Role reversal: Addressing unhealthy family roles to deal with addiction

August 11, 2016 | by Terry Ciszek, LCSW, CSADC
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

We usually think of roles as the parts actors play in movies and TV shows. But we all play starring roles in our normal lives: student, employee, spouse, sibling, friend. The list goes on and on because we adjust our roles based on our circumstances and the people in our lives.

Roles are usually healthy means of dealing with our environment. But the families who have to cope with a loved one’s addiction operate differently.

Dr. Claudia Black, an expert in family systems and substance use disorders, has done great work on families with a member who’s dependent on drugs or alcohol. Dr. Black has identified three unhealthy rules these families follow that have a profound effect on everyone involved:

  • Don’t Talk
  • Don’t Feel
  • Don’t Trust

I see families all the time in our clinic in Naperville who have unconsciously adopted one or more of these. They’re trying to minimize the pain and shame they feel from their loved one’s addiction. In reality, these rules force family members into unhealthy, rigid roles when they think about themselves and the world.

Dr. Black has identified several roles family members may assume when dealing with addiction in their households. The more rigid these roles are in a family, the harder it is for family members to function well. It also puts them at greater risk for difficulties down the road, including mental health problems and even their own addictions.

Addiction role: The enabler

The enabler is the most common role within families dealing with addiction (apart from the addict). The enabler is often a spouse or parent of the addict.

Enablers try to protect their addicted family members from the consequences of their actions, cover up problems the addicts cause, or take on the responsibilities the addicts let slip. Enablers may even believe the addiction is their fault. I wrote in another blog about a scenario in which a husband blamed his home’s clutter and noise for his addiction. The wife tried to clean and keep the house quiet with the false hope she could control her husband’s addiction trigger.

This is classic enabling behavior, and it doesn’t help the addict face the reality of the problem. If you’re an enabler, you’re trying to help your family the best way you know how, but you’re really doing the wrong things for the right reasons.

Without getting help, the enabler will work to minimize the consequences of the addict’s actions to keep the family on course. And the addict will have little motivation to get help for the addiction that started the family’s problems in the first place.

Addiction role: The star

This family member, also known as “the super-responsible” or “the hero,” is often a teenager and often the oldest child in the family. In some form, stars are extremely high achievers. Stars often shine at school — in the classroom, on stage or on the field. Stars can be parents, too. The star might be the super-professional mom or dad who’s extremely successful at work and who shows no signs of the problems at home.

Whether it’s a conscious or subconscious effort, stars try to bring stability and praise to a family in pain. They feel pressured to bring balance to the negative aspects of the addict’s condition with excellence in one form or another.

If you’re a star, it probably looks like you’re doing fantastically well. But that’s just a cover for the pain you feel inside.

Addiction 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 says, “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 be quiet.

The lost child is extremely independent. People who assume the lost child role are much more withdrawn and isolated than other family members. In fact, lost children often cope by avoiding their families altogether. If you’re a lost child, you may have difficulty relating to other people in a real, meaningful way.

Addiction role: The clown

Also known by some as “the mascot,” the clown is all about the comic relief. This person can make anybody laugh. Clowns can make fun of the problems their families face. The clown tries to control stress and pain by turning them into a big joke. The clown wants to bring some laughter to a hurting family.

The difficulty with this role: When clowns grow up, nobody takes them seriously. Clowns often have problems when they try to get jobs, apply to universities, or otherwise deal with situations in which humor isn’t the best approach. People may only see them in that clown role, which limits their options.

Addiction role: The scapegoat

The scapegoat is the last role we often see in our clinic. The scapegoat thinks, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Scapegoats are often the teenage children of a parent with an addiction. Scapegoats may be truant from school, steal, or even use alcohol or drugs themselves. This may be a conscious cry for help — a way of saying, “Please shine a light on my family. We all need help.” Or it may be just a way to cope. Either way, the scapegoat acts out to draw attention to the family. Unfortunately, the scapegoat seeks negative attention instead of the star’s positive attention.

Recognize the risks of family roles related to addiction

We know children of people with substance abuse may be at higher genetic risk for their own substance use disorders. These children may have inherited a physiological system that leads their brains and bodies to react differently to alcohol and drugs than most of the population. Rigid roles and limited ability to express emotions only add to the risk.

These roles may seem to be safe, secure parts to play in a household facing the pain of addiction. But in both the short and long terms, these roles are harmful and limit life and relationships.

In the short term, these roles grow more and more rigid as family members become more locked into them. In the long term, even when the family members leave the household, those inflexible ways of dealing with problems stick around if we don’t identify and treat them.

Stars burn out while they seek positive attention and accolades. So many people in the star role have to numb their own sense of failure at their attempts to bring balance to their families. And what have they seen family members use to numb unwanted feelings? Alcohol or drugs.

I’ve seen the burnout that stars can face firsthand. Several years ago, I was at a gathering of doctors who were recovering from substance use. There were about 300 doctors in the room, and I asked, “How many of you were the star in your addicted family growing up?” More than half of the audience stood up.

The star isn’t the only family role that can lead to danger. Both the lost child and the scapegoat may be at even greater risk. The lost child’s isolation often leads to a lack of healthy skills in social relationships. That puts those in this role at risk for their own addictions, because lost children may use alcohol and drugs to numb the pain and isolation they feel.

As for scapegoats, they may immediately act out by using alcohol, marijuana, heroin or any number of drugs in order to get attention. That behavior usually only gets worse. Scapegoats who use drugs or alcohol may not even equate their own substance uses with those of their addicted family members. I’ve seen many teens come to our clinic whose parents are alcoholics, and I ask them, “Do you drink?” They often answer that they’d never drink because they’ve seen what it does to their dads or moms. But they smoke marijuana every day, and they don’t see the connection between the two behaviors.

How to break out of your role and get help

The key to happiness and success is flexibility in dealing with life’s challenges. When we limit ourselves to one way of doing things, we can’t learn the coping skills we need to handle unfamiliar, difficult or painful circumstances.

If you’re a family member of someone with a substance use disorder, it’s important for you to seek out your own help — whether or not your loved one gets help. When you learn about the unhealthy ways you process your feelings and how your predetermined role affects you, you change. You learn new ways to express yourself and meet the challenges you face.

Support groups are great places to learn how addiction affects you as a family member. You can share your story with people who have been there and know what you’re going through. We work with several great support groups, and we can help you to find one that best fits your situation.

Don’t get stuck in one of these unhealthy family roles and think you can’t escape. There’s a better way to handle the challenges of a family facing addiction. We can help you find the path to a healthier, happier life.

If your family needs help to deal with addiction, fill out this assessment form online, and one of our team members will contact you. You can also call us at 630-305-5027.


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