• Octavea Noxolo Mbuyane

Family roles in addiction.

Updated: Dec 14, 2019


The effects of substance abuse frequently extend beyond the conjugal family. Extended family members, friends and sometimes our community may experience feelings of abandonment, anxiety, fear, anger, concern, embarrassment, or guilt; Moreover, the effects on families may continue for generations. Intergenerational effects of substance abuse can have a negative impact on role modelling, trust, and concepts of normative behaviour, which can damage the relationships between generations.


On the contrary in every family unit, each person has a role to play (or has multiple roles) to help the family function better and to maintain a level of homeostasis, stability and sometimes balance. When substance abuse is added to this dynamic, the family roles naturally changes in order to adjust to the new behaviours associated with drug or alcohol use as well as to continue maintaining order and balance.


Therefore there are six roles that have been developed by addiction and codependency expert Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse to understand how the family functions around the addict and includes how the addict functions around the family. These roles include:


  • The Addict: Many addicts feel great shame, guilt and remorse about the pain and distress they’ve caused their families. However, there are also those addicts who do not want to cease their substance abuse, causing great anger and resentment throughout the family.


  • The Enabler (Caretaker): This role is often assumed by a non-addicted spouse or an older child in single-parent homes. The enabler takes care of all of the things that the addict has left undone, including taking care of finances, ensuring children get to school and making justifications for the addict in social and business situations. The enabler is frequently in denial about the severity of the addict’s problem and will continually make excuses for him or her which as a result inflict the individual with a lot of emotional challenges.


  • The Hero: This role is generally assumed by an older child in the family who overachieves and appears confident and serious. Heroes take on responsibilities in the home that seemingly exceed their developmental stage, often assuming parental roles. The hero is obsessed with perfection, which makes the role increasingly difficult to maintain as the addiction progresses and responsibilities continue to mount. This role may result in the "Hero" having their social and emotional wellbeing being affected negatively.


  • The Scapegoat: This is the child in the family who habitually misbehaves and displays defiant tendencies in the face of authority. These individuals often get into trouble in school and at home, as these children move toward adulthood and he/ she may get into trouble with the law as well. These behaviours are reflective of a poisonous and chaotic atmosphere at home.


  • The Mascot: In an uncomfortable home environment, some individuals take on the role of the mascot and use humour as a coping mechanism. The mascot is aware that his or her comedy may be bringing a momentary sense of relief to the family and will continue to maintain this role in order to achieve balance and comfort in the home. As a result, these individuals tend to suppress a lot of emotions and always try their best to make others smile even though they are not okay.


  • The Lost Child: The individual who takes on this role is isolated from other members of the family and has trouble developing relationships as a result. The lost child has difficulty in social situations and often engages in fantasy play to distract themselves both emotionally and physically from the negative home environment.


When these roles are established during childhood, they become behavioural patterns that continue to play out and evolve throughout adulthood. This also inflicts a lot of emotional and social distress as roles have been shifted in order to adjust the changes that the family has to make.


Emotional pain and disruption are inevitable for drug addicts and their loved ones. Addiction is a family disease and understanding the impact is vital in the recovery and healing for everyone. We urge you to seek help through organisations for the family with an addicted loved one for emotional support. Please visit Nar-Anon or Al-Anon for more information or meetings in your area.

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