Family Roles in Addiction


Family roles in addiction can play a key part in helping those suffering from addictions in overcoming their struggles and finding their way on the road to recovery. It describes an intricate interplay of family dynamics that unfolds to reveal how the roles we play in our families contribute to either maintaining or breaking addiction in our loved ones.

As researchers explored this topic more, they identified six specific roles that family members often assume to cope with the consequences of addiction, creating an environment that may make things worse, and is difficult to change. If you have ever questioned how you or your family can start to heal and grow from the ravages of addiction, then this concept will hold answers for you. 

Who Came up With the Idea of Family Roles in Addiction?

Family Roles in Addiction is a concept that has been explored and developed over time by many different researchers and clinicians in the fields of family psychology and addiction studies. However one key figure in the development of family systems theory was Dr Murray Bowen. Bowen first proposed the concept of family systems theory in the 1950s and ‘60s, proposing that the interconnection and interdependence of family members reinforces individual behaviours that affect the family system as a whole. 

As this theory was applied to cases of addiction, an understanding became clear that family dynamics can play a significant role in both the development and maintenance of addictions in individuals. The impact of addiction on families is massive, and with time researchers began to identify specific roles that family members may adopt as a way of coping with the challenges of living with addiction.

It often happens that the interplay of dynamics between family members reinforces the roles themselves, and creates an environment that traps both addicts and their families into feeling that change is impossible. 

What Are the Six Family Roles in Addiction?

What Is the Addict Role in an Addictive Household?

This role is occupied by the family member who is experiencing the addiction. Their substance use, or addictive behaviours, become the central focus of the family. 

What Is the Caretaker/Enabler Role in an Addictive Household?

This family member often tries to minimise the consequences of the addict’s behaviour on both the addict and the family. They may try to protect the addict from facing the full extent of their actions or provide emotional and financial support that allows the addiction to thrive. 

What Is the Hero/Perfectionist Role in an Addictive Household?

The hero, or perfectionist, tries to maintain a sense of stability and ‘normal’ in the family system. They may excel in other domains, such as academically or professionally, in order to compensate for the destruction and chaos created by the presence of addiction.

What Is the Scapegoat/Rebel Role in an Addictive Household?

This role is occupied by the family member who acts out in response to the family’s dysfunction. They may engage in rebellious or disruptive behaviour themselves. 

What Is the Mascot/Jester Role in an Addictive Household?

Family members occupying this role will use humour as a coping mechanism and attempt to distract themselves and others from stress and tension in the family. They may use jokes or physical comedy to detract from the seriousness of addiction. 

What Is the Lost Child/Isolator Role in an Addictive Household?

The lost child, or isolator, will often withdraw themselves from the family unit, becoming emotionally distant. They typically will avoid conflict and seek solitude to escape the chaos and pains that addiction causes. 

Family Roles in Addiction Treatment

Is Change Possible?

Yes, with the right professional intervention and support any family can recover from addiction, and escape these family roles. Family roles in addiction can become engrained over time, and their use as a coping mechanism can be difficult to let go of.

However, through counselling, family members can gain insight into their roles, address dysfunctional patterns, and develop healthier coping strategies to support the addict’s recovery and the overall wellbeing of the family. 

How Do Each of the Dysfunctional Family Roles Play a Part in Families Seeking Addiction Counselling?

In families seeking addiction counselling, each role may present unique challenges, resistances and vulnerabilities. The process of change may involve setting new boundaries, learning new communication techniques, and developing healthy coping strategies.

Each member’s participation is vital to the final outcome, and it is the role of the family therapist to help guide the process in evolving and developing the family unit together so all may grow into a new healed space. 

  • The ‘addict’ is often the primary reason a family will seek counselling, as their addiction causes disruptions, chaos and crises within the family unit. By seeking counselling the addict shows their commitment to change and responsibility over their recovery. 
  • The ‘caretaker’ may initially resist counselling as they tend to protect the addict and downplay the severity of the addiction. However, by participating the caretaker can gain insights into their role and learn healthier ways to support the ‘addict’. 
  • The ‘hero’ may resist counselling as it disrupts their facade of success and normalcy. However through this counselling process they may learn to balance their chase for success with more compassion and find more authentic familial connections. 
  • The ‘scapegoat’ may perceive counselling as an attempt to control them or their behaviours. But a scapegoat who can address their underlying emotions through a therapeutic process  enables them to develop healthier means of self-expression and find a more constructive role within the family. 
  • The ‘lost child’’s desire to avoid conflict and withdraw from family interaction may make them difficult to engage in the counselling process at first. The counselling space can offer them a safe space to reconnect to the family and strengthen connections that will ultimately be healing for them. 
  • The ‘mascot’ may need management in a counselling space as they may turn to humour or deflections to detract from the uncomfortability of challenging family dynamics. However, their participation signifies a readiness to address emotional issues more authentically and honestly within the family relationships. 

How Can We Get Started Changing These Roles? 

If you’ve identified with any of the above roles, or have recognised some of your family members, then you may be asking yourself what you can possibly do to start challenging these roles and growing into a healthier space. Luckily, recognising and acknowledging the role you play is an important step in moving towards a solution.

Taking the next steps can be challenging and may put you in a new, difficult, role if it is done without the right support and guidance from a trained professional. This can include ensuring that the person within the ‘addict’ role seeks formal treatment for their addiction.

The best advice is to seek a family systems counsellor, therapist, or psychologist who can support your family and complete true psychological intervention and treatment. Clinic Les Alpes is one such institution who can support your family with this process. For more information, please feel free to contact us. 

What Can We Do to Support Our Loved One While in Addiction Treatment?

Supporting a friend, family member, or partner through addiction treatment is a challenging process, and requires empathy and understanding. There are two aspects to supporting treatment that are crucial, particularly if this is someone’s first attempt at recovery or if they are experiencing a relapse.

Firstly, it is important that the family and that treatment provider are on the same team. Many who are undergoing addiction treatment will attempt to ‘split’ different people, either making up falsehoods, telling slightly different versions of events, or hiding information from some but not from others.

Collaboration and open communication between the two ‘units’ will ensure that the ‘addict’ is receiving a consistent message, boundaries and care.  The second, and perhaps most important aspect, is that one cannot change if they find themselves in an environment that is unchanged.

This is often why if we start a diet we might empty our cupboards of ‘junk food’ or why we find it so hard to feel happy and motivated if our houses are messy or dirty. In this same way, an ‘addict’ may enter treatment and change, but if they return to a home or family unit that is identical to the one they left, they will struggle to maintain long-term change.

We have seen throughout this article that addiction affects the whole family, and while your loved one is putting in work to grow themselves, so must the rest of the family. Seek professional support for yourself and your family, and make an effort to start your own journey of healing and holistic recovery. Clinic Les Alpes is one such clinic that offers that kind of support to family members of our patients. For more information, please feel free to contact us.

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Clinically Reviewed By

Brittany Hunt

Brittany Hunt is an internationally experienced clinician, specialised in treating addictions and co-occurring disorders. Having worked in the public and private sector, she utilises holistic and evidence-based approaches designed to empower the patients in their recovery journeys. A graduate of The University of Auckland, she has a Bachelor of Health Sciences majoring in Mental Health and Addictions, a diploma in Psychology and Counselling and a Post-Graduate degree in Health Sciences, majoring in Addictions. She is a fully registered practitioner under the Drug and Alcohol Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ).

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