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Substance abuse and addiction can damage family dynamics, erode trust, and weaken communication. Family members who experience a loved one battling with a substance use disorder (SUD) often endure a host of painful emotions. Equally frustrating is the hopelessness loved ones feel in response to substance abuse. Family members may feel at a loss when seeing a loved one caught in the grips of substance abuse. For example, stumbling upon burnt spoons and used syringes can create paralyzing feelings of fear and shock.
However, family members can help their loved one achieve and maintain sobriety. Despite seeing a loved one struggle, family members can and ideally do play a major role in the treatment process. The role of family in addiction recovery is large and important.
A family impacted by substance abuse inevitably develops into a dysfunctional system. In this system, members unknowingly take on “roles” in order to cope. These roles have been named many things, and this is a version of what they are and how they play out.
The Savior or Hero is the shining star of the addicted family system. They look good, achieve well, and never let the family down. They compensate for the shame the family feels around the addict by being the family superstar. They may cover for the individual with an SUD, attempting to make the individual look pleasing to everyone. They may be in denial, overlooking major problems that require professional intervention. They are also compensating for feeling empty and helpless themselves due to the dysfunctional family dynamic.
The Mascot provides comic relief for the hyper-stressed family. Sometimes humor is tactlessly aimed at the individual suffering from the SUD. The Mascot uses humor to minimize the pain in situations and to deflect hurt. This often becomes a maladaptive coping skill.
The Lost Child hides out, both physically and emotionally. They can be counted on to never “rock the boat.” They avoid conflict and suppress their emotions. They do not drain the limited emotional resources of the family, but suffer deeply internally.
The Scapegoat is the person in the family who is blamed. The Scapegoat creates other problems and concerns in order to deflect attention away from the real issue. They are very successful at distracting the family and others from the individual with an SUD.
The Enabler insulates the addicted individual by excusing their behaviors. The Enabler is unwilling or unable to hold the addicted individual accountable for their actions. They smooth things over and run interference to keep the addict from experiencing the logical consequences of their poor choices. This behavior often stems from their desire to avoid shame and embarrassment. They will often stunt the addict’s ability to recover if they don’t change their patterns.
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Family members can assume healthy roles and behaviors to encourage and support recovery. For example, a parent may play the role of the supportive but firm caregiver who encourages their loved one to take thoughtful and positive action. Healthy family roles and behaviors include holding the loved one accountable for their behavior and creating rewards for positive choices.
Family members may attend support groups with their loved one or attend their own support groups for families of addicts. The creation of healthy boundaries is a building block of recovery for the family.
Adolescents battling an SUD are often profoundly affected by it. Since adolescents are still developing social and behavioral patterns, early substance abuse can complicate future events. For example, adolescents are more likely to struggle with a lifelong SUD if they do not get help at a young age. Adolescents may also explore many drugs, seeking strong and novel highs. They may even combine several chemicals, unknowingly increasing the risk of a fatal overdose. The role of the family is important at this stage, as they can intervene into their young loved one’s life to discourage drug use.
Family members may feel frustration as the adolescent skips school, gets poor grades, or befriends other teens who abuse drugs. Parents often feel anxiety over their child’s whereabouts and sudden changes in their social circles. In response, primary guardian and parental figures demonstrate a wide variety of behaviors and attitudes. Some may tune in and out, being inconsistently emotionally available for their child. Others may feel denial and misdirect their anger, sparking communication breakdowns.
It also is not unheard of for a parent to abuse drugs or alcohol in response to teens abusing harmful chemicals. In such cases, parents have to be mindful of being an example of strength for children. Strong support and connection can help encourage their teens to get clean and possibly reduce the rate of relapse.
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Both inpatient and outpatient facilities offer support groups for patients to connect with peer groups. Among the most common are the 12-Step groups. 12-Step groups offer personal accountability and spirituality to help maintain sobriety.
Al-Anon is a support group focusing on families affected by substance abuse. Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and cousins discuss their challenges with a loved one’s substance abuse. Like other 12-Step groups, Al-Anon members use spiritual themes to encourage acceptance and compassion.
Alateen is another support group that includes teen family members who help each other heal and discuss complications from witnessing a loved one abuse harmful substances. With both support groups, family members can feel connected to the recovery process and provide input over their experiences.
Lastly, Narc-Anon sees family members of individuals who have become dependent on Narcotics discuss and problem-solve in a group setting.
Our families are one of our most valuable support groups, even though the damage done by abusing harmful substances can be lasting. However, there is hope for both family members of individuals suffering from an SUD and for the individual abusing harmful chemicals. Select facilities may offer family therapy, incorporating innovative communication exercises, and relationship-strengthening activities led by licensed therapists.
Know that it is never too late to fix broken relationships with the help of licensed therapists and medical health professionals. Contact a treatment provider today to get started.
Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University, has over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 15 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
Deborah Montross Nagel
Deborah has a Master’s Degree from Lesley University and has been certified as an Addictions Counselor in PA since 1986. She is currently a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor – CAADC. She is nationally certified as a MAC – Master Addictions Counselor – by NAADAC (The National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors). Her 37 years of experience and education are in addiction, recovery, and codependency. Addiction affects the entire system around the addict. There is no "bad guy" in the system. Fight the addiction, and help the addict. I help loved ones restore sanity to their lives and hence encourage change. Recovery is possible!
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