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Addiction and Family Roles

When a family isn’t emotional healthy, everyone begins taking on fairly predictable roles.  Usually, this kind of family upset is caused by a drug or alcohol addiction.  But it can also be caused by any other disruptive thing that seems to overtake the family’s mental wellness.  The key thing is that no one wants to face reality and make necessary changes.  This could be someone with a mental illness, severe grief, or chronic illness.  All roles are meant to distract from the real problem

Since addiction is the most common reason for these roles to appear, I’ll describe them briefly in the context of drug and alcohol addiction.

Addict – This person uses excuses, minimizes the problem, and refuses to change their behavior.  They sneak and lie about their drug use and mishandling of their money because of it.  They deny that they have a
problem and make it sound or appear that others have the problem.  They allow their emotions to dictate their life by trying to cover them instead of being honest about them.  They haven’t been approached about drug rehab, or they have refused to go, or they have been before and have relapsed and are in denial.

Enabler – This is usually the spouse or significant other, sometimes a parent or friend if there is no romantic partner.  They stand by the addict helping to pick up the pieces, making more excuses, not exposing the problems in a way that can make them stop.  They sometimes try to help but in ways that end up allowing the addiction to continue.  Or, they are is as much denial as the addict on how bad it is and they block out all the evidence in their mind that this is happening (or was at risk for happening).

Hero – This is typically the oldest child.  They distract from the addiction by being the “good face” on the family by being an overachiever and being a rule follower.  They are the do-gooder,  but often resent this in the end.  They do all sorts of extra work but eventually still don’t get the love and connection they desire.

Scapegoat –  This is the opposite of the Hero.  The family distracts by blaming the scapegoat for anything and everything.  This plays on the normal tendancy of first and second borns to develop some distinct differences from each other as they grow and mature.  The Scapegoat becomes the black sheep of the family and takes the hit of responsibility that really belongs to the addict.

Mascot – The Mascot is often one of the younger two kids.  They distract from the addiction by being goofy and bringing some light into the family.  They try to alleviate the pain in the family, but often go overboard.  They usually get in trouble for this but the family needs this role to keep from getting too serious.

Lost Child – The Lost child is what the title says – they are lost.  They distract by not being a distraction.  They just go with the flow, don’t stand out, don’t make any trouble.  With the antics and achievement of the other kids, the low-maintenance kid is what the addiction family needs.  Unfortunately, the Lost child often stays lost long into adulthood and has a lot of trouble getting direction in their life, interacting socially, or standing up for themselves.

When addiction is addressed and managed, these roles can eventually dissipate.  But if a parent gets sober when a child is nearly ready to leave the nest, the positive effect may be limited.  A child of this age has spent their formative years in one of these roles and may need plenty of help making their own changes.  It’s never too late to get sober, but you need to know that not everything can really be fixed.  As time progresses, the overall impact of parental sobriety goes lower.

I did a feature on the Hero child in August and plan to highlight the rest of the roles in the coming months.  I had some great feedback on the Hero child and look forward to more coming from these themed
posts.  Thanks so much for adding your thoughts, everyone.

Addiction and Family Roles

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP is a practicing licensed mental health counselor in Nebraska.

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APA Reference
Krull, E. (2009). Addiction and Family Roles. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Sep 2009
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