How Does Addiction Affect Families?
Chris Bitten, Registered Clinical Counsellor
This article has been prepared to assist with understanding how alcohol and drug addiction affect families, and explains some classic approaches therapists have taken in that understanding. The functions of a healthy family are described, as are the ways in which healthy functioning is disturbed by addiction. While all families are different, there tend to be stereotypical responses to a member’s addiction, and the dysfunctional dynamics are presented. Common terms are defined.
The traits of a healthy family must be the yardstick by which any dysfunction is subsequently measured. The following list (Curran, D 1983) is one of the clearest and easiest to understand:
A healthy (functional) family:
Communicates and listens
Has members that affirm and support each other
Teaches respect for others
Develops a sense of trust
Has a sense of play and humour
Teaches a sense of right and wrong
Has rituals and traditions
Has a balance of interaction
Has a shared religious core
Has members who respect one person's privacy
Values service to others
Values shared meals and conversation
Shares leisure time
Admits to and seeks help with problems
When severe emotional dysfunctions such as that caused by alcohol or other drug dependency occurs in a family member, the rest of the family has to shift to deal with the dysfunction. In order to cope, various family members take on different roles. The purpose of the family activities and efforts shift away from the tasks of a functional family to the tasks of attempting to fix, cover up, control the chemically dependent family member, unless recovery is initiated.
Some definitions will be useful before we move on:
Codependency: A codependent is a person who lets another person’s behaviour (the addict’s) adversely affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that behaviour
Enabling: covering up, cleaning up, excusing, rationalizing the consequences of the alcoholic/addict’s behaviour/actions. For example: buying their alcohol, drinking along with them, taking over their responsibilities, saving them from the pain of consequences, lying for them.
Dysfunctional: Unable to perform some of the functions of the healthy family listed above.
Several pioneers in the field of co-dependency (Woititz J, Wegscheider-Cruse S, Whitfield C 1986) have described the changes in the family and in individual members of the family and have described the core rules of the alcoholic family system as “don’t trust, don’t feel, don’t talk”. There is a strong overriding rule which admonishes all family members not to tell the family secret. It has been described as “the elephant in the living room”: everyone steps around this elephant, and no-one admits that it’s there by openly talking about it. Members of this family system do “the eggshell walk” in an attempt to avoid antagonizing the alcoholic. Other rules are:
Everything centers around the addiction
Someone or something caused the addiction
The alcoholic/addict is not to blame
Maintain the status quo: don’t change
Don’t tell the secret to outsiders, don’t discuss it honestly and openly in the family
Everyone must enable the addiction to continue
Let’s pretend everything is OK (therefore lying about how it really is OK too)
The following roles develop as coping responses which seem to work in this abnormal system. Unfortunately, children who grow up in such a system often carry these roles into adulthood. They bring their dysfunction with them as they replicate the aberrant family dynamics they learned at home. Without specific education and help they experience problems such as failed relationships, problems with intimacy, difficulty with assertiveness and establishing healthy boundaries, and many stress-related medical problems: gastro-intestinal illnesses, migraine and other types of headaches, pelvic complaints and a wide variety of psychological and emotional symptoms that may not be properly diagnosed as stress-related, and may be inappropriately treated, thus compounding the problem. Please note that all families have children who demonstrate certain aspects of these roles. Only when roles become rigid, extreme and inescapable does interference with function occur.
feels shame, inadequacy, guilt
behaves as an addict
uses defense mechanism of denial
gets the payoff of relief of emotional pain
pays the price of personal destruction
Chief enabler (usually the spouse of the addict):
Hero (often the oldest child):
feels anger, helplessness, worry, anger
Scapegoat (sometimes the second child):
Lost Child (sometimes a “middle” child):
behaves as delinquent rebel
uses defense mechanism of distraction
gets payoff of negative attention
pays the price of rejection, alienation
uses defense mechanism of withdrawal or retreat
gets payoff of escape from chaos
pays price of social isolation
Mascot (often the “baby” or youngest child):
Additional problems in alcoholic family systems:
feels fear of catastrophe
role rigidity, role confusion, role substitution
“adultified” child/spouse substitution
boundary violations/abuse caused by the disinhibiting effect of alcohol and drugs
shortage of nurturing, family time
shell of family structure only
How do you think a family with an addicted parent would score on each of these scales?
|emotional safety||emotional danger|
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Not all people from alcoholic/addicted families are negatively affected (they may have been assisted by other people, resources, or healthy parts of the family may have remained intact. Recovery skills may have at least partially entered the family.
Families can and do recover. Reading this article is a great start. A host of community resources is available: counselling, self-help groups, education opportunities, treatment centres, etc. Hope, trust and time are important factors. Recovery can start with any family member.
You can find out more about Chris and get in touch with him by following this link:
- 608-402 W. Pender St, (Homer/Pender)
- Suite 223, 1628 West 1st Avenue (near Fir)