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Immediate Access for help and advice

Family roles within chemically dependent homes

The chemically dependent family has been described as a closed social system

The family tends to isolate itself, its boundaries are rigid, and outside influences are not allowed to penetrate. This kind of closed, rigid system fosters tension. The tension is managed, in part, by each family member’s adopting a specific, predictable role. The roles serve to divert attention away from the alcoholic/addict, or to reduce the family tension in total.

Family theory writers have created a variety of schemes for classifying the types of role behaviour in the chemically dependent family. In the discussion below, one of the major classification schemes is presented. It includes the following:

  • The chemically dependent person.
  • The chief enabler.
  • The family hero.
  • The scapegoat.
  • The lost child.
  • The mascot.

In this scheme, the family is assumed to be a nuclear one, with two parents and four or more children. Also, because one of the parents is assumed to be chemically dependent, the scheme emphasises the adaptive roles of the children in the family. Furthermore, it should be noted that while some chemically dependent families have members who clearly fall into a specific role, other families will have members who exhibit characteristics of more than one role; others will have members who shift from role to role as time passes; and in the life of some families certain roles will never appear. Thus, the roles are probably too ‘neat’ for most chemically dependent families. However, for sake of discussion, each one is presented in its stereotypical form.

The Chemically Dependent Person

Within a family systems perspective, the chemically dependent member is not diseased but is playing a role, which is to act irresponsibly. This role has a homeostatic function. Typically, it serves to suppress more basic marital conflict, or to divert attention away from more threatening family issues.

An important aspect of the chemically dependent role is emotional detachment from the spouse and the children. One consequence of this distancing is the abandonment of parental power. The power is often assumed by the non-dependent spouse and an older child. The ‘first love’ of the alcoholic or addict becomes the bottle or the drug. Over time, the self-administration of the substance becomes the central activity in this person’s life; family life diminishes in importance.

The Chief Enabler

The second role is often referred to as the ‘chief enabler,’ or simply the ‘enabler.’ Often, numerous enablers exist in the family; however, the chief enabler is usually the non-dependent spouse. Enabling is a behaviour that inadvertently supports the addiction process by helping an alcoholic or addict avoid the natural consequences of irresponsible behaviour. Most addicts have at least one enabler in their lives, and many will have three, four, or more to keep them going.

From a family system’s perspective, the chief enabler reduces tension in the family (i.e., maintains family balance) by ‘smoothing things over’ – that is, making things right. The enabler often faces a dilemma: If he/she (more often she) does not bail the alcoholic/addict out of a bad, sometimes dangerous situation (e.g., a drunk husband alone at a bar), the substance abuser could do serious harm to self or others. A wife of an alcoholic once told me that she knew she was enabling her husband by picking him up from their snow-covered yard, but she stated that she had no choice, since otherwise he would have frozen to death. In many cases, the chief enabler is unaware that the enabling behaviour is contributing to the progression of the alcoholism or drug addiction. Enablers believe that they are simply being helpful, and acting to hold their families together. Though well-intended, their efforts often have destructive long-term consequences for their chemically dependent spouses.

The Family Hero

The role of the ‘family hero’ is usually adopted by the oldest child. This role is also referred to as the ‘parental child,’ the ‘superstar,’ and the ‘goody two shoes’. This child attempts to do everything right. He/she is the family’s high achiever, and as such appears quite ambitious and responsible. Given the family circumstances (i.e., a chemically dependent parent), the child is often admired for excelling under difficult conditions.

The family hero often takes on parental responsibilities that the chemically dependent parent gave up. He/she provides care for younger siblings by cooking for them, getting them ready for school, putting them to bed, doing laundry, and so on. The non-dependent spouse (i.e., the chief enabler) usually does not have much time for these chores because his/her time is divided between working and caring for the alcoholic or addicted spouse.

Family heroes frequently do well in academic and athletic pursuits. They may be class presidents, honour students, or the like. They are achievement-oriented and frequently develop well-respected professional careers. Deutsch suggests that many of them later become ‘workaholics.’ Some researchers even claim that family heroes are prone to ‘Type A’ behaviour as adults. This is a behaviour pattern characterised by competitiveness, hostility, time urgency, and an obsession with work, among other features. Such individuals may be susceptible to stress-related disease (e.g., stomach ulcer, coronary heart disease).

The family hero reduces tension in the family simply by doing everything ‘right’. The hero is the source of pride for the family, inspiring desperately needed hope and giving the family something to feel good about. The hero’s accomplishments are distinctions around which the family members can rally and say to themselves “‘we’re not so bad after all”.

The Scapegoat

The ‘scapegoat’ role is often adopted by the second oldest child. The scapegoat can be viewed as the alter ego of the family hero. This child does very little right and is quite rebellious, perhaps even antisocial. Scapegoats may be involved in fights, theft, or other trouble at school or in the community; they are often labelled ‘juvenile delinquents.’ Male scapegoats may be violent, while female scapegoats may express themselves by running away or engaging in promiscuous sexual activity. Scapegoats of both genders most often abuse alcohol and drugs themselves.

A child in the scapegoat role seem to identify with the chemically dependent parent, not only in terms of substance abuse but in other ways as well (e.g., attitude toward authority, attitude toward the opposite sex, vocational interests, etc.). The scapegoat typically feels inferior to the family hero; still, the two of them are usually very close emotionally, despite the differences in their behaviour. This special bond may continue throughout adulthood.

This child is referred to as the ‘scapegoat’ because he/she is the object of the chemically dependent parent’s misdirected frustration and rage. The child may be abused both emotionally and physically by this parent. This is especially true when the chemically dependent parent is the father and the scapegoat his son. In effect, the scapegoat becomes, in common parlance, ‘his father’s son.’ That is, the son, filled with his father’s anger and rage, adopts his father’s self-destructive and antisocial tendencies. He models himself after his father, despite hating him.

The scapegoat expresses the family’s frustration and anger. The child in this role maintains family balance by directing some of the blame from the chemically dependent parent to himself/herself. This allows the chemically dependent parent to blame someone else for his/her own drinking and drugging. It also shields the chemically dependent parent from some of the blame and resentment that would have been directed at him/her; this process of diversion allows the addiction to progress further.

The Lost Child

Even in functional families, the middle children are thought to get less attention than their siblings, and seem less certain of their contribution to the family. This tendency is exacerbated in chemically dependent families. The ‘lost child’ may be a middle child but may also be the youngest. The chief characteristic of the lost child is seeking to avoid conflict at all costs. Such children tend to feel powerless and are described as ‘very quiet,’ ’emotionally disturbed,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘isolated,’ ‘withdrawn,’ and so on. These children tend to be forgotten, as they are very shy. They are followers, not leaders. They engage in much fantasy. If they stand out in school in any way, it is by virtue of poor attendance. If asked to do something they fear doing, they may pretend not to have heard the instructions or claim not to understand them. These behaviours point to a great deal of insecurity.

According to Deutsch, the lost child is probably the most difficult child in a dysfunctional family to help. He/she may not have close friends or other systems outside the family for emotional support. Also, the child’s behaviour is usually not disruptive in school; hence, teachers and counsellors do not identify him/her as needy.

As adults, lost children exhibit a variety of mental health problems. They may complain of anxiety and/or depression and obtain psychotherapy. They have difficulty with developmental transitions because they fear taking risks. Thus, they may put off making decisions about careers or where to live. They may also back out of intimate relationships once someone starts to get too close.

According to Deutsch, lost children may or may not abuse alcohol and drugs. If they do, their drug of choice is usually different from that used by their chemically dependent parents. The lost child helps maintain balance in the family by simply disappearing – that is, by not requiring any attention. In essence, the youngster in this role supports the family equilibrium by causing no new problems and requiring minimal attention. In the extreme, the lost child will think, ‘If I killed myself, Mum and Dad would have one less thing to worry about’.

The Mascot

The last commonly described role is that of the ‘mascot.’ This role is also referred to as the ‘family clown,’ or simply the ‘clown.’ The youngest child in the family often adopts the role of the mascot. Everyone in the family likes the mascot and is comfortable with having him/her around. The family usually views the mascot as the most fragile and vulnerable; thus, he/she tends to be the object of protection. Deutsch notes that even the chemically dependent parent treats the mascot with kindness most of the time.

Mascots often act silly and make jokes, even at their own expense. The clownish behaviour acts as a defence against feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. They often have a dire need for approval from others. As adults, they are very likeable but appear anxious. Deutsch believes that they may self-medicate with alcohol and/or tranquillizers.

The child in the mascot role helps maintain family homeostasis by bringing laughter and fun into the home. By ‘clowning around’ and making jokes, he/she brightens the family atmosphere, becoming a counter-balance against the tension that is so prevalent and oppressive in dysfunctional families. The mascot may be the one family member that no one has a complaint about.

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