A Elements Behavioral Health Guide to Drug Rehab
Call Elements Behavioral Health

Filter by: family

Have you ever noticed that no matter how old you are, no matter how far you’ve come in your career or how much life experience you’ve got under your belt, when your family gets together, you fall right back into old familiar patterns of relating to each other? Therapists would call these patterns of behavior “roles” – almost like the roles actors play. Every family does this to some extent, but in families that have been affected by addiction, the roles might seem like they are cast in concrete. Rigid and unchanging over decades, it seems like each child is born into their role and that’s it, forever.

Some important things to remember about these roles:

  • They are not conscious choices. No parent decides, “I’m going to be a Chief Enabler” in my family. Kids don’t choose to become a Mascot or a Hero.
  • The roles themselves aren’t “good” or “bad.” When growth and change is frowned upon, that is what’s bad for families. The stuckness and inability to grow beyond a role is what makes roles problematic in a family affected by addiction.
  • These roles carry over into other areas of life, making intimate relationships problematic, or careers/professional relationships difficult to navigate.
  • Treatment is helpful for becoming aware of these roles and how they are impacting your behavior. This is an area where therapy can be really useful and effective, and where insight can lead to making positive changes.

In prior articles, we’ve looked at the Chief Enabler and the Family Hero—two roles that are somewhat balanced in terms of having much that is positive about them and much that can be harmful or detrimental about them. These two roles are similar in that both Heroes and Enablers “over-function”—they tend to pick up the slack emotionally, financially, and in terms of physical chores. The drinker or substance abusers tend to not get to things (from dishes to bills to baseball games) because their focus is on using. The Hero and the Enabler both work hard—sometimes hard enough to make themselves physically ill—to maintain the appearance of a well-functioning family.

The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat is a very different type of role. This is the child who constantly gets in trouble, and constantly attracts negative attention. As a young child, this is the one who may be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or have “behavior problems” at school. Maybe a bully, or maybe just the class clown, this is the child who seems incapable of following rules or letting things be easy. For the Chief Enabler, this child is a thorn in his or her side.

Often as a teenager, the Scapegoat begins using drugs or alcohol. These children can have significant conflict with others in the family, and sibling issues between the Hero and the Scapegoat are common.

The Scapegoat the child who constantly gets in troubleThese children are sometimes described as the “lightning rods” for the family, since they seem to attract negative consequences. They are the typical acting-out child: they act out all the anger, frustration, rage and fear that all of the family members may feel. When a parent drinks or uses drugs, that parent’s behavior can be unpredictable and frightening for children. Rules may change based upon whether the parent is drunk, hung over, or seeking a drink. Conversations that take place while the parent is under the influence might not be remembered the next day. Permission granted can be taken back, and moods can flip on a dime. The inconsistencies of the using parent’s behavior, and the covering up or “making nice” that the enabler does can also be confusing at best, and infuriating at worst. The Hero just works harder at pretending everything is fine and that the family is fine, despite all these emotions. The Scapegoat is the family member who insists the family get attention—he is the one who screams “something is wrong” and does so by being “wrong.”

When looked at this way, the Scapegoat is easier to understand. On the surface, the Scapegoats just seem like such screw-ups; it can be hard to feel compassion for them. They appear to be committed to making a mess of their lives, and they often appear to be uncaring about the impact their behavior has on others. However, looking at the bigger picture of the whole family, it is easier to understand those who take on this role as not only a scapegoat but also a sacrificial lamb: they sacrifice their own life, health, and happiness to get the problems in the family noticed. The messes they make are the “cry for help” that may get the real problem in the family noticed.

The big risk with the Scapegoat is that by the time he or she reaches adulthood, he or she may well have developed an addiction or legal problems, or have continued “fallout” from the messes that were made during the teenage years to such a significant degree that they have severe trouble getting started in adult life. The Scapegoat needs help more urgently and at a younger age than the Hero; not only is the risk of substance abuse higher for children in this role—the risk of suicide is higher as well.

Read more about Enabling Here.

Whenever groups of people get together—at work, in families, at the firehouse, on a sports team, or among the club members—individuals take on roles as part of interacting with each other. Someone might be the “class clown” in the room, always quick to make a joke or lighten up a situation; someone else might take on the role of “mom” and do the caretaking for the group. Roles are normal, inevitable, and in healthy situations, they help make for smooth functioning (or an easy target for gentle teasing!).

In families affected by addiction, or any family in which one or both of the parents are unable to fulfill their role as parent, there is a tendency for all family members to take on rigid and surprisingly predictable roles. In any group of children of addicts or alcoholics, ask about the roles in their families growing up and you will hear some very similar reports over and over again. In a dysfunctional family, the key difference regarding roles is that they are rigid: once you’re pegged as a Mascot or Hero, for example, you’re stuck. Behave in a way that is not in line with that role, and your entire family pressures you to get back in line. Placing a value on change, flexibility and authenticity (think of being authentic as embodying and expressing your individuality instead your role behaviors) are not typically part of dysfunctional family dynamics.

Several experts on addiction and family roles have named and described these typical roles. The names are a little different depending upon which author you’re reading: family systems therapist Virginia Satir used the terms placater, adjuster, distracter, blamer, and computer to label the different communication styles and roles family members take on. Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider Cruse built upon Satir’s work on communication styles and family roles, and used the names scapegoat, family mascot, hero/responsible one, and lost child to describe the different roles.

In an earlier article we discussed the role of the Chief Enabler, typically a role taken on by the addict or alcoholic’s partner. Here we’ll take a closer look at The Family Hero. This role could be taken on by any child in the family although birth order does seem to play a role with family heroes most commonly being the oldest child. The Family Hero is the child who lives the denial, devoting his or her life to proving that they are fine despite the “elephant in the living room.”

Characteristics of The Family Hero

The Family Hero is the perfect child. He or she takes on being perfect for the family as a way of proving that the addict or alcoholic’s drinking isn’t a problem. Look: I can get good grades, play a sport, and totally have my life together despite Mom or Dad’s drinking. The Family Hero crafts life to contradict the assumption by others outside the family that the drinking or drugging will affect the kids.

The children who take on the family hero role often do extremely well at whatever they take on, and are successful in the eyes of the world. They often become professionals; doctors or other healing professions are common. They often manage money well, and have very high standards for themselves and their own families.

They are often intolerant of their own emotions, and this is their Achilles heel. They need to be perfect, and they need their lives to be perfect to “undo” the imperfections they had to tolerate from early on. The problem is life is not perfect and uncontrollable things happen: accidents, being victimized, relationship problems, health issues…life tosses obstacles in our path constantly and the need to handle each one “perfectly” is a pressure family heroes place upon themselves.

Risks and Pitfalls

Risks and Pitfalls Of EnablingThis places the Family Hero at high risk for developing substance abuse problems themselves. Finding a way to cope with the tremendous internal pressures isn’t easy and all those unmet needs from childhood can crash into the adult pressures to “have it all together.” Substance abuse isn’t the only risk: eating disorders are also common among women who have filled this role in a dysfunctional family. The efforts to control the uncontrollable can easily be channeled into controlling eating and weight, and focusing on something tangible: appearance and/or weight can make the overwhelming pressures of making “everything” perfect feel more manageable. Children who have taken on the Family Hero role also seem prone to depression and anxiety, as they try so hard to make everything better than it was during their own childhood but inevitably feel as if they have failed, either due to their own dissatisfactions and old wounds, or due to the challenges and “bumps in the road” that life hands them.

How to Help

Often as an adult, the Family Hero feels like he or she needs to do everything, take on every responsibility, and be in charge of all of it. While this is understandable, since so much didn’t get done in a responsible or timely way during childhood, this inability to delegate or share responsibility, and the need to be in control of everything all the time is draining and destructive. You can see how a Family Hero could grow up to become a Chief Enabler as the roles in adulthood are rather similar.

Psychotherapy aimed at helping shed the Family Hero role can be effective. Learning to tolerate imperfection and the notion of “good enough” (as opposed to perfect) can be life changing for these people.

Part 3: Dysfunctional Family Roles: The Scapegoat Acts Out in Cry for Help


We Understand Your Confusion

What type of drug rehab is right for me? Will my loved one stay in treatment long enough to get the benefits of rehab? Will my insurance cover drug rehab?

You have questions. We have answers.

Take some time to review DrugRehab.us and learn about your treatment options. If at any time you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or confused, please pick up the phone. Our expert advisers are here to help.

Whether you decide on an outpatient drug treatment program or an inpatient residential drug rehab, you are making a choice to move forward with your life. You are choosing to reclaim your life from drugs and alcohol.