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Understanding Impacts of Addiction in Families

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Addiction is undoubtedly one of the most ravaging, destructive diseases on Earth. Fortunately, there are countless resources to better understand the insidious nature of addiction, as well as to support the people who struggle with it. There are, to name a few: self-help groups, therapy, books, memoirs, TED Talks, and research endeavors. There are more avenues now than ever before to help us learn about, for example, adverse childhood experiences and genetic precursors - just a couple of the myriad risk factors of the disease. Such resources have indeed been helpful to me, but they were unable to completely capture the scope of impact. It was by sitting with clients and their loved ones, hearing their individual experiences, that I more fully realized how addiction can impact members of a group or a family in so many different ways.

In my previous job as a therapist at a residential addiction treatment facility, I pored over the latest research and my grad school textbooks. I hoped to find the possibility of common threads in my clients' respective background stories. What I found in one book, Dr. Todd Lewis's (2014) Substance Abuse and Addiction Treatment, proved to be reflective of many people's experiences around intergenerational addiction. Dr. Lewis tells us the story of Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse's theory on how family members attempt to navigate life when unwelcome addiction descends upon loved ones and the home.

Ms. Wegscheider-Cruse, an addiction education powerhouse, developed a model of understanding the presence of addiction within families, known as Family Roles. These roles apply to each member of a family in which at least one individual struggles with addiction of one sort or another (i.e. alcohol, cocaine, gambling, sex, etc.). The model proposes that no matter how overt the individual's addiction may be, the other family members will unconsciously adapt to the tension and disruption that the addiction inevitably brings into the system. The various family roles and behaviors (summarized below) are an effort to compensate or even distract from the chaos brought upon the household by the addiction. Keep in mind, of course, that despite some of the more common patterns across families, we are all unique individuals. Plenty of clients have told me that they have identified with more than one of the family roles across different seasons of their lives. I hope that the descriptions below can serve as an initial springboard to better understand the complexities within families who encounter a crisis such as addiction.

One of the most common roles in a family impacted by addiction is the Caretaker, or the Primary Enabler. This person is often the partner or a parent of an addicted individual. The Caretaker often seeks to protect the struggling individual, but to both of their detriments: in their most dysfunctional state, the Caretaker minimizes or covers for the addiction, at times keeping it a complete secret to those outside of the family. In doing so, the Caretaker indirectly shields the addicted person from the full consequences of their destructive actions.

Other family members, often older children, may gradually take on more of the parenting responsibilities that were displaced as a result of the addiction. The Hero, or the Golden Child has been characterized as a responsible, high-achieving individual at school and in public. I have worked with adult clients, whose parents suffered from addiction, who frequently related to growing up as their family's Hero. Despite their maturity and successes, my clients related to a common experience of growing up far too quickly. They remember facing immense pressure, out of necessity for the family's protection, and have forgotten their own needs along the way.

The Scapegoat, often a middle child, exhibits rebellious, envelope-pushing behaviors - all in an unconscious attempt to distract from the sense of helplessness caused by the addiction of the family member. The Scapegoat often bears intense anger and resentment towards the Caretaker and/or the Hero for their unwillingness or inability to protect the family from the effects of the addiction. Curiously, I have found that individuals who took on the Scapegoat role shared a close relationship, even feelings of sympathy, with the addicted person.

The Lost Child might put on a mask of sorts, in that they appear well-behaved, quiet, and polite. Below the surface, however, is a different story of avoidance, internalized guilt, and inadequacy. The Lost Child may desperately try to avoid rocking the boat or causing the family any further stress, so they bury their own turmoil and confusion. Like a volcano, the individual's submerged emotions and thoughts can erupt into severe mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and self-harm./p>

The final family role that I will detail is the Mascot, otherwise known as the Comedian or the Jester. Research suggests that this role can appear frequently in the younger sibling(s) of a family where addiction is present. The role focuses on lightening the mood, often through joking behaviors and humorous antics. While humor can be entertaining and even charming at first, it can easily become a crutch or a defense mechanism over time. Within the family, the Mascot can serve as one more form of distraction from the pressure and tension that lay beneath the surface.

Sophie Settle, Licensed Professional Counselor, is a Clinical Associate with Family Guidance Centers. She provides individual, child, and family therapy. She can be reached at 804-743-0960 or can be emailed at


Substance abuse and addiction treatment: Practical application of counseling theory, by Dr. Todd Lewis (2014). Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ.

The 6 family roles in addiction, by Katherine Schafler


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