"Addiction and Family Roles--Changing Negative Habits With the Counseling Process"

Unhappy siblings sitting in kitchen with their parents who are fighting at home loudly

"It's a family disease"--Popular 12-step expression

Family Roles

     Family roles interact with substance abuse and addiction in mutually responsive ways that create dysfunction in the family systems and the lives of the members. Addictions are negative habits and also develop patterns that can be recognized. When they are revealed within the context of a safe and nurturing counseling environment, then change and growth can come.

     The roles for each member become comfortable for the member and through the use of feedback loops become the primary way in which the family maintains homeostasis and cohesion within its structure.

     These roles further define the members in terms of hierarchy, rules, subsystems, and boundaries. All of these serve to keep the family functioning at levels appropriate for survival.  Each member of the family finds their way within the definitions of their roles and acts within the confines and expectations of these roles in order to present a unified front to the world and continue to transmit the family’s value system to each generation.

The Hero or Golden Child

     Specifically, the hero role is usually adopted by the oldest child caught in the addictive or dysfunctional family. This child feels responsible for the family pain, and develops ways to anticipate the needs of each family member. As a result of this hyper-vigilance, the hero becomes quite adept at perceiving and reacting to the needs of others. This care-taking aspect of the oldest child’s personality is based on a performance model of self-esteem and causes this child to be forever responding to the needs of others at the expense of their own.

The Scapegoat

     The scapegoat can never do anything right. They are viewed as the cause for everything that is happening negatively in the family. They will attempt to try harder and harder over their lives to gain the trust, admiration, and love of the other family members. They never feel like they quite measure up and in their adult lives they constantly seek the approval of life partners, employers and friends.

The Lost Child

     This child will typically withdraw from everyone for their own self-preservation. They experience profound loneliness and a sense of quiet desperation. As adults, they will avoid conflict at all cost. They might suddenly realize as adults they have missed out on close, personal contact with others.

The Mascot or Clown

     This member of the family will joke about anything and wants to distract the family members from the pain and dysfunction in the room. As adults, these family members have difficulty expressing emotion and will joke themselves out of uncomfortable experiences. They often feel like others do not take them seriously and regret the fact they are now burdened with keeping every happy.

Confusion in the Family

     Now, because the family cannot predict when the primary user is going to abuse a drug and create havoc in the family system, the members of the family involved in this abusive cycle must remain hyper-vigilant to detect when the primary user will be acting out their emotions on the family. This constant requirement to remain vigilant causes the development of an inability to trust the primary care givers and impacts the family member’s future ability to trust others in their world. Finally, the family member constantly reacting to the primary abusive actor causes them to mask or shut their emotions down completely.


     Consider the fact that families create subsystems. These subsystems further define the individual roles and expectations of the family members. One of the subsystems created by a family is the role of the marital dyad. The marital dyad may consist of one abuser or both partners may be abusing substances. Each partner is about the business of maintaining control in the relationship, but each person is limiting the amount of chaos for their own purposes. These attempts at control are often done with anger and hostility. Codependency and enabling develop as mechanisms to limit confusion, maintain inner equilibrium, and present a unified front to society.

Negative Behaviors Can Demonstrate as Drug Dependency

     One of the sad realities of drug dependency and abuse in families is the impact the abuse has on children.  Children of Alcoholics (COA) begin to demonstrate pathological development at early ages and research has shown issues with conduct disorders, immaturity, low self-esteem, minimized social skills, and a high percentage develop drug dependencies. The addicted family environment is often characterized by confusion, chaos, indecision, lack of stability, and meaningful, authentic interaction between the individual members.

The Role and Benefits of the Counseling Process

     The counselor is an authentic, professional person who genuinely cares for clients within the structure of a strong therapeutic alliance and safe environment. It is within this context that past behaviors and emotions can be explored and how they are impacting present behavior.

     The counseling process has the ability to assist clients who come from dysfunctional backgrounds to live happier and more contented lives. Counseling can be of benefit to several different demographics and populations of people.

     It can also produce profoundly strong emotions that sometimes produce unanticipated reactions to pain and suffering. During these times, the counselor can provide a nurturing and safe environment in which these emotions may be explored.

    Over time and by doing the sometimes hard work of counseling, a client may very well experience a reduction in anxiety and depression. The counseling process has also assisted clients to improve relationships and ultimately increase levels of self-esteem.