When we think of ‘roles’ in our loved one’s recovery or/and addiction, we typically deny or refuse to acknowledge that we in fact do play a role. Or, perhaps more accurately, fall trapped into certain roles unconsciously. This can be hard for family members to admit, as it implies that we are among the causes of the disease. Naturally, no one likes to feel blamed for anything that negatively impacts others.
However, it is important to have a basic understanding of the most common roles in the family when addiction is the stressor. Addiction is not a spectator sport, and when we are aware of how we impact a situation, then we then have options, more choices became available, and we can work as a team to support the overall goal: maintaining recovery. We become more skillful at managing our emotions, and stand firm by our decisions to do what we feel is right.
It is also important to keep in mind that we tend to fall into these specific roles because we care, and we want to see our loved ones get well and thrive. Because we are emotionally invested, we will at times make decisions out of feelings of guilt, shame, blame, and embarrassment - or make decisions to avoid these emotions. It is vital to understand that simply because we have great intention, it does not always lead to a positive result or/and influence.
Codependency and Enabling
Family members who experience a loved one battling with a substance use disorder endure many distressing emotions, including a sense of powerlessness. Family members may feel at a loss when seeing a loved one caught in the grips of substance abuse. It is a very hopeless feeling to watch someone we love self-destruct and leave wreckage behind, and this can make us feel obligated to resolve and fix things. This urge can activate unhealthy behaviors within the family unit, all in an attempt to maintain peace and stability within the home.
Two of the most common maladaptive reactions family members experience - often without realizing it - are codependency and enabling.
Codependency happens when a family member (or more than one) feels responsible for the addicted person’s behavior, including how this person feels. Typically, the codependent family member will accept the addicted person’s behavior and feelings as a direct reflection of self and have a hard time separating their own feelings from another’s. Most people in this role allow their emotions and behaviors to be controlled by how their loved one is doing.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration defines codependency as someone who is excessively compliant, avoids rejection even at the expense of their own wellbeing, is highly sensitive, and remains loyal regardless of the loved one’s behavior. Many of us in this role will often use “we” during dialogue pertaining to the addicted person, for example, “we think it’s time he does a longer-term treatment” or “we decided that…”. Most importantly, a codependent person will learn to anticipate the addicted person’s needs/wants/desires and readily offer unsolicited help and advice.
Enabling occurs when someone, who is often also codependent, makes it easier for the addicted person to remain in active addiction instead of seeking treatment. Unless you are the drug dealer and/or directly supplying the substance of choice, this is usually not done, either explicitly or implicitly. For example, family members may give the person money, provide a place to live, lie to cover up addictive behavior, or secure drugs/alcohol, because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t attempt - misguidedly - to control the situation. An enabler’s motives are usually driven from fear that the loved one will die, leave, or face other dire consequences without their involvement, even when it’s unhealthy. One of the most frequently asked questions enablers ask is: “am I supposed to just sit back and watch him kill himself?”
Common Family ‘Roles’ with Active Addiction
Enabling, codependency and other maladaptive coping mechanisms activate commonly found roles that are assumed by family members of a person in active addiction. The more rigid these roles are in a family, the harder it is for family members to function as individuals or as part of a healthy family unit. It also puts them at greater risk for their own difficulties, including mental health problems and even their own addictions.
Here are five of the most commonly found ‘roles’ within a family unit facing a loved one’s active addiction:
Role: The Star (also known as “the Hero”)
This family member is typically viewed as being super-responsible, and is often the oldest child in the family. The Star is often a high achiever, and performs well at work and/or school. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the star is trying to bring stability and predictability. At a minimum, the Star doesn’t want to add any stress or pressure to the family, and they feel (accurately or not) pressure to bring balance to the negative aspects of the situation.
The Star probably looks like they are operating doing well, or coping effectively, but more often than not it is an attempt to conceal internal pain. Family members in this role often feel a sense of responsibility to ‘rescue’ the addicted person from suffering from addictive behaviors and consequences.
Role: The Lost Child
While the Star seeks to stand out and bring positive attention to the family, the Lost Child seeks to blend in. Again, whether it’s a conscious or subconscious decision, the Lost Child thinks, “I’m not going to make any more waves in this family. I’m not going to add to the problem. I’m going to stay in the background.”
The Lost Child is typically very independent. People who assume the Lost Child role are much more withdrawn and isolated than other family members. In fact, they often avoid interacting with the family unless absolutely necessary. The Lost Child may have difficulty relating to other people in a real, meaningful way, and seek to avoid rather than to face difficult situations.
Role: The Clown (also known as the “Mascot”)
The Clown is all about stress relief through laughter and keeping everyone entertained and distracted from the addicted person’s addictive behaviors. This person will attempt to make light of the problems the family faces and seeks to bring laughter and levity to a hurting family.
People who assume the role of the Clown have a hard time when they need (or want) to be taken seriously. They can struggle when they try to get jobs, apply to school, or otherwise deal with situations in which humor isn’t the best approach. Like with all of these family roles, their humor and apparent light-heartedness is an attempt to cover up difficult emotions like fear, anger, and resentment. Many people in this role will often underestimate the severity of the issue, and prevent others from also making those realizations.
Role: The Scapegoat
Scapegoats are often the teenage children of a parent with an addiction, but they can be adults as well. Scapegoats often struggle with school or work performance, and can be outwardly hostile and angry towards other members of the family.
This behavior is often a cry for help, or a way of trying to call attention to the fact that the whole family is suffering. The Scapegoat typically feels resentful of the attention and energy the addicted loved one is getting from the family, even though it isn’t positive attention. The negative consequences to the Scapegoat can be far-reaching, as they don’t develop healthier ways of attracting attention and create more problems in their life as a result.
Role: the Caretaker
The Caretaker wants to make everyone happy, and feels an inflated sense of responsibility for keeping the family unit functioning. They are typically the one who struggles with most with codependency and chronic people-pleasing.
The Caregiver may or may not be codependent, but typically enables the addicted loved one in some capacity. They find it difficult to hold the person accountable for their actions and enforce agreed-upon boundaries. The Caregiver assumes responsibility to an unhealthy degree, which causes problems with their self-esteem, self-care, and independence.
Healing is Possible
In the short term, these roles grow more and more rigid as family members become cemented and trapped in specific roles. In the long term, even when the family members leave the household, these unhealthy ways of dealing with problems become ingrained and trigger us to continue to respond in the same unhealthy ways we had in the past, until we consciously make an effort and seek healing.
It is possible to break free from these damaging roles: however, it requires understanding and having the willingness to be wrong. Are you willing to consider the possibility that you are (or can be) in complete control of your emotions, thus nobody else can make you feel a certain way?
Recovery starts with each family member. All adult individuals in the family unit must seek to understand their individual roles, have the willingness to acknowledge such roles, and commit to recovery. Just as an alcoholic has to admit to their disease, so does the family. Everyone plays a role. There are skills families can learn like loving detachment, setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, and prioritizing self-care that put everyone on a healthier track towards healing.
Family members can hold healthy roles that encourage and promote recovery both for themselves and for their loved one facing addiction. Healthy family roles include holding their loved one accountable for conflicting behavior, creating rewards for positive outcomes, and prioritizing their own self-care and wellness.
About Passaje, LLC
Passaje, LLC’s mission is to help families heal from substance use disorder. I believe addiction is a family disease, thus everyone in the family also needs help and support aside from having the addicted person seek treatment. When families are not aware of their roles and influence, and/or are having difficulties managing triggering thoughts, it complicates and deters the recovery journey for all involved.
My wish is to help individuals in the family approach recovery as a team because no one can do it alone. Families and friends need help and support as much as the person struggling with substance use does, especially given the fact that tough love is not always effective. There’s a fine line between enabling and effective support. Family recovery is vital.