Family Roles: In the Addictive System

Posted by: Center for Growth Therapists

Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia: Family Roles

In an addictive family system, it is common for the disease to become the central focus within the system. Often all of the family’s energy and focus goes into managing the impact of the addiction (the addictive family member relapsing, managing secrets, keeping everything else together while the addictive person unravels). As described in the article on addictive family systems, when a family system is in crisis, the family system tends to become unsafe, chaotic, and time consuming, while organizing around the addicted family member. When this happens, over time the family responds to the chaotic system by taking on different roles as an attempt to fill in what is missing, whether it’s consistency, or safety.

The following is a description of the common roles family members in a addictive system tend to take on. The concept of these roles was originally created by the famous author and psychotherapist, Virginia Satir. Virginia Satir is most known for her work in family therapy and her contributions to and the focus on systemic work. Virginia Satir’s work was then adapted by Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse to fit the addictive family. Claudia Black is a well-known author and psychotherapist whose work is primarily in addictions and codependency, and has made major contributions to addiction work and recovery. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse is a nationally known author, and therapist working primarily with families and within the school system. This model and concept of an addictive family system is used by many psychotherapists today in the area of addiction work, trauma, and recovery. A few notes about these roles: the members do not consciously create these roles, they tend to adopt these roles, in a way they are already assigned to us naturally by the system, not us. It is possible to take on a mixture of roles, over time your role may change due to your own development, other members’ development, or change of the disease and how it impacts the family.

The Addict : (Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia)

For starters, there’s the role of the addict. The addict uses his/her addiction as a way to cope with everything: my emotions, the constant guilt and shame for my behavior that he/she struggles to address. The addict struggles with accepting accountability or responsibility for actions, and is in denial of his/her reality.


The Enabler (Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia)

The enabler is the main protector of the addict; often protecting the addict from the consequences for his/her negative behaviors. This tends to look like the enabler calling the addict’s job to call out sick, making excuses to others in or out of the system for the addict’s behaviors. It may not look like it, but the enabler wants the addict to change, and get better. However, it’s difficult for the enabler to advocate for this change if that means leaving the addict uncomfortable or in pain. The role of the enabler is a big one, it’s time consuming and exhausting, usually leaving no time for this person’s own self-care or personal life. The enable believes things like: “If I communicated differently”... Or, “If I reacted to things differently..” “He/she would quit and get better.” Enablers have a strong desire to fix the addict, or be the caretaker. Unfortunately, this type of behavior keeps the addict comfortable in his/her addictive pattern, leaving little desire or need for recovery.

The Mascot (Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia) 

The mascot is the court jester of the family. He/she brings humor to the family as an attempt to keep things light and take the focus away from the obvious issues at hand. Just like a court jester, the mascot will do whatever it takes to get a laugh, and this is where he/she finds their control, and cope with the stress and pain. The mascot is flexible, but also is constantly seeking attention. The Mascot is often seen as immature, struggles to focus, and is a poor decision maker.

The Hero (Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia)

The hero is the family member hold’s the family’s pride and appearance in his/her hands. The hero is the over-achieving, successful family member, representing the family. This comes in many packages: this can be the teenage daughter who gets straight A’s and is the best player in every sport she plays, this could be the mother of the family holding down the ultra-successful job, keeping the house and family looking great. The hero is organized to the point of perfectionism, goal-oriented, and is a leader. The hero needs to be in control, is a poor listener, struggles to relax, and is viewed as inflexible, and doesn’t ask for help.

The Scapegoat (Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia)

The scapegoat is one of the more honest and direct roles. The scapegoat is defiant and acts out for attention. This may be done by running away, stealing, or doing drugs; this is how the scapegoat copes with the his/her negative emotions. The scapegoat tends to be irresponsibility, underachieving, struggles to express anger appropriately. The scapegoat’s inappropriate behaviors can lead to social problems at a young age, including teen pregnancy, or even developing an addiction of his/her own.

Mediator (Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia)  

The mediator, or the “middle man” is the messenger, and the people-pleaser. He/she goes back and forth between family members trying to put out fires and decrease conflict within the system. The mediator has a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior. The mediator is so fixated on the system being peaceful and without anger or hostility, that his/her own needs go unmet. The mediator takes on roles and responsibility for others because he/she believes to be responsibility for s, others behaviors. The mediator is empathic, caring, and quick to smile when needed. The mediator has difficult in receiving what he/she gives to others, has many unmet needs, is anxious and fearful of conflict.

Lost Child (Center for Growth / Addiction Therapy in Philadelphia )

The lost child is also known as the “forgotten one.” He/she has learned to blend in and “go with the flow” strictly for survival. The lost child does not ask for much, is independent, and often escapes from the family system by isolating and keeping to himself/herself. The lost child often struggles to initiate, lack direction or sense of self, is ignored, and struggles to making decisions or identify options.

The overall goal in letting go of any of these roles is to stop doing the work for the addict. No matter what you say or how you say it, or how well you do in life, it is up to the addicted person to make the change and efforts towards recovery.

As you can see in the descriptions of these roles, while each role does carry a few strengths, these roles also come with severe limitations for growth, functioning, developing future healthy relationships, and more. By letting go of your dysfunctional role, you are giving yourself a chance for growth, and to live your life for you. If you were once the enabler, by no longer focusing on the addict’s choices you can now focus on your own growth and change. For those trying to give up your duties as the mediator, now that you’re not care-taking others’ emotions, you can now take care of your own emotions, and get your energy back, because it’s exhausting being your family’s therapist 24/7. The bottom line is, whatever you were doing for the identified addict in your dysfunctional family system, you are now giving yourself the opportunity to do these things for you.
For more on the addictive family system: Addictive Family System