Family Roles In Addiction: Can Family Help With Substance Abuse Challenges?

Updated May 22, 2020

It can be heartbreaking to have a family member that struggles with challenges from substance abuse. It can feel like a rollercoaster with ups and downs, twists and turns. And, you may be left wondering about family roles in addiction. Is it possible for you to help your family member with addiction treatment and recovery?

What is substance abuse?

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According to the Center on Addiction, 16% of people over the age of 12 have an issue with substance abuse. This can include prescription drugs, illegal substances, alcohol or nicotine. Some struggle with more than one type of substance.

Some of the signs that someone is struggling with substance abuse include:

  • Behavioral changes such as increased anger
  • Changes in social interactions with others
  • Change in sleep schedule
  • Difference in physical appearance: lack of taking care of oneself
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dishonesty and lying
  • Paranoia
  • Depression

Keep in mind that these symptoms can also be associated with other mental and physical health conditions too. Don't just assume that a loved one is struggling with substance abusebecause they have a few signs. But if you know they are using or you have good reason to suspect that they are, there is hope available.

Family roles in addiction

Knowing that someone you love and care about is struggling with substance abuse can be difficult to handle. It can be natural to want to find a way to help them through recovery. But it's also natural to feel a lot of other feelings around the addiction.

For example, you may feel sad watching your loved one make poor decisions that are negatively impacting them. Or, you may feel angry that they continue to struggle with substance abuse without caring about the impacting that it's having on the entire family. And, you may be embarrassed of what others will think of your family if they find out about the addiction.

These different feelings can lead people to taking on different family roles to try dealing with substance abuse.

The caregiver/enabler

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The person that fills the caregiver or enabler role is the one that works to keep addicted family members from suffering consequences for their behavior. According to the American Psychological Association, an enabler allows the person's addiction to continue. They can see that there is a problem, but they don't know how to stop it.

While it may look like the enabler is doing it for their loved ones, it can also be a selfish behavior. For example, they may be embarrassed for other people to find out there is a struggle with substance abuse. So, instead of allowing their addicted loved one to fail or suffer their consequences, they make excuses for them to hide the addiction.

It's also possible for someone to enable a family member in an effort to protect them. For example, it might be difficult for a mother to watch a child suffer because of their decisions and actions. This can cause the mother to try to do whatever she can to stop her child from experiencing their natural consequences. She may even worry that the negative consequences could cause additional problems, so she tries to put an end to it.

The enabler may believe that they are helping their loved one, but usually does the exact opposite. When someone struggling with addiction doesn't see and experience their consequences it can make it easy for them to believe their actions aren't as big of a problem as they really are.

The hero

The family members that play the hero are working to right the wrongs that substance abusehas caused in the family. They tend to be high achieving individuals that have high standards for themselves and their life.

If the hero is a child and the person struggling with substance abuse is their parent, the child may be out to disprove what others think they will be capable of. And, like the enabler, the hero may be trying to help the addict look good to others.

However, while the hero typically ends up being successful, their behavior doesn't come with its own risks. They can end up struggling with their own emotions and challenging situations. Their quest to make things appear perfect can cause them to struggle when life brings challenges. And, they may end up feeling overwhelmed because they take on a lot of responsibility.

The scapegoat

The scapegoat is the person in the family that's creating other problems that distract others away from the individual struggling with substance abuse. While they may be effective at taking the attention off the other individual, they create new issues for themselves.

Scapegoat behaviors can be anything from getting poor grades in school, not being able to hold a job or even having their own substance abuse problem.

The mascot

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Mascots are the comedians of the family. They use humor to help break up the tension that's created by substance abuse and addiction. Just like the scapegoat uses negative behavior to draw attention away from the real problem, the mascot does the same thing only using humor.

When a situation is serious, they may make jokes or act silly to lighten the mood.

The Lost Child

While other family members actively play their role in trying to deal with the behavior of the family member struggling with substance abuse, the lost child is quiet. They tend to be thought of as "good" because they stay in the background and don't add to the problem.

Instead of looking for a way to help distract from the behavior, like the other family roles, the lost child withdraws. This could include spending time alone in a different room or simply staying quiet when everyone else is chiming in on a subject.

Their behavior may be appreciated by other family members because it doesn't appear to add to the problem. And, it's possible that family members don't notice their behavior at all because of the other issues going on. But just because the lost child remains in the background and doesn't demand attention does not mean that all is well.

Their behavior can be helpful for keeping them out of stressful family situations. But it can also cause them to suffer quietly because they won't speak up when they need something.

How family can help with substance abuse challenges

If you have a family member struggling with substance abuse, it can be helpful to understand the family roles above. Being aware of the different roles can help you to see which role you may be falling into and what things to watch out for.

With that in mind, there are some things you can try to help your loved one:

Get educated about addiction: There are lots of resources you can find online to help you learn more about addiction and substance abuse. This can help you to gain a better understanding of how addiction happens and that it's not simply a choice your loved one is making.

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Try family therapy: Individual therapy sessions can be helpful for the family member that's struggling with addiction. But it can also be helpful for the family to attend therapy together. This can allow all members of the family to be supported throughout the process of recovery.

Focus on your own mental health: When someone your love is struggling with addiction it can be easy to prioritize their health over your own. However, it tends to be harder to deal with stressful situations when you're tired and burnt out. Focus on getting enough sleep, working some exercise into the day, and making healthy food choices. Also take time to do things that you enjoy doing so you can refresh yourself.

Don't make excuses for them: Your natural inclination may be to cover for the mistakes of your family member but resist the urge to do that. Allowing them to suffer from the consequences of their substance use can sometimes help them to start to see the impact it's having on themselves and their loved ones. This can be some of the motivation they need to start to want to change.

Set boundaries: You may also find it helpful to set clear expectations with your family member about the behavior you find acceptable. It can help your family member know where your boundaries are. And, it can help remove guilt that you may feel by protecting yourself.

Addiction treatment options for substance abuse

It can also be helpful to encourage your family member in seeking help and exploring their treatment options. There are different types of therapy options available as well as support groups that can help. If you have insurance, you can check with your insurance provider to see if there are treatment options available with coverage. Or, you can look for a therapist in your area.

You can also encourage your family member to contact an online therapist through a service like BetterHelp. This allows them to start counseling without needing to leave the house. This can also be an effective way for you to keep your mental health in check and address any stressors you're facing due to your loved one's addiction.


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