Addiction as a Family Disease

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When addiction is present in a family, it is not the addict alone who is effected. As a matter of fact, aside from health concerns, the addict may be less effected by their addiction than the other members of their family. The mental, emotional and social toll of living with an addict can be extremely stressful. And, it can create unintended family dynamics.

shutterstock_417928768Children living with an addicted parent or other family member, will often adopt one of four personality variants which help the individuals within the family cope with the addiction. Unfortunately, these personal responses to addiction can lead to addiction themselves. These types – hero, lost child, scapegoat and mascot – have different characteristics and outcomes, but they are all responses to the pain addiction creates within a family circle.

The Hero
In general, the “hero” is most likely the eldest child. This individual believes that someone has to prove that everything within their family is fine. The belief is that if the hero can have good grades, play sports and shine in the community, there can’t be anything wrong within the family itself. It is this person’s role to make sure that people external to the core family group have a positive perception of the family’s function.

The hero may also become “parentified’. That is the hero’s belief that someone has to make sure that there is an adult presence within the group. Since the addict cannot fulfill their obligations, the hero does. This can also occur when the addicted parent is emotionally or physically abusive, or there is neglect due to the addiction.

Unfortunately, the hero will often sacrifice him or herself for what they perceive are the needs of the family. The hero is so busy taking care of everyone else that they put their own needs on the back burner. If this persists, the hero is susceptible to addiction because he or she needs something to help maintain the role.

The Lost Child
The next two roles are likely to be filled by middle children. As someone who has less of an identity within the family group, the middle child will often become lost. This individual does not know where they fit within the family and is often just a ghost when with that group. The lost child has to look outside of the family to find a sense of purpose and self.

Because this child has no idea where they fit within the family, they look to other groups to find themselves. This child is so desperate to find out who they are that they will gravitate toward almost any group that accepts them. Since the lost child feels like an outcast within their own family, they often subconsciously seek out other groups of outcasts. This sometimes leads the lost child to joining groups of addicts, partiers, or other kids who rebel and get into trouble. Within these groups, this child, who is very often sensitive and creative by nature, will find a sense of identity that they lacked within the family group.

The Scapegoat
This is another role that middle children often occupy. The shutterstock_57844939scapegoat role is probably the most essential to the functioning of the family. Everyone within the family group feels the tension and unreality caused by their family member’s addiction. But, the blame for this stress cannot be placed on the addict because of the danger involved in this dysfunctional family group. Thus, one member of the group becomes the “scapegoat” who accepts the role of the “bad” kid. All of the problems the family has due to the addiction, are said to be caused by something the scapegoat did.

By putting all of their problems on the scapegoat, the family does not have to look at itself honestly. Anything negative he or she does is magnified and used as an excuse for anything bad that happens within the family. Unfortunately, when someone is told that they are bad enough times, the role can become reality. The scapegoat may turn to drugs, develop a criminal record or do poorly in school because they believe they are that person.

The Mascot or Clown
This is typically the youngest child, or baby, of the family. From birth, this child is petted and laughed at for their cute antics and ability to make other’s in the family laugh. Humor is used as both a diversion and a coping mechanism for this child. He or she sees the distress which the addict causes and the mascot wants to lighten the mood of the others. They act out as a clown to cover up the humorless atmosphere in which they all live.

The problem for this person is that they are also playing a role for the benefit of the family unit, just like everyone else. Since the mascot has no true sense of self, they will sometimes turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. Since this person is a clown, and constantly fulfills that role, they will also have an external perspective when looking at the family. They often do not see themselves as a part of the family use substances to numb their reality.

shutterstock_113054002In General…
These four roles are filled by certain members of the family (hero-oldest, scapegoat and lost child-middle, mascot-youngest), but the roles are fluid. This means that anyone of the children can take on these roles. It also means that siblings can change roles over time. One of the middle children may become the hero; or, the youngest may be the scapegoat. None of these roles are set in stone.

Treatment at Akua

The professional staff at Akua realizes the difficulties families face when one or more members is an addict. It is often the case that a patient at Akua will be the child of an addict, so we use groups to help the individual discover how they were effected and how they can change from a role to reality.

To demonstrate these roles and their pervasiveness, group participants are split into smaller groups based on their birth order: oldest children, middle children, youngest children and only children. During the group, these individuals find that the roles they filled within their individual families were often very similar. It drives home the fact that addiction effects everyone alike and the participants can start to heal based on the familiar stories they hear.

Group members usually find that:

  • Eldest children took on a parental role. They also felt some resentment for younger siblings because they divided the attention of their parents. They also resented their parents for the position they were put in.
  • Middle children created a new, seemingly more stable family outside of their real family. They choose addictive substances to imitate the people within their new family and feel a part of the whole.
  • Youngest siblings find that they all got away with a lot, but that they were never really taken seriously. They live in the shadow of the older children. Parents and older siblings have no expectations for them and they, in turn, have few for themselves.
  • Only children often take on the lost child role and seek a family apart from their parents.

Addiction effects every member of the family and it is not easy to cope with the dysfunction. That is where Akua comes in. If you are seeking more information on addiction as a family disease, please go to for more information.

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