Family Roles in an Addicted Household

By Bethea Garcia

Luisa is attempting to get dinner prepared for her family, but she has already dropped a dish and burnt her arm. Her daughter Beatriz witnesses her mother’s familiar inebriation, and immediately intervenes to ward off another disastrous evening. The father will be home in an hour, so the daughter gets Luisa situated on the sofa and finishes the meal preparation. She sets the table as well. Prior to the father’s arrival, Beatriz rouses her mother and calms her. While mom sneaks off to get another drink, her two sons arrive from soccer practice. Both sense the energy and accurately assess the situation in moments. Beatriz shoos her brothers upstairs to clean up. The father Miguel enters after work, and he also mutely captures the essence of what is happening. It is a familiar scene. As they all sit down for the meal, dad discusses a business challenge. One son starts placing spaghetti on his head to imitate a jellyfish. He proceeds to get up and ‘swim’ around the kitchen. The other son veers the conversation to his mistreatment by his soccer coach and his science teacher. He claims he stood up for himself, but now has extra laps to run on the field and after-school detention to sit through for the next 3 days. Luisa may not remember all aspects of the night, but each family member is effectively working very hard to maintain a delicate balance of familiar harmony.

Each family functions as a system, and every individual plays a role in attempting to maintain the status quo of perceived balance and congruity. Each strives to avoid conflict, aggression, and often confrontation. To maintain this wordless solidarity, individuals within an addict’s family often unwittingly adopt roles that suit his or her disposition to uphold the system.

The role of the Addict is the most obvious. Luisa continually drinks, impeding her abilities to perform duties in the home, work, and communicate with her family. Luisa is in a state of constant chaos. She is the center of attention, with each person walking on eggshells to see how a given day or evening might develop. The addict may feel remorse, shame, and guilt for the stress and pain he or she is making the others endure. Common addict behaviors are lying, manipulating, isolating, and blaming others. Other addicts do not really want to cease the behavior, and their using exacerbates the personal issues further reinforcing the roles each other person plays.

Beatriz serves her family as the Hero. She is the individual who is hard-working, overachieving, and outwardly confident. She makes sure the evening home scene looks good. Beatriz acts much like the parent, caring for her siblings and preparing meals. She gets almost perfect grades in school and is always willing to pick up her mother’s slack in the home. She likely feels inadequate on the inside, as she is unable to control the situation.  She experiences feelings of fear, guilt, and shame, but these serve as an impetus to accept more and more responsibility, even if those exceed the normal range of duties for her age group. The Hero tends to be a Type A person who may be susceptible to stress after time living in the role.

Taking a closer look at the behavior of the silly son using spaghetti for a humorous show, he clearly has adopted the role of the Mascot. In his heart, this young man likely feels shame and embarrassment at the situation. He turns those feelings into comedy to deflect emotions he does not understand or wish to face. He observes how his humor lightens the mood and re-uses this tactic to deflect the feelings. The humor may even be inappropriate or harmful, especially when underlying anger rears; while it serves a valuable function to avert complicated emotions, it is possible the same techniques may hinder a person in recovery. Often the comedy emerges based on a need for approval. The Mascot defends himself with spectacles to deflect serious emotions and deal with his own pain and fear.

While one son in this scenario is a dancing jellyfish, the other child is facing consequences for defiant behaviors. He is acting out in other areas of his life. He is the Scapegoat. Underlying his actions are feelings of shame and guilt. He may feel empty inside and acting out in an oppositional manner makes a distinction between the warped family system in the home and outside systems such as school, sports, or work. Feeling anger and resentment toward the addict and unstable home environment, he calls attention away from the addict and accepts his status as the troublemaker of the family. He can turn his negative emotions (and those of his family) to his coaches, teachers, or bosses, thus relieving pressure and helping to maintain homeostasis. Often as adults, Scapegoats may escalate their defiance to include issues with the law as well as other authorities.

In some families, a person may make every effort to simply disappear into the background. In this case, the family member is likely to experience much of the same guilt and anger as the others, but he or she may also experience a deep loneliness stemming from neglect. Choosing to be reserved, quiet, and withdrawn, the one functioning as a Lost Child in a family system isolates and copes by finding solitary endeavors. He or she may escape with social media, video games, or other fantasy activities as the family does not demand overt participation in the chaotic home environment. The Lost Child may have further difficulties developing social connections outside the home.

At the dinner table, Miguel begins discussing a routine business matter related to his workday. His approach to the issue is to deny its existence. He has convinced himself that alcohol is not the problem and works diligently to not mention addiction, alcoholism, or recovery. Although in his heart he feels fear and inadequacy, he masks those emotions by presenting a happy picture to the world. He tries his best to make excuses or conceal Luisa’s mishaps by mitigating the consequences. He, too, will omit facts or lie to others if needed to cover up Luisa’s behavior. Although he is likely to feel helpless and inept, Miguel maintains contact with extended family presenting a rosy façade of his family’s home life. He is the Enabler.

In a family affected by an active user in addiction, everyone plays a part in maintaining appearances and perpetuating a damaging cycle of denial. The predictable roles are the Hero, the Mascot, the Scapegoat, the Lost Child, the Enabler, and of course, the Addict. In addicted families, no one communicates what they truly think or feel. They unknowingly develop behaviors and thought patterns to cope with emotions and the stress inherent in a dependent family dynamic. Ironically, each person is merely attempting to maintain balance and harmony by executing their expected, established functions. When an addict begins the journey to recovery, the family must similarly be willing to embark on their own journeys to reconfigure a family system that does not promote addiction. Ultimately the Riveras could experience an overhaul in the family. While Luisa gets treatment for alcohol dependency, ideally the other individuals will experience family therapy to identify their roles and be willing to make changes to reframe the family dynamics.

Peer Support for Families and Addiction