Whether gambling or alcohol is the drug of choice, addiction creates chaos. Addiction and codependency expert Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, Ph.D., identifies six roles in families battling drug and alcohol addiction. She says the idea isn’t to label people but to show how family members cope with a loved one’s addiction.
And each person copes in unique ways.
The Dependent, or substance user, plays a central role in addicted family systems. Dependents use drugs and alcohol to self-soothe, self-medicate, and numb painful emotions such as grief and depression.
Over time, however, addiction seizes control, and the drug of choice claims center stage, even taking priority over family.
Next is the Enabler, often the Dependent’s spouse. Enablers caretake Dependents through their drinking or drug use while downplaying and denying the problem.
However, by shielding Dependents from the consequences of their actions, Enablers allow the drinking or drug use to persist, as Dependents have no reason to change.
Unfortunately, Enablers may live in denial until tragedy strikes, forcing them to face the truth.
Often the oldest children, Heroes help the family appear normal to outsiders. Heroes fulfill the parenting duties as the Dependent sinks deeper into addiction, and the Enabler caretakes him.
Heroes are mature beyond their years, acting as miniature mothers and fathers to their siblings. These children draw their self-worth from managing these adult roles, but later, they long for the childhood they missed.
Next, Mascots are the family clowns who lighten the family’s mood, using humor to conceal the pain. Although these spirited children defuse the family’s tension, their behavior masks their fear and sadness.
Mascots gain attention by entertaining others, but they are more fragile than they seem. In addition, Mascots are the most vulnerable family members, despite appearances.
In contrast, the Scapegoat is the identified problem child who shoulders the family’s burdens. Many Scapegoats engage in risky behaviors to shift the family’s focus away from the Dependent’s substance use.
On the other hand, Scapegoats’ rebellion forces the family into action. Scapegoats are vulnerable, but family members’ frustration blinds them to the pain driving their unruly behavior.
6. Lost Child
The Lost Child is the sixth role in addicted family systems. Lost Children retreat into their inner worlds to escape the family chaos. While siblings try to shift the family dynamics away from the Dependent’s substance use, Lost Children retreat in solitude, unnoticed.
According to the CPTSD Foundation, neglect and isolation leave lost children feeling invisible, fueling disconnection and increasing depression risk.
Drug and alcohol abuse affects everyone, and family members each assume one of six roles. Each person copes in unique ways, but the family dysfunction continues until families break the cycle by seeking help.
See here for recovery resources and support groups for yourself or a loved one, and see these gratitude journal prompts and relapse prevention tools.
Next, see five things normies don’t understand about alcoholism.
Center for Growth. (2021). The addictive family system. https://www.thecenterforgrowth.com/tips/the-addictive-family-system
Davis, S. (2020, November 11). Lost child syndrome. CPTSD Foundation. https://cptsdfoundation.org/2020/11/11/lost-child-syndrome/
Meadows. (2021, August 30). Family roles in addiction and impact on recovery. https://www.themeadows.com/blog/family-roles-in-addiction-and-impact-on-recovery/