Dysfunctional Family Roles: How Families are Affected by Addiction

Dysfunctional Family Roles: How Families are Affected by Addiction

It is a regular feature of family dynamics that its members take on certain, often stereotypical, roles in relation to each other. These roles change with the culture and with each individual family – but chances are, we have all known someone who is a stay-at-home housewife, a family breadwinner, a rebellious child, a straight-A student, an awkward teen, or a sweet and loving grandparent. What you may not have known is that, when situations change for the worse, people tend to fall into dysfunctional family roles that also conform to stereotypes.

In the case of addiction, the person with substance abuse disorder may begin to feel separate and disconnected with those around them, no matter how hard they may try to build a connection. But that feeling of disconnection may or may not be mutual, and in many cases, the reality of human relationships means that a change in one person’s familial role can cause others around them to adapt in predictable ways.

In short: the effects from addiction ripple outwards, beginning with the addict’s own struggles and continuing through the dysfunctional characteristics adopted by those around them. Below, we summarise the basic roles commonly inhabited within dysfunctional family systems affected by addiction.

When Role-Playing Becomes Unhealthy

There are many signs of a dysfunctional family shaped by addiction, but the tendency of its members to take on distorted roles is one of the clearest. These roles may vary, but tend to represent a shift toward the dangerous habit of co-dependency. At the centre of the group, of course is the addicted person, whose condition causes the family’s change in behaviour, and to whom the others are reacting.

The other family members tend to take on the following roles, even though they may not consciously know that they are making these types of adjustments:

  1. The hero.

    This person looks at the bright side, and tries to always put a positive spin on the situation – even at the cost of ignoring key signals that a problem needs to be addressed.

  2. The mascot.

    This person uses humour – sometimes inappropriately – to highlight the amusing side of the situation. While this may have the benefit of lightening some serious moments, it also can come across as needlessly callous and unhelpful in creating a supportive atmosphere.

  3. The lost child.

    This person stays out of the way, preferring not to engage with the needs of the moment. The lost child avoids most or all conversation surrounding the central issue of addiction, hoping to maintain peace by hiding from the sources of conflict.

  4. The scapegoat.

    This person takes the opposite approach – hoping to take attention off of the person struggling with addiction, by making lots of noise and acting out in an effort at distracting from the real issue.

  5. The caretaker.

    This person tries their best to avoid conflict by holding the family together, never pushing anyone, keeping home life in balance, and showing a positive face to the outside world. This person, in their wish to please the addict, is most likely to settle into an active role of co-dependency.

A Closer Look at the Function of Common Roles

In addition to the above list, other roles are often taken on by the addict as a means of manipulating others around them to get what they want. These are known as ‘the mastermind’ and ‘the problem child’ – named after the methods used to manipulate others around them into roles of co-dependency.

Some of the roles listed above may go unfilled, and some people might take on more than one of these roles, particularly in the context of a smaller family. There are three main lessons to take away from the current research on these signs of a dysfunctional family, however.

1. Co-dependency becomes a significant danger in all of the roles that family members play. In their refusal to face the needs of the moment directly, they may either deliberately or inadvertently act as enablers for their loved one’s addiction. In doing so, they risk adding further complications to the physical and emotional challenges that already exist as a result of addiction.

2. The behaviours listed above generally come from understandable (and often good) intentions. But due to the stress caused by witnessing a loved one struggle with addiction, they are often taken to unhealthy extremes. These extremes, in turn, lead to the formation of an unnatural home environment which may make recovery more difficult for the addicted person.

3. The stress felt by family members is important to understand and address. Failure to do so will often lead to the family members reacting in unhealthy ways, including taking on the dysfunctional family characteristics in the above list. Feelings of guilt, shame, loneliness, anger, and fear are commonly felt by relatives of addicts, even though they may not ask for help in dealing with them because they don’t want to call extra attention to their own struggles.

In such an atmosphere where unresolved internal and external conflicts are left unchecked, productive communication becomes difficult. Denial and blame fill the silence otherwise left by a refusal to confront underlying issues. The phenomenon of co-dependency leads to greater interpersonal problems even among those not directly affected by addiction.

Towards a Healthier Family Approach

The cross-section of a healthy family is the same regardless of whether or not that family is caring for a person with a substance or behavioural addiction. Clear, honest, sensitive communication is paramount, where feelings are discussed openly and a supportive atmosphere is maintained. A sense of responsibility and accountability is encouraged, leading to a shared sense that the people involved are in control of themselves, and act as the authors of their own destinies.

Individual family members must continually aim to improve themselves as well. They should guard against becoming one of the stereotypes that represent dysfunctional family characteristics. The way forward is through valuing the supportive individual contribution that each person in the family can actively make during the process of addiction recovery.

Contact The Dawn Rehab Thailand

The Dawn provides comprehensive care for those who suffer from addiction and mental illness. We offer special individual and group therapy sessions for family members looking to take on a more active supporting role for their loved ones. We offer effective counselling in a comfortable environment, while our extensive mental health expertise and 1:1 staff to client ratio allow us to put people and families together on the path to better living.

We also offer a complete relapse guarantee, including a free 28-day stay in our rehab centre in Thailand for any patient who completes our addiction therapy and later suffers a relapse. If you or your family is experiencing difficulties related to addiction or recovery, get back on the right track by contacting The Dawn today or call +66 63 048 4877 for an immediate assistance.

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