Understanding How Family Roles & Behavior
Affect Addiction Treatment Outcomes
Family Focused Strategies for Addiction Intervention
Addiction Affects Family Members Differently Than You May Think
When a loved one begins to abuse drugs or alcohol, their relationships with others begin to change. Everyone reacts to addiction in their own way. However, a substance use disorder often brings more problems and devastation into the home. Is it the family member with the substance use causing the chaos and confusion? Could it not also be the family member’s attention to the substance user that is causing the maladaptive roles to form and the resentments with one another that follow?
At Family First Intervention, we understand how difficult it can be to see what has happened within the family system. One of our many goals is to educate those affected by addiction and help them see how the whole family shifts and why.
How Does Addiction Lead To Dysfunctional Family Roles?
If I were to ask a room full of people who or what is the problem, they would almost inevitably say the addict or alcoholic and their behaviors. Although that is undeniably true, is it the only problem? Family members’ underlying resentments and anxiety causes them to be as much if not more frustrated with the primary enabler and others within the system. This often causes the other family members to fight and be at odds with others’ views and suggestions. The primary enabler can cause an internal struggle for the attention, affection and approval that has been almost entirely given to their loved one with the addiction. The family often makes it about the alcoholic or drug addict creating a diversion from some of the internal problems that needs to be addressed. Misplaced emotions, resentments of others, lack of education, acquired maladaptive coping skills coupled with a lack of communication between family members is often the culprit. As a result, family members take on counterproductive roles within the family system to help them through. Families who are flooded risk being able to change effectively and unbiasedly due to misplaced emotions . This is often why just “talking to them” about stopping their addiction fails utterly. This approach does not address the big picture nor the underlying family problems and only scratches the surface.
Family First Intervention has identified some of the most common reasons that a substance abuse problem affects a family system, even in previously healthy households:
- Substance abuse disorders cause family members to take on maladaptive coping skills and become flooded in their ability to make rational, effective decisions.
- Substance abuse disorders turn family members against one another. Family members start to acquire reasons to avoid helping their loved ones. There is often something gained by holding onto certain family roles such as the hero or the enabler who seeks to remain feeling needed in the relationship.
- The family system often approaches the problem from the direction of the substance use being the primary problem. Our research shows it is far more effective to address and repair the damage to the family system before help can be offered effectively.
- Family members avoid confrontation and the fear of rejection. Creating Ambivalence and Confrontation is proven to be the most effective method to move a substance abuse disorder client through the stages of change when applied therapeutically and professionally.
- Family members frequently find objections to solutions offered. This is often due to unresolved and misplaced emotions. Some family members unconsciously avoid the steps required to help their loved one in order to hold onto the new family patterns of confusion and chaos.
- The longer maladaptive family roles are left unaddressed, the more damaging and lasting an impact they can have on the entire family and their loved one.
- Family members often blame the addiction as the cause of the family problems when the problems more frequently stem from the family members reacting to the other family roles.
Family Roles that often arise within a Family affected by Addiction
To better understand how these harmful behaviors can prevent effective solutions while affecting the family, we’ve identified the most common inherited family roles. Please keep in mind many of these roles can be an extension of others and be held simultaneously:
- The Primary Enabler/Guilty Party = This role is often the culprit that creates the trickle down effect and the most devastation to the rest of the family. While most families are thinking it is the substance abuser, it is this role that has the greatest impact on the family system. The family member often feels the need to enable as it provides something for them, otherwise, they would not do it. It is frequently played out due to guilt and perpetuated by a continued fulfillment of being needed in the relationship with the substance user. Other reasons include avoiding confrontation and the fear of “rocking the boat”.
- The Martyr = Is the family member who often is viewed as the victim of the substance users behaviors. The martyr is the one who screams for help and then rejects the help when offered. In a group setting this person can be seen as the “yeah but” client. Although they are truly affected, their fears of change and what will happen to them as the result of an intervention or their loved one seeking treatment is prioritized. An unconscious example is, If they leave for treatment, what happens to me, how will I pay my bills? The Martyr is not a bad person, they are now in a flooded terrified new normal and may not even realize the true reasons for their objections.
- The Hero/Saboteur = The hero is an overachiever, perfectionist, with little ability to listen to and follow suggestions. The hero seeks to unconsciously sabotage efforts of help to the substance abuser. In doing so they prevent others from improving and ending their role of being in control and the one who is the savior and shining star of the family. They are rarely the ones who ask for help and almost always prevent help from being offered.
Should the hero participate in the process, he or she often insists on taking the lead with little to no collaboration with other family members. The hero needs to be the one who calls the shots, hires the treatment team, and determines the treatment plan, length of stay, and so forth. The Hero Role always operates with a hidden agenda designed to protect a carefully crafted “perfect child” image. In the final analysis, the hero fears that if the substance user or other family members take charge or get better, the hero’s star will not shine as brightly in the eyes of others. If the interventionist is fortunate to have the participation of the hero, our experience suggests that this family member is usually silent during the family group consultation. So-called heroes’ silence often ends when the conversation ends, at which point they attempt to undermine or contradict recent exchanges with the professional. The hero role is perhaps the most damaging one in the family in that it prevents more families from seeking help than any other role.
- The Punisher = Makes frequent suggestions of instilling hard consequences. Some of these include making statements such as, they don’t need treatment, they just need a job. Other comments are more in line with proactively making things difficult such as cutting them off and asking them to leave the home with no alternative such as treatment.
- The Redeemer = Frequently takes it upon themselves to be the one who fixes the problem. They are often like the hero who needs to be in control. Mostly driven by ego and underlying issues, they seek to be the savior who delivers the speech to the substance user and gets them to change. They are almost always resistant to intervention for fear of conceding to the reality they can’t repair the situation.
- The Ally = Seeks to avoid confrontation by siding with the addict and alcoholic. They often put people pleasing behaviors and the need to be liked by the substance abuser before the collected efforts of intervention by the family. They will almost always tell the substance abuser what is going on and provide inside information as to what the family is discussing with the intervention team.
- The Denier = Does not admit there is a problem or the problem is not nearly as bad as others are stating. This is often due to mental blocks and misplaced emotions to avoid interventions and confrontation. They display very similar behaviors of a substance abuser in regards to denial. By minimizing the severity, they provide an illusion there is nothing to address or change.
- The Clueless = This role can be a family member who is not on the front lines who only sees the substance abuser as they used to be. This role, like the denier, can also be a family member with an unconscious mental block as to avoid the confrontation. In some cases they may be distant relatives who truly do not know what is going on.
No One Chooses Their Roles or Behaviors Intentionally
The roles stated above happen over time. Most people we speak with are unaware of why or what they are doing. Some get angry or defensive at the mere suggestions of exploring their role. It is these roles, developed over time, that largely in part perpetuate the family problems and provide less want or need for the substance user to change or family to change themselves. Most family members believe they are being helpful and their current beliefs are valid, normal and possibly one day effective. While the family is held in these roles, the substance abuser accelerates by creating a diversion. The addiction destroys the family system leaving many unaware what is happening. The attention is frequently on the substance user and infrequently on the family. What ends up happening is the family is fighting one another and are at odds because nobody is on the same page. Some enable, some try to impose their beliefs on others trying to prove their stance and others may “wipe their hands” of the situation all together. When all come to the same agreement, guided by a professional, solutions become clearer and easier to execute. It is helpful to identify and repair the family system that may be preventing the substance abuser from seeking help.
The closer a loved one is to the alcoholic or addict, the less likely they are emotionally capable of formulating proper judgement. Emotionally attached family members are often flooded and unable to correct the problem internally. It almost always requires a third party perspective from the balcony. If a family expects their loved one to surrender to professionals for a new perspective it may be helpful for those affected to follow a similar course of action.
It can be very difficult to know who is helping and who is hurting without an expert’s input. That’s why working through the problem with the help of an intervention specialist is so vital. Emotionally driven decisions and those made in a flooded emotional state can be difficult to deliver effectively. Those members affected by the addiction are almost always unable to simultaneously be the counselor and the family. There is far too much going on making it near, if not entirely impossible to see the forest for the trees.
When Families Change So Does the Addiction
It is important for family members to know what they are up against. This includes Identifying family roles and behaviors that may affect positive outcomes. Knowing what a substance use disorder is and how a family becomes consumed in it allows for better judgement and decision making. In any other aspect of medical conditions and care most families would allow themselves the opportunity to learn from professionals. With addiction it is often not the case. Families who surrender and become aware of how the addiction and their behavior is impacting the rest of the family is the first step towards achieving the goal of positive change and wellness.
What a family expects or waits for from the substance abuser, is often what is needed for themselves. A person who suffers from a substance use disorder almost always never sees the need for positive change if the family system surrounding it prevents it. While most families are waiting for them to ask for help or reach a bottom by way of consequences, it is the family that can be unknowingly standing in the way or reaching an emotional bottom themselves. It is difficult for a family to see that some of the ways they have been going about correcting the problem could be actually fulfilling an unconscious need within themselves. Nobody plans this, it just happens.