The Role of Family in Addiction Recovery

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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If you find yourself among the millions of people who battle with addiction and want to stop, chances are you have questions as to where to start. We’re here to help.

Addiction is a chronically progressive and all-inclusive disease – one that affects not only the addict but the entire family as well. Substance abuse cultivates family dysfunction, demolishes trust, and weakens communication. If your loved one is enslaved to his/her addiction, you may feel helpless or even angry at your family member. This is completely normal.

Addiction is often referred to as a “family disease”. Ultimately, the disease of addiction and the recovery process impacts every member of the family unit. There are several ways you can plan an intervention, encourage, and support your loved one to seek substance abuse treatment and maintain long-term sobriety. Family members can play a major role in their loved one’s addiction recovery.

Understanding Family Roles in Active Addiction

A family that has been severed by the throes of addiction often develops a dysfunctional system in which members of the family take on various roles to cope with the chaos. These particular roles are identified in many ways. However, here are a few of the most common familial roles played out in active addiction.

    • The Hero – The hero (savior) of the family unit tends to always “have it together” and never lets the family down. Generally, these individuals will overcompensate for the shame the family may feel because of the underlying addiction issues. This individual may be in denial and attempt to make the addicted loved one look pleasing to everyone. Typically, the hero may need professional interference to face the reality of their loved one’s addiction and relinquish their incessant need to please.
    • The Scapegoat – The scapegoat is the person that the family places blame on. This individual will create problems and divert attention away from the substance use disorder that is wreaking havoc on the family unit.
    • The Mascot – The mascot in the face of addiction provides comic relief to the dysfunctional family. This individual may target their humor at the addicted individual. The goal of the mascot is to minimize the painful chaos of addiction and redirect attention. This can be a counterproductive coping skill as the individual avoids dealing with his or her feelings.
    • The Lost Child – The lost child tends to isolate mentally and physically. They are known to “keep to themselves” as they try to avoid any conflict and their painful emotions. This particular individual tends to suffer in silence – not wanting to drain the family’s stressed resources.
    • The Rescuer/Caregiver – The rescuer is the enabler of the family. Typically, this member of the family unit is unwilling to set boundaries or hold the addict accountable for his or her actions. The rescuer will try to be the peacemaker by “sweeping things under the rug” and making excuses for the addict’s behavior. To avoid shame, the rescuer will often clean up the mess of the addict and continue to enable them. If the rescuer does not get help for their codependency issues, the addict’s ability to recover will decrease dramatically.

Shifting Family Roles in Addiction Recovery

Family members may take on unhealthy roles as their loved one battles the vicious cycle of addiction. However, members of the family can shift their roles into healthy and encouraging support for their loved one’s recovery. For example, the enabling parent can shift their love and protective attributes into encouraging their loved one’s recovery rather than cleaning up the wreckage for them. When the unhealthy roles of the family members shift, accountability and rewards for positive behaviors should be given to the recovering loved one. Making changes within the family dynamics will ultimately support your addicted loved one’s recovery.

Family Therapy

Attending family therapy with your recovering family member can promote overall healing for the entire family. Research shows that substance abuse treatment programs that include family members have better success rates than those programs that do not involve the family.[1] Drug and alcohol rehab programs may offer educational workshops to help family members better understand addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder. Treatment programs may also offer family therapy to help family members gain a better insight as to how they can put a stop to their codependent behaviors and better cultivate a family dynamic that promotes recovery.

Healing Together

Addiction is a terrifying disease. However, addiction recovery can restore strained relationships, re-establish broken trust, and cultivate a level of compassion and intimacy back into the family unit. Treatment and recovery are not only available to the addict, but there are a ton of resources available to your family as well. Defining Wellness Centers believes in treating not only the addict but the family as well. Defining Wellness Centers encourages our clients and their families/loved ones to engage in workshops and therapy to better understand how addiction has impacted the family as a whole.

Family therapy along with attending support groups such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and CoDA will equip your family with the coping tools and strategies necessary for promoting sustained recovery and ongoing healthy relationships. If you are concerned about your loved one, call Defining Wellness Centers today and let us help you develop a plan for you and your addicted loved one to heal together.


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If you are ready to take the step towards a new life, call Defining Wellness today and learn more about how we can help you.