Learn / Understanding Family Roles in Addiction: How to Break the Cycle
One person’s drug use can affect their whole community. That includes family, friends, colleagues, and anyone close to you. Whether you or someone you love is in treatment for addiction, understanding family roles in addiction can help you heal.
Addiction always has a context. Most people turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. You might be dealing with mental health symptoms, trauma, or just the stress of daily life. Any of these issues—including addiction itself—can relate to your family dynamic.
To heal a dysfunctional family system, it might help to think about family roles. Family therapist Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse introduced this framework in her 1989 book Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. In it, she describes common ways that family members interact when one person has addiction.
This model isn’t universal, and it might not describe your experience perfectly. But learning about these different roles can give you insight into your own behavior. That newfound understanding can empower you to communicate your needs, set clear boundaries, and build stronger relationships within your family.
Wegscheider-Cruse describes 6 different family roles that support addiction.1 Each one has specific emotions, needs, and patterns of behavior.
The person actively using drugs or drinking is at the center of this dynamic. Even if you feel isolated, your addiction can influence everyone around you. That doesn’t mean you’re responsible for everything that happens in your family. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite.
Successful addiction treatment addresses the underlying cause of your behavior. For example, your addiction might stem from childhood trauma. Your family may be the cause of that trauma or they may have survived it alongside you—or both. Sometimes, you’ll need to let go of these relationships to move forward. In other cases, rebuilding them can be vital to your recovery.
The caretaker, or enabler, tries to protect their loved one with addiction. Because addiction and codependency go hand in hand, that can be counterproductive. It might feel like you’re keeping them safe. But in reality, you’re shielding them from the consequences of their own actions. And that makes it harder for them to realize they need help.
Enabling someone with addiction also puts the caretaker in harm’s way. You can find yourself bearing the brunt of someone else’s behavior. For example, imagine your loved one can’t pay their bills because they’re spending too much money on drugs. By lending them money, you risk your own financial security.
This person, often the oldest child, sets out to save the family’s reputation. They put on a brave face and work hard to achieve their goals. To outsiders, they appear stable and successful. While that’s sometimes accurate, it’s not always the hero’s primary goal.
The hero feels responsible for their family’s safety and security. They may experience parentification,2 in which a child takes on the role of a parent. Sometimes that means caring for their siblings or earning money at a young age. Heroes might also provide emotional support to adults in the family. People in this role tend to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed.
The mascot is like a class clown. This person tries to distract their family from the impacts of addiction. They use humor and kindness to keep everyone happy. In the short term, their behavior lightens the mood. But in the long term, it can lead to serious problems.
As a child, the mascot resolves conflict with jokes or distractions. As an adult, this can prevent them from building strong relationships. They may not know how to face communication issues or power struggles. And if humor is their primary coping mechanism, other people might not take them seriously.
Caught up in the whirlwind of addiction, family members ignore the lost child. This person might be “the quiet one,” or seem like they live in their own world. Perhaps they love reading, video games, or another kind of escapism. Without the emotional support they need, they look for other ways to cope.
The lost child is isolated, often feeling sad and lonely. Many develop an intense fear of abandonment. Data suggests lost children might be more vulnerable to personality disorders,3 especially avoidant personality disorder.
Like the mascot, the scapegoat distracts their family from the person with addiction. But instead of using humor, they act out. This person might start using drugs themselves, or spending time with friends who do. They also take unnecessary risks, requiring other family members to solve their problems.
This behavior can interfere with a child or teen’s social development. Scapegoats are at higher risk for educational, interpersonal and even legal problems as they get older.
These Family roles in substance abuse describe patterns of behavior, not permanent parts of your identity. Think of them as a tool for recovery, and not a way of justifying harmful dynamics. Understanding your relationships can help you improve them.
Most rehabs offer some form of family therapy. Depending on your program, this could mean anything from virtual sessions to an intensive family program. Treatment can help each person understand their family role in the context of addiction recovery.
Family therapy is available for families of every structure. You can look for a program that treats teens and their parents, married couples, or entire chosen families. Some providers have even more specific areas of expertise. For example, you can easily find a rehab program for LGBTQ+ clients.
Family involvement also empowers each person to heal on their own. In addition to group sessions, family members with and without addiction can benefit from individual therapy. This treatment offers you a safe, private space to explore your own feelings. You can also learn practical ways to improve your behavior, both for your family’s sake and your own.
Search our list of luxury rehabs to find programs with family therapy, treatment for loved ones, and other types of specialized care.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Substance Use Disorder Treatment and Family Therapy. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39. SAMHSA Publication No. PEP20-02-02-012. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2020.
Borchet J, Lewandowska-Walter A, Połomski P, Peplińska A, Hooper LM. The Relations Among Types of Parentification, School Achievement, and Quality of Life in Early Adolescence: An Exploratory Study. Front Psychol. 2021 Mar 29;12:635171. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.635171. PMID: 33854465; PMCID: PMC8039449.
Hinrichs J, Defife J, Westen D. Personality subtypes in adolescent and adult children of alcoholics: a two-part study. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2011 Jul;199(7):487-98. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3182214268. PMID: 21716063; PMCID: PMC3143015.
Return to Resource Library
Although addiction has no yearly time frame, the holidays can be a hard time for people with an addiction, those in recovery from substance use disorders, and their loved ones. Staying aware of recovery-related topics can help ensure that each family member or friend feels comfortable to celebrate. Discover recovery words of wisdom to inspire … Continue reading “25 Recovery Quotes for the Christmas Season”
Schizophrenia is almost always a severe and disabling mental health disorder. Managing this condition is usually a lifelong process; however, with the right care and professional treatment, it is possible to live a healthy and fulfilling life with this disorder. If you know someone navigating this condition, you can offer support during this crucial time … Continue reading “How to Help Someone with Schizophrenia: Strategies for Care”
We believe everyone deserves access to accurate, unbiased information about mental health and addiction. That’s why we have a comprehensive set of treatment providers and don't charge for inclusion. Any center that meets our criteria can list for free. We do not and have never accepted fees for referring someone to a particular center. Providers who advertise with us must be verified by our Research Team and we clearly mark their status as advertisers.
Our goal is to help you choose the best path for your recovery. That begins with information you can trust.