Families of addiction: roles and characteristics

The organization and dynamics of a family can help its members find happiness and well-being. However, having a loved one with an addiction can greatly influence and change those dynamics as each person tries to cope with the situation.

Members may take on roles within the family structure that they wouldn't normally assume and end up abandoning their natural identity.


An enabler is someone whose actions support a loved one's addiction. This person may not realize well-intended behaviors can make the addiction easier to continue. Taking over the addict's responsibilities, making excuses and turning a blind eye are some examples of enabling behavior.

People often mix up being supportive and being enabling. Good intentions are quickly confused and individuals become enablers instead of being supportive.

Hickory House Recovery reminds individuals who are facing this issue to remember, “it takes a considerable amount of energy and resources to stay addicted. Often, addiction continues due to enablers.  Those who are addicted can identify family members who consider their help to be supportive. In reality, it only increases the addictive state.

The enabler's actions help an addict to shirk responsibility and deny the extent of the problem. Often stemming from a fear of confronting the reality of a situation, enablers become frustrated and exhausted. Meanwhile, the addict sees these actions as proof the addiction doesn't need to be addressed, often because the enabler is covering any problems that stem from their chronic use.


The hero is "usually the oldest child in the family and their role is to overachieve, and to be over-responsible," according to Hickory House Recovery.  “Many families conceal the loved one’s addiction. By contrast, they can point to one family member (the hero), with pride.  This family member becomes a pseudo-parent, taking on the role of a parent (usually), who is unable to manage his role due to addiction. They must maintain the household’s routine and prevent outsiders from discovering their secret.

When a family member takes on the role of hero, the focus is on preserving the perception of normalcy. Heroes may take on responsibilities they wouldn't have otherwise and try to overcompensate by excelling in their performance at work or school. They frequently internalize the need for routine, working harder to create “sameness” of their family to others they are familiar with.


A scapegoat is someone or something that is assigned undeserved blame. When one member is treated as a scapegoat, the family and/or addict is blaming them for the issue.

"Usually there is a breaking point with stress over the addicted person’s behavior, the scapegoat becomes the target for releasing this anger and feelings of frustration,” Hickory House Recovery points out.

Lost child

This role is assumed by the child who feels unloved and uncared for. This person learns the best way to survive at home is to keep a low profile.  Often this family member will be easily forgotten or overlooked. 

“Unfortunately, this member can be a prime target for substance and alcohol abuse,” shares Hickory House Recovery.  “They go along with the group, not wanting to lead, but to follow; a risky state for the individual seeking to be loved.”

This extreme search for self-preservation relies on the classic mantra, "out of sight, out of mind."


"Often the youngest child in the family assumes this role," according to Hickory House Recovery. "By the time this child is engaged in the family dynamic, things have deteriorated to a serious state of dysfunction. Older siblings are well practiced in their various compensatory survival roles, and their tendency is to want to protect the youngest member."

This family member serves as a source of amusement for the family. Despite the family's attempts to shield the mascot from troubles, this family member will be adversely affected, just like everyone else.

“It is impossible for addiction to not affect all family members, particularly those living within the home. The alignment to these roles is gradual and extremely subtle. Behaviors usually manifest themselves long before the individual realizes they are not living a self-designed existence,” says Hickory House Recovery.

Other issues

In addition to taking on these roles, family members of addicts may run into other issues:

  • A family member may become overly concerned with how the world views the family and wants to hide the truth.
  • A family member could become the "black sheep," whose life seems to revolve around risk-taking behaviors.
  • Some cope by becoming a clown, downplaying harmful family dynamics and addiction by trying to amuse others.
  • A rescuer may take responsibility for keeping a home safe, trying to right the wrongs caused by the addict.
  • People-pleasers seek to please and try to make others like them through acts or deeds.  They may eventually become unable to make decisions based on their own wants and needs.
  • The non-feeler pretends the addiction doesn't exist and ends up out of touch with the family's reality, rejecting any implication that there are serious issues.  This individual frequently separates from the familial unit and rejects that any problem exists.

Along with these roles and issues, addiction affects families in many ways. For more information about addiction and mental health treatment visit hickoryhouse.com.

Print this article Back to Top