Addiction and Family: The Roles Everyone Plays

Friday, December 6, 2019 | By JP Emerald Coast

what role in family addiction are you playing

The family unit and the disease of addiction are two things that you hope never cross paths in your lifetime. This is because mixing the two can be disastrous. 

Today, more than 22 million people are addicted to drugs and alcohol in the United States. Each one of those people has connections with others who are affected by their addiction. The scars left behind where addiction once lived can create in families a ripple effect of pain, upset, and, ironically, further substance abuse.

How Addiction Affects Family and Friends

Addiction affects everyone and everything it touches. It is an insidious disease that, if you let it, can completely destroy a life. When a loved one is dealing with addiction, it can be extremely difficult on you. 

Of course, you are not the one who is using, so it is easy to think that whatever you’re going through holds little or no weight. However, it is quite the opposite. When addiction occurs, it attempts to take down everyone in its path, including you. 

You may start to experience increased levels of anxiety and panic, begin overeating to cope with stress, withdraw from others due to being overwhelmed by the people in your life, and so on. The closer you are to the drug addict, the more likely you are to be impacted by his or her use. 

Roles in Addiction

Since family functions as a unit, there are a number of different roles family members take on when addiction is active. Each role impacts and is impacted by the other, causing a level of toxicity that usually keeps the addiction going full-force. In families where a loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the most common roles that family members take on include the enabler, the scapegoat, the hero, the mascot, and the lost child.

addiction roles infographic


The addict

The addict is the person who is actively struggling with substance abuse. He or she can be early on in his or her addiction or hovering over rock bottom. Regardless of where the addict is in his or her use, it is certain that he or she is being consumed by addiction at some level. The addict serves as the “focal point” of the family, and his or her behaviors and actions dictate the function of other family members. 

The enabler

The enabler is the family member who engages in behaviors that ultimately allow the addict to continue to use with minimal or no consequences

It is common for the mother, spouse, or friend of the addict to fall into the enabler role. Whichever member of the family who has taken on this role may do things such as make excuses or cover for the addict’s behaviors, give the addict money, transportation, shelter, or other basic human needs, and even go as far as to accompany him or her on a drug deal to ensure his or her safety. 

The enabler constantly works to smooth things over, though the effects of the enabler’s behaviors tend to do the opposite.

The scapegoat

The scapegoat is a member of the family who grows defiant, often finding himself or herself in trouble. 

While the scapegoat is not the addict, he or she causes chaos similar to the chaos caused by the addict. The scapegoat tends to divert attention away from the addict, inadvertently allowing him or her to continue to abuse drugs or alcohol. 

And, true to the name, the “scapegoat” is most often blamed for the family’s problems. This role is often taken on by a sibling in the family unit. Studies show that males often exhibit their defiant behaviors through violence, while females exhibit theirs through promiscuous sexual behaviors.

The hero

A member who takes on the role of attempting to fix the dysfunction of the family unit is known as the hero. 

The hero engages in behaviors that he or she believes will bring normalcy to the family. This person is usually of a Type A personality, meaning he or she is a perfectionist. Therefore, when the disaster of addiction takes over the family, the hero can easily feel overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed. Often, as he or she continues to fight for a “normal” family, the heroic reserve weakens, giving way to personal issues triggered by stress, including panic attacks, changes in eating patterns, and problems sleeping. 

The mascot

In times of stress, such as when a loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, there is usually one family member who attempts to make light of the situation. That person is known as the mascot. 

In many cases, the mascot is the youngest child. This due to the youngest child’s classic inability to properly manage emotions, as well as the desire to gain attention from others. Unfortunately, family mascots tend to grow up and struggle with their own substance abuse problems, usually as a result of poor coping skills and deflection tactics.

The lost child

The lost child is exactly that: lost. He or she quickly gets lost in the mix, becoming more withdrawn.

Unfortunately, the lost child often struggles with developing and sustaining positive relationships with others and has problems taking on decision-making roles. This role can be hurtful, lonely, and confusing for the individual.

Children of Addicts

Children of addicted parents suffer both during the active periods of their parents’ addiction and after. The level of trauma that a child experiences at the hands of their addicted parent is dependent on factors such as his or her age, what types of drugs the parent is using, what his or her living environment is like, and so on. However, most children of addicts find that they share common ground with one another as a result of their experiences.

When children have one or more parents addicted to drugs or alcohol, some of the short and long-term effects of that situation can include:

  • Isolation from others 
  • Fear of authority figures
  • Fear of angry individuals
  • Struggling with criticism
  • Feeling overly responsible for others feelings and experiences
  • Having difficulty expressing and regulating emotions
  • Fearing abandonment or disappointment from others 
  • Being highly judgmental of themselves

Unfortunately, many children of addicts grow up and struggle with the disease of addiction themselves. This is usually caused by a combination of environmental factors and genetics. Also, children of addicts are also more likely to marry individuals who are addicted to one or more substances. 

Being Married to a Drug Addict

Being married to a drug addict is never easy. The typical characteristics of a drug addict (deceptiveness, lack of responsibility, unsafe behavior, emotional troubles) are often what become major issues within a marriage. 

When a spouse is addicted to one or more drugs, his or her focus is likely to be on using and all that goes into the continuation of using. Far less focus is placed on creating a happy, healthy, and prosperous marriage and family life. As use continues, resentments develop, anger builds, trust is lost, and the marriage can fall apart. Without the appropriate care, many marriages where addiction is present do not last.

Meanwhile, spouses of a drug addict can grapple with several issues as a result of their husband or wife’s drug addiction, including:

  • Financial problems caused by the consistent funding of drugs 
  • Social withdrawal due to embarrassment or feelings of shame 
  • Denial that their spouse is addicted to drugs
  • Interpersonal relationship problems with loved ones due to denial
  • Feeling the need to be responsible for everyone in the family due to the absence of the addicted spouse

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the current divorce rate in the United States is 3.2 divorces per every 1,000 people. While this rate is much lower than in past years, it still signifies that married couples are experiencing difficulties that ultimately end in the dissolution of their marriage. The most common causes of divorce include constant arguing, unrealistic expectations, and lack of communication. All of these are usually present in a marriage where one person is a drug addict.

Parent of a Drug Addict

When a couple welcomes a baby into the world, the last thing on their mind is if their new bundle of joy is going to become a drug addict. No parent ever wants to see their child suffer, never mind struggle with an addiction to drugs that can end his or her life. Unfortunately, this nightmare is a reality for many parents in the United States. 

Whether their child is still a teenager or has grown into an adult, a parent’s job is never finished. And when a child becomes addicted to a drug, it seems like the parents’ job has just begun. Some of the biggest issues that parents of a drug addict experience include the following:


Addiction is a toxic disease, so when a child becomes addicted to drugs, it can be easy to develop patterns of functioning that are also toxic. For many parents, codependency causes them to completely lose themselves in their child. When a parent is codependent on his or her child, it means that his or her personal wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of the child. For instance, the parent gathers his or her self-esteem and sense of self-worth from their addicted child and his or her comments about them and actions towards them. Being codependent on anyone, especially someone struggling with a disease as severe as addiction, can lead to poor psychological health.


Enabling Behavior

Parents are often the members of the family who end up enabling their addicted child. This is because the hurt that parents experience as their child is hurting is almost too much to bear. So, instead of allowing their child to “hit rock bottom,” parents may continue to enable their child to do things they otherwise wouldn’t if the risk of overdose was not present. For example, parents may fund their child’s drug use so that he or she does not have to steal or prostitute themselves for money.



With or without addiction present, parents innately worry about their children, even after they are fully grown. However, when a child is addicted, the parents’ anxiety can often reach epic proportions. Anxiety can cause problems sleeping, overeating or not eating enough, lack of exercise, stress, and psychological distress.


Friend of an Addict

The friend of an addict shares a unique role in the user’s social network, as friends can either be there to help or sit on the sidelines. After all, some people think that being a friend means allowing their friends to do what they wish to do with their lives, while others feel that being a friend means telling their friend that they need help when necessary. Plus, blood tends to be thicker than water, meaning that friends can sometimes remain on the outside, never really knowing what is going on with their friend.

Friends of addicts can experience:

  • Confusion regarding how to handle their friend’s addiction
  • Worry that intervening in a friend’s active addiction will ruin the relationship
  • Feeling powerless in affecting real change in their friend’s life since they are not legally family

Depending on how close a friend is to a drug addict, connecting with the addict’s family can be an excellent first step in getting involved.

How to Help With an Addict

Approaching a drug addict with the hopes of getting him or her to accept professional help can be extremely intimidating. It can be so intimidating that friends, family, and loved ones of a drug addict sometimes spend years dancing around the fact that the drug addict needs help.

If you have an addict in your life, you do not need to fall into a pattern of avoidance. Instead, you can help him or her in the following ways:

Do not be afraid to talk to the addict about your concerns.

That said, do not approach this topic with a negative, angry, or judgmental tone. Let the addict know you are concerned for his or her well-being and that you want to help in some way. Do not place blame or toss around insults, but remain calm and listen to the addict rather than writing him or her off.

Establish a support network.

The more people devoted to helping a drug addict get the help he or she needs, the better. For example, a drug addict’s mother may reach out to the addict’s friends, siblings, and extended family in hopes of bringing everyone together for a common cause. While many people have found sobriety with the support of just a handful of people, there can be power in numbers. 

Speak with a professional.

Whether it is a counselor, therapist, interventionist, or another addiction specialist, discussing your loved one’s addiction can open your eyes up to possible ways to help. Many addiction specialists tend to have contacts who can help you formulate the most appropriate plan for your loved one

Get help for yourself.

This is one of those instances where, if you do not get off the sinking ship, you will drown. You need to equip yourself with the appropriate coping skills and self-care to manage your own needs during this time. You cannot help someone else in an effective manner if you are not able to help yourself. 

Helping a drug addict can be frustrating, heartbreaking, and complicated. However, if your loved one needs help, doing what you can be the difference between life and death.

Addiction and Family Counseling at JourneyPure

At JourneyPure, we understand how addiction impacts families. We know that families struggle to function when addiction is occurring and continue to struggle even if the addiction is no longer active. Therefore, we offer family counseling services to help you and your family members address the issues tied to your loved one’s substance abuse.

So, do not wait. Call JourneyPure right now to learn more about our family counseling and other services. We can help.

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