Written by: Deborah Kurtz, NBCC, LCMHC, LCAS
Addiction is difficult, and it can take a toll on relationships with our nearest and dearest. Our families are not just a group of people who live together. The family is a living, breathing, system that adapts to change. For instance, think of the last time a close family member had a serious illness. How did other family members respond? Some members become anxious, others take charge, others delegate and others may feel doubt or helpless unsure what to do. All responding in ways to cope with the situation and their own feelings. It is the same with addiction. Addiction can go on for years and behaviors associated with addiction can cause chaos, feelings of helplessness, shame and guilt – not only for the addict, but also for family members. Families cope by creating unspoken rules, like – ‘Don’t talk about the addiction,’ ‘Don’t trust,’ ‘Don’t express your feelings,’ and place blame elsewhere. These rules contribute to codependency within the family system and this dysfunction is displayed in the roles family members play to sustain as sense of normalcy in the family system. Let’s review these roles.
The Dependent is the individual that is the focus of the family. The family spends a lot of time and energy helping, controlling and protecting the dependent, to preserve the family system. If the Dependent continues with maladaptive behaviors (usually dependence on substances, gaming, sex/porn, work, etc…) family members will take on specific roles to help themselves or others in the family. This is done over time, unconsciously and with honorable intent.
The Enabler/Caretaker is the individual who the dependent is most dependent on. This person enables the dependent’s addiction and is usually a parent or spouse. They cover-up the Dependents behaviors protecting them from the consequences of their choices, thereby supporting their dysfunction. This “martyr” role correlates with high stress and negatively impacts the health and mental well-being of the Enabler/Caretaker as they carry all responsibility for maintaining normalcy of the family system. Both, in the home and outside the home.
The Hero Child Is typically the first-born child and is the one that is the “enabler in training”. They too cover-up and protect the Dependent with the goal of maintaining a sense of normalcy in the family system. They are sometimes referred to as the “Golden Child”, usually high achieving, athletic students, responsible, independent and helpful. They provide value and worth to the family. The family is proud of this person. Without help, the Hero child’s maladaptive behaviors can result in repeating patterns of codependency and enabling a partner with chemical dependence.
The Scapegoat This individual is usually the only identified problem the family reports. This person may refer to themselves as the “black sheep” or “outsider” in the family. They will get into trouble at school, will avoid close relationships, having a “back-off” attitude. The Scapegoat’s role is an important one, they carry the weight of all the projected family anger and tension, they take the attention off the Dependent person. Without help, the Scapegoat runs the risk of addiction, they seek attention through negative behaviors and this increases risk of unplanned pregnancy, difficulty maintaining employment, with risk of criminal activity.
The Lost Child: This family member flies below the radar, not wanting to be drawn into the family dysfunction. The Lost Child tends to be the creative loner, they present as withdrawn, quiet, without friends, are “followers” and struggle to make decisions. They provide “relief” for the family, “This is one child we don’t have to worry about.” They feel unimportant, lonely and high levels of anger. Without help the Lost child commonly struggles with depression, sexual identity and often die young, having a higher risk of suicide.
The Mascot: This person is typically the youngest child in the family, they provide respite from the family tension representing comic relief and fun. They present as hyperactive, immature and need to be the center of attention, may have learning disabilities and needs protection. They feel insecure, lonely, confused, and fear not belonging. Without help, they can’t handle stress, resulting in ulcers or other stress related health conditions. They continue to use humor to cope, can be compulsive and will frequently marry a caretaker. -Adapted from work of Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse
Why is this important?
Dysfunctional codependent roles initially appear to be solving the problems instead they are hiding the problem and enabling the dependent to continue their unhealthy behaviors. Without help, family members will identify with their roles, and continue these maladaptive patterns in future relationships and model them for the next generation. Mental health Counseling can help reduce dysfunctional cognitive-behavioral patterns and teach healthy boundaries and coping skills that will go a long way to reducing risk for substance use, mental illness and improving quality of life now and for future generations.
Deborah Kurtz, LCMHC, LCAS has extensive experience in working with the family system and the individual to move away from substance dependence. She enjoys a person centered style that focuses on therapeutic relationship, providing a safe space for individuals to heal wounds, change beliefs and construct a life that filled with meaning and joy. Her bio can be accessed here. She works out of the Denver location and can be reached at 704-483-3783 ext. 8757