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The Role of Family in Addiction and Recovery

Family Roles in Addiction

Sometimes, family can play a role in the development and perpetuation of an addiction, as the loved ones living with the addict might not realize their behavior is contributing to the unhealthy behavior. But by the same measure, the family roles in addiction can be transformed, with education and effort, to provide a strong support system for those in recovery.

Addiction is a Family Disease

The notion that addiction is “a family disease” has become almost cliché. It remains true, however, because many of the most harmful consequences of addiction affect not just the user but the user’s entire family.

For instance, in attempts to cope with a loved one’s substance abuse, families often start to keep secrets from one another and place blame on certain family members for the loved one’s substance abuse. They might also engage in corrosive behaviors like denial, delusion, and hopelessness. 

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence labels addiction “a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics.”

In the same way that individuals eventually need professional help to find recovery, the addicted individual’s family needs professional help, too.

Family Roles in Addiction

Famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While this may be true to some extent, certain specific family roles in addiction occur when a loved one begins to need professional help for an alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder. 

In her 1981 book, Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family, counselor Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse observed that the six primary family roles in addiction-affected families include:

The Dependent

The family member who has developed the addiction stands at the center of the family. As the addict’s behaviors become increasingly difficult to ignore or wave away, the other family members will take up the other roles in response.

The Hero

The Hero strives to make the rest of the family feel secure. They ignore the main problem and present things in a positive manner. However, the Hero is often operating out of fear.

The Mascot

The Mascot is “the funny one,” often making inappropriate jokes or observations about other family members as well as the situation at hand. Such jokes are meant to deflect from the seriousness of the situation or from distressing underlying feelings like anger or shame. In fact, these jokes or observations can hinder addiction recovery.

The Lost Child

The Lost Child is quiet and reserved, careful to not make waves. They often sacrifice their own needs to avoid conversation about the addict’s behavior or what might be done about it.

The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat often acts out in front of other family members, creating diversions to pull attention away from the family member in need of help with their addiction. Meanwhile, other family members view the Scapegoat with suspicion, sometimes blaming them for the addict’s behavior.

The Caretaker/Enabler

Aside from the Addict, the Caretaker or Enabler is a starring role, as they make all other roles possible. They try to keep everyone happy and often make excuses for others’ behaviors and actions. They are also very slow to mention the prospect of addiction recovery or anyone needing help. Such actions help to mask feelings of inadequacy and helplessness.

The Role of Family in Recovery

The bright side of addiction being a family disease is that, with a little education and effort, family can play a crucial role in addiction recovery. In fact, an effective family therapy program can enhance the chances of long-term recovery success.

Perhaps the key aspect of the family’s role in addiction recovery is emotional support. People struggling with addiction often experience feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and isolation. The family can offer a safe, non-judgmental space where the addict can feel unconditionally loved and understood. Such support helps build the individual’s self-esteem and resilience, which are essential for sustaining long-term recovery and wellness.

Communication within the family is another key aspect. Open, honest communication fosters trust and understanding. Family members need to feel empowered to honestly express their concerns and feelings. This promotes a supportive environment and strengthens the family bond.

Education about addiction is also important for the family members of any addicted. Understanding the nature of addiction, including its complications and triggers, equips the family to provide more nuanced support. Educational initiatives include attending counseling sessions together, participating in family therapy, or joining in support groups.

In other words, a united family front not only aids in the recovery process, but it also helps in rebuilding relationships and fostering a healthier and more resilient family unit.

Find Family Support in Your Recovery with Northpoint Colorado

Are you worried that a loved one might be developing an alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder? Call us today at 970.699.3132 or use our online contact form to get started with addiction treatment in Colorado.