How does addiction impact the family?

Just what does a healthy family look like?

Home should be an anchor, a port in the storm, a refuge, a happy place in which to dwell, a place where we are loved and we can love.

Marvin J. Ashton Published in Good Housekeeping

The subject of this article is addiction's destructive impact on a family. In order to really understand this, we need to first look at some of what makes up a healthy family. The term "healthy family" should not be confused with "normal family", as I do not endeavor to define normal. Nor would I be so presumptuous as to think I actually know what normal is! In truth, "normal" depends on many factors, and these are not the subject of this post. Instead, I have attempted to identify characteristics of a healthy family that should be free from debate. Next, I will delve briefly into how addiction damages, perverts, and destroys these healthy family characteristics. Lastly, I will spend a bit of time talking about family roles. To be clear, none of this is "new" material. My goal is to simply illuminate some of these issues again, and hopefully cause some thought and discussion around these issues.

A Family

So what are some characteristics of a healthy family? We can't begin to have a functional, healthy family without boundaries. There is open communication within the family. Family relationships are seen as important. Conflict is allowed. There is an attitude of service within the family, and to the community.

There are clear boundaries in the family

There is open communication among family members

Relationships within the family are seen as important

Conflict is allowed

There is an attitude of service to one another and the community

Now let's contrast these characteristics with an addictive family system. Where there is addiction, there are no boundaries at all. Children are drawn into parental conflict, and parents speak negatively about each other in front of and to the children. Sometimes children become a "surrogate spouse" and are called upon to console the hurting parent rather than the other way around. Roles get reversed, and children are parenting the parents. There is no privacy, no safety, no security.

Relationships are not a priority in an addictive household. The primary relationship is the one between the addict and the object of his/her addiction (chemical or behavioral). Parents do not support children's activities or attend events (or one parent does all of this supporting). The child is responsible for nurturing this relationship - "if he wants to talk to me, he knows where I am" .

Communication is unhealthy in an addictive home. Children are discouraged from speaking their minds. When they do, they are ridiculed and shamed. There is a designated "message carrier". Feelings are not allowed - except anger, and only the addict is allowed to express that anger. Crucial information is withheld - in some cases, children find out they are moving the day it happens (often, this is because of the shame of the eviction or loss of job).

Addiction takes over a family

Man in shadows
Come out of the shadows

Conflict is not allowed.

Not only is it not allowed, it is dangerous. Conflict sometimes turns violent in an addictive home. There is no resolving conflict, no moving on from it. There is only moving on to the next major conflict, with the previous conflict relegated to the ever-growing list of resentments between family members. In some families, members go years without speaking to one another over these conflicts and resulting resentments. Disagreement is considered disloyalty.

There is no attitude of service to others. It is every person for themselves. There is no sense of belonging - some children believe they must be adopted because they don't feel like they belong in this family or are wanted by this family. Siblings may help each other out of necessity, and in unhealthy ways, taking on adult responsibilities at a young age. If there is service to the community, it is only in an effort to shed the family in a positive light and hide the truth of the dysfunction that lies within the family. Change is not welcomed or encouraged.

The rules of the dysfunctional family

  • Don't Talk
  • Don't Trust
  • Don't Feel
  • Don't Move

In family systems theory, every family member plays a role as part of the family unit. In a healthy, functioning family, there are roles. In an unhealthy, dysfunctional family, these roles become sick. There is the addict, who commands most of the family attention, time, and resources (including energy). The addict cannot continue unfettered without the enabler, who will cover up for the addict, explain the addict's behavior and clean up the messes. The enabler, or codependent, becomes as addicted to the addict as the addict is to the drug or behavior. The children's roles include the hero, who is an overachiever, perfectionist, the one the family can point to to prove they are normal. The hero is reasponsible for preserving the family name. Quite the opposite, the scapegoat takes all the negative focus off of the addict by becoming the troublemaker of the family. The scapegoat is the identified problem, will often become an addict themself early on, have problems with the law. The scapegoat is also the family truth-teller. He / she will not accept the false view of the family portrayed by the codependent and the hero - rather, they will speak the truth about how screwed up the family is.

The mascot is the class clown. She will use humor to distract from the horrible circumstances going on around her. The comic relief he provides will take some of the pressure off. Meanwhile, the lost child is the one playing by himself, not drawing any attention, not causing any problems. Often forgotten, because she needs to be invisible.

Family Roles in the Addicted Family

  • The Addict
  • The Enabler
  • The Hero
  • The Scapegoat
  • The Mascot
  • The Lost Child

In order for the addict to begin to change, the family system must start to change. When the enabler no longer enables, the addict must then face the consequences of the addiction and related behaviors. Often, we see the addict getting into treatment, then ultimately returning to the family and having only minimal success. This occurs because nothing else has changed. The entire family needs help. Family relationships are dynamic and changeable. With purpose, patience and time, positive change is possible in family dynamics.

©2020 Sober2Day and Pops Jones Media