Mar 18, 2016 | By Tim Powers

Codependency Roles In an Addictive Family System

Addiction Resources Family Resources for Addiction

Roles in a Codependent Family

When an addict slides further down the seemingly endless rabbit hole of addiction, the physical, psychological and spiritual transformation that occurs as a result of their behavior can be both startling heartbreaking to witness. While the addict garners the majority of the spotlight in terms of getting the appropriate professional help, the addict isn’t the only one who will need intervention.

Addiction professionals fully understand that addiction is a family disease, and the effects addiction has on family members are significant and can cause severe dysfunction in how a family communicates and interacts with each other. In order to cope with the unpredictable behaviors of  the addict, each family member will adopt certain maladaptive patterns of behavior in order to cope with the addict.

While some family members may feel their actions are done with the best intentions of helping their loved one, the reality is their actions are only enabling the addict to continue their destructive behaviors. Additionally, these behaviors will further interfere with each family member’s ability to lead a healthy and normal life.

The following are the common codependency roles the family will adopt when dealing with an addicted loved one.

The Addict

The obvious focal point of the family’s duress when dealing with addiction is the addict him or herself. The addict is the center of the codependent family, and their needs, wants and desires becomes the absolute center of the family’s world. As the addict continues their behavior and takes over the family landscape, the other family members will unconsciously take on another role (which are listed below) in an attempt to balance out the problems that the addict is creating. In the event that the addict seeks professional drug treatment and counseling, getting the addict the help they need can start the process of getting family members the help they need in order to free themselves from the roles they are assuming.

The Caretaker

Perhaps the most recognizable codependency role in a family that is struggling with addiction is the one of the caretaker. The caretaker is the person that has taken on the addict’s responsibilities and problems and attempts to keep the family happy and in balance. The caretaker shield the addict from the consequences of their addiction and also hides family problems from friends and society. By taking on the addict’s problems, the caretaker also becomes an enabler and readily offers solutions to the addict’s problems that don’t include having the addict face the consequences of their addiction.

The Hero

For the family member who adopts the codependency role of hero in an addicted family, they feel they need to make the family look good and are high-achievers. The hero ignores the addiction problem and present things in a positive manner as if the roles within the family did not exist. The hero role in an addicted family is commonly assumed by the oldest child, and they will take on adult roles such as cleaning and cooking. If the addicted loved one in question is a parent, the hero will take on the role of caretaker. While the hero seemingly has their act straight, they feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame and may develop workaholic tendencies if they continue to assume this role.

The Scapegoat

In opposition to the hero, the person who assumes the codependency role of the scapegoat is defiant and attempts to divert attention away from the family by acting out. Those who assume the scapegoat role are angry, hostile and are constantly in trouble at work, school and with the law. Behind the confrontational facade, the scapegoat harbors feelings of loneliness, anger and emptiness and can often turn to drugs and alcohol themselves in order to dull the pain they feel.

The Mascot

For the family member who adopts the mascot role in this dysfunction family situation, they are the family clown who tries to bring levity and humor in an attempt to draw attention away from family troubles. The humor that the mascot will use will be immature and harmful, and it is a direct reflection of the anger and sadness they feel on the inside. If the mascot continues in their role, they will develop significant issues in dealing with problems as they mature.

The Lost Child

The lost child is quiet and reserved, and they will never mention a loved one’s addiction or voice their feelings about recovery. The way that the lost child deals with a loved one’s addiction is through withdrawing from the family unit, and they will give up their self needs. Because the lost child withdraws from the family, they become forgotten about and they feel tremendous feelings of neglect, loneliness and eventually anger. If the lost child continues in their role, they will lack healthy social skills and will experience great difficulty in making and keeping healthy relationships.

The Importance of Family Therapy in Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

As stated at the beginning of the article, addiction is a family issue. In order for the addict to fully recover from substance abuse, the family must also undergo treatment in order to address the maladaptive behavior that allowed a loved one’s addiction to grow and flourish. Family therapy programs helps addicts and the family by providing much needed education on the disease of addiction, and each family member can fully understand why the role they assumed contributed to an addict’s abuse issues as well as their own personal issues.

Through family therapy programs, experienced therapists can help the family unit develop a strong sense of support from within, and they can get the tools and support they need to become empowered in halting the enabling and other maladaptive behaviors and help them build healthy and positive coping and communication skills. Most importantly, these family programs help build resilience, and the family learns to support each other in their own recovery and in turn this provides motivation for the addict to find the strength to break the cycle of addiction. The family learns to detach themselves from a loved one’s addiction with love and allows them to assume responsibility for their own recovery.

6 responses to “Codependency Roles In an Addictive Family System

  • Phillip Robert Silvas

    8 years ago

    I like to tell u its awsome to read that u have 11yrs strong and going,I will. Some day soon find myself on that same path,I need to get clean for my wife& kids,especially for myself… God bless u bro.stay strong…

    • Wow that’s so encouraging to read! As the momma of a son with addiction since 16, ( he’s now 27) i can relate totally to the article. Thankyou for the great info. …. Especially being the mother we don’t know which direction to go half the time except into fight or flight mode. I’ll be starting my Alynon and reading as much as I can to stay well myself. Good luck and many many blessings to you all trying so hard to stay clean and sober. I used to judge those that couldn’t give up the drink, or drugs and now that I’ve been through this so many years in ashamed how I treated the down and out suffering. I can honestly say, I know it to well now. My heart goes out, I’ve seen first hand how hard someone wants to quit…. But soon is lured in….. It’s so painful to watch a loved one. Thanks to this article, I want to start the journey even more to help myself. God bless you all!!!

  • Missy Banes

    8 years ago

    Hi Tim. I would love to thank you for sharing & being real. People need to know & understand how addiction makes family & friends sick as well !! The public NEEDS THIS EDUCATION. OR There family and friends will LOVE THERE ADDICK TO DEATH !!!!!! The triggers & cravings are SO REAL AND SO TRUE !!! This site is so clear and on target; and so needed !!!! Yesterday was my 11 years of sobriety !!! ???? Witch I am so THANKFUL FOR. BUT I WORRY SO MUCH THAT OTHERS NEED GUIDENCE !!! In 11 years the streets and our Community’s are worse than ever !! THANK YOU PHARM. & GOVERMENT WHO HAVE ALLOWED THIS EPIDEMIC TO RUN RAMPED !!!! Thank You again !! For your hard work !!!

  • The lost Child

    8 years ago

    Dear Tim,. This is indeed useful information. Can you cite the source(s) used to compose this blog post?

    Thank you.

  • Wonderful article!! Me I have 5.5 yrs clean and finally ready it work on the deeper issues that caused m my addiction. I have fought to regain myself first then my children and missed out on a lifetime which now is giving me “new issues in life”. Could use some new coping skills. Maybe with ur 11 yrs you can guide me on which way to go to continue to heal. Thanks

  • I am an adult child of an alcoholic who has worked for over 35 years in the field of substance abuse education and counseling and will tell you that what my experience of working with other COAs and ACOAs has taught me is that resiliency and incredible adaptability are the norm not the maladaptive roles that are written about here. These roles steam from unsupported research from the 1980’s. Thinking in these terms keep people locked in negative and hopeless patterns of thinking.

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