is that it always impacts the friends, family members and co-workers of the person suffering from the addiction. Whether the addiction is to alcohol or some other medication or drug, the "relational dynamic" of addiction is the same and no one escapes that certainty. In order to survive and function in an addicted relational system, family members learn to cope with unpredictable and often-changing moods, mood swings and behaviors.

The way that people living with addictions learn to adjust has been studied extensively and has resulted in the identification of some primary roles in the addicted family dynamic. The person with the addiction (PWA) is at the center (and is the focus) of the system dynamic.

The Enabler

In many cases, the spouse assumes the role of "enabler" (sometimes referred to as the "caretaker") to preserve the appearance that the family unit is normal and healthy. And while well intentioned, the enabler often keeps the PWA from experiencing the natural and normal consequences of her/his behavior. In doing so, the enabler is often viewed as a martyr because they frequently sacrifice their own identity and ignore their own personal needs. Enablers unwittingly keep the addiction in motion.

Children living with a parent who has opioid use disorder may take on the role of hero.

The Hero

Another primary role -- and one most often assumed by the eldest or most responsible child -- is that of the family "hero". The hero provides cover for the PWA and the family by being hyper-responsible and/or through overachieving at school or in other activities. And while not intentional, the hero assumes this role to help maintain the public appearance and perception that the family is normal and healthy.

Some children may take on the role of the scapegoat in a family with addiction issues.

The Scapegoat

On the other end of the spectrum, the family "scapegoat" maintains an equally active role in the addicted family system by diverting attention from the PWA. At school, the scapegoat may act out, display behavioral problems, or create drama that keeps others from knowing about the addiction. The focus moves to the “scapegoat” child and for some period of time the behavior of the PWA can be ignored.

The Mascot

Another similar role is that of the "mascot". And like the scapegoat, the mascot most often attempts to divert attention from the family dynamic but uses humor and comic relief. Some people think of mascots as court jesters, i.e., their role is to entertain. Generally speaking, mascots are very active and may appear to be in constant motion. The mascot sees their role as the entertainer and stays busy trying to make others laugh and stay busy. And during periods of relative calm, mascots may become depressed or experience anxiety.

Children surrounded by opioid use disorder may withdraw and isolate.

The Lost Child

Finally, some family members assume the role of the "lost child". These people cope by distancing themselves from the drama of the family, avoid attention and try to fly under the family's radar screen. Sadly, children who assume this role often seem to be invisible in many families and, avoid developing close interpersonal relationships. These children often have an exceptionally low sense of self and others tend to expect very little of them.

If you are a coworker of someone who is suffering from OUD, you may find yourself picking up their workload or making excuses for them.

The Work Setting

In work settings, co-workers and supervisors may adopt similar roles to cover up or compensate for the behavior of the PWA. A colleague who is close to the PWA may try to cover for their mistake or take on additional work that the PWA could not complete. A boss may treat the PWA differently because they feel sorry for the family and don’t want to see the PWA lose their job.

Active family involvement is a tremendous help in the recovery process.

Importance of Family Involvement in Recovery

Because addiction is a family (system) disease, we believe that the most effective treatment involves the active participation of those who are impacted by it. Family members benefit from learning about the recovery program that their PWA is undertaking. If counseling is part of the recovery process and family members are invited to participate, this can be especially helpful for both the family member and PWA.

Spouses and adult children may find a support group like Al-Anon helpful to learn ways to take care of themselves and avoid enabling the PWA. Alateen may be helpful for teenage children and for younger children there are programs such as the Betty Ford Children’s Program which also supports younger children and helps them deal with the effects of living in a household with addiction. In the case of work settings, if a company has an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) they may be able to offer support and guidance for both the PWA and co-workers and supervisors working with them.

Helpful Links and Resources

The following links may be helpful:



Betty Ford Children’s Program



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