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Dysfunctional Family Roles in Addiction: Treating the Whole Family

Dysfunctional Family Roles in Addiction: Treating the Whole Family

As the Prevention Science Journal notes, family socialization plays a significant role in long-term well-being. It is through your family in childhood that emotional regulation is learned and coping behaviors are developed. Observing the way family members deal with emotions, parental practices, and the emotional climate of your family’s environment all contribute to your ability to regulate your emotions. Thus, exposure to high levels of family conflict undermines your ability to form adaptive emotional regulation. The impact of family conflicts on your well-being highlights the importance of understanding dysfunctional family roles for recovery.

Family conflict in your childhood can stem from a variety of issues, including family structure, interpersonal conflict, substance use disorder (SUD), and other mental health disorders. As the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine states, disruptions in family structure like divorce and separation from your parents can increase the risk for abuse, developmental delays, and mental health disorders. Moreover, parental challenges with mental health disorders can contribute to impaired parenting and, thus, dysfunctional family roles. 

According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, parental mental illness has a high association with reduced family functioning. Decreased family functioning can contribute to conflict, less cohesion, poor adaptability, and disorganized patterns of everyday executive functioning. In addition, unaddressed parental mental illness increases parental impairment in daily functioning and interactions. Some of the disorders that contribute to parental impairments include:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar I disorder (BP)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Challenges with parental mental health have a strong correlation with the transmission of mental health disorders to children. For example, if your mom experienced challenges coping with depression, you are more likely to develop depression as well. Addressing the mental health factor in dysfunctional family roles is an important point to the difficulties of psychological distress. When your psychological distress is left untreated, you are more likely to engage in substance misuse and develop SUD. 

At New Creation Recovery, we know how closely intertwined families are and, thus, how devastating addiction can be for the whole family. Having a loved one dealing with addiction and potential co-occurring mental health disorders can feel overwhelming for everyone. You or your loved one may feel that your only option is to do damage control to protect the family. When a loved one has SUD, it is not surprising to seek out “saving” practices like providing additional financial assistance and making up excuses for their behavior. 

Yet, while well-intentioned, engaging in saving practices can contribute to enabling and codependent behavior that increases issues with addiction. Through saving practices and addiction itself, dysfunctional family roles are born. Thus, addressing dysfunctional family roles can be an important tool for healing the whole family. With a commitment to holistic rehab treatment, addiction recovery, and healing dysfunctional family roles are possible.

Yet, you may wonder how you recognize dysfunctional family roles in your family. First, understanding family dynamics will give you more insight into the impact of relationships on well-being. Through family dynamics, you can see the way interpersonal family relationships impact interactions, roles, relationships, and how you function in the world.

What Are Family Dynamics?

According to “Family Dynamics” by Bahareh Jabbari et al., family dynamics are a pattern of interactions between family members and their relationship roles. Families often rely on each other for emotional, physical, and financial support across life courses. With a supportive family, you find the majority of your social connection and sense of security as you go through life together. In good and bad times, healthy family dynamics support stress reduction and promote a sense of belonging through the provision of love, care, and advice. 

Moreover, even in healthy families when there are conflicts or disagreements, it permeates and affects interactions between the whole family. Thus, family dynamics play an important role in every part of your well-being. The quality of your interpersonal interactions with your family members impacts your psychosocial, behavioral, and physiological pathways. Challenges with untreated or poorly addressed mental health disorders within your family can be a major risk factor for dysfunctional family roles. 

However, serious destructive thinking and behavior challenges like mental illness and SUD are not the only factors that can contribute to dysfunctional family roles. Even when your family does not have a history of SUD or serious mental health disorders, several factors can contribute to unhealthy family dynamics. The primary factors that impact family dynamics include:

  • Individualization
  • Mutuality
  • Flexibility
  • Stability
  • Role reciprocity
  • Clear and open communication

In particular, mutuality, regardless of the type of family you are part of, is important for healthy dynamics. Through mutuality, you and your loved ones recognize that your interactions and relationship are a two-way street. When you care for each other, you not only foster a sense of belonging, but a cohesive unit. With cohesion, you know that even in times of great difficulty like the loss of a loved one or unemployment, you will be there to help each other through it. On the other hand, unhealthy family dynamics are typically overrun by:

  • Enmeshment
  • Isolation
  • Rigidity
  • Disorganization
  • Unclear communication
  • Role conflict

With a basic understanding of the protective and risk factors for healthy and unhealthy family dynamics, you can recognize those factors in your family. Being able to recognize dysfunctional family roles can increase your awareness and understanding of the part dysfunctional family roles play in your life. 

Recognizing Dysfunction in Your Family

As stated in the article “Is My Family Dysfunctional?” from Mental Health America (MHA), family dysfunction is characterized by frequent conflict, abusive behaviors, and neglect. The conflict within the family creates tension that leaves everyone in a constant state of distress. There is no such thing as the perfect parent or family, so every family can have some level of dysfunction. For example, parents or siblings may argue occasionally, or parents might have one drink too many on date night. 

While arguments and overconsuming alcohol can be unhealthy, significant dysfunction is constant. Deeply harmful dysfunction happens when parents are having arguments every day or family members are unable to maintain a job because all of their money goes to getting substances. When dysfunction is left to fester, it becomes a breeding ground for further family and individual impairment. 

Dysfunctional family roles can manifest in a variety of ways, from poor communication to physical and emotional abuse. Listed below are some of the signs that your family is being impacted by significant family dysfunction:

  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
    • Exposure to parental substance misuse
      • Struggles to meet responsibilities
      • Children have to take on parental responsibilities to take care of siblings and or parents
    • Unaddressed parental challenges with other addictions
      • Gambling
      • Shopping
    • Being allowed or encouraged to use alcohol and drugs
    • Exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) 
    • Sexual abuse
      • Rape
      • Sexual assault
      • Sex trafficking 
      • Inappropriate and unwanted touching
      • Being forced to touch one’s self
      • Non-touching behaviors
        • Being exposed to pornography
    • Physical abuse
      • Being slapped, hit, punched, kicked, scratched
    • Psychological or emotional abuse
      • Being threatened
      • Lack of emotional support
      • Verbal abuse
        • Talked down to
        • Ridiculed
        • Belittled
    • Unable to provide basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, and medical care
      • Barriers to resources
        • Low income
        • Unemployment
        • Education
        • Resource knowledge
    • Refusal to meet basic needs of children when the means to do so are available
    • Parental challenges with mental health disorders
      • High levels of anxiety
        • Controlling things
        • Avoidance of parental responsibilities
  • Parent, caregiver, and other family member behavior
    • Being forced to take sides in parental conflicts
    • Parental denial of current or past events
    • Overly involved in your life
    • Overprotective parenting
      • Discouraged you from asserting yourself or sharing your thoughts 
    • Being ignored or having your thoughts and feelings discounted or criticized
    • Parental rejection
    • Siblings receive preferential treatment
    • Extremely restrictive parenting
      • Overly demanding and unrealistic expectations
        • Violation of boundaries
          • Going through your things
          • Entering your space without permission
          • Checking your phone
          • Eavesdropping on your conversations
    • Lack of rules and structure 
      • No curfews, schedules, or expectations to complete responsibilities and obligations like homework and chores 
    • Relying on children for emotional and or financial support
    • Ignores or refuses to do anything about violent or inappropriate behaviors
  • Impairment in dynamics
    • Challenges with problem-solving
    • Behavioral control issues
    • Communication challenges
    • Difficulties managing relationship roles
  • Other dysfunctional behaviors and patterns
    • Members of the family are hesitant to share the difficulties happening at home with others
      • Children are encouraged to keep the family’s challenges a secret
    • You were more your parent’s friend and confidante than their child
    • Parent was resentful of your freedom
    • Poor communication
      • There is a disconnect in understanding each other
      • Conversations are always tense 
      • Everyone avoids talking about problems
      • You do not feel safe voicing your opinion
      • There is no respect for each other’s time, needs, or wants

Looking at the variety of ways dysfunctional family roles can exist is understandably daunting. However, knowing the explicit and implicit signs of dysfunctional family roles helps you better recognize the challenges your family may be facing. With more insight into what dysfunctional family roles look like, you can understand where the distress and conflict in your family’s life come from. ACEs like sexual abuse and parental SUD may feel like more obvious causes for dysfunctional family roles. 

Yet, you may question how these distressing and traumatic experiences happen. Why is one parent abusive or neglectful and another is not? How does addiction take over a family? What has caused your family’s dysfunctional family roles around addiction? 

Addressing Causes of Dysfunctional Family Roles in Addiction

Every family is different, and every family’s relationship with addiction is specific to them. Yet, dysfunctional family roles often happen when individuals within the family lack the skills to deal with conflict. Dysfunctional families typically do not have effective communication and coping skills to deal with these interpersonal issues in healthy ways. Moreover, the roots of dysfunctional family roles and addiction often stem from unaddressed challenges with mental health disorders and trauma.

Challenges with trauma, in particular, are often a root cause and/or share a bidirectional relationship with SUD and mental health disorders. Trauma can create a seemingly unending cycle in which the trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. For example, if your parent grew up in an abusive and or dysfunctional household, they are more likely to engage in the same or similar behaviors. 

As noted by the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, problem behavior like substance use, along with harsh parenting and emotional distress, often continues across generations when left unaddressed. Therefore, understanding dysfunctional family roles in addiction can give you and your loved ones the tools to address and heal the trauma addiction has caused.

Types of Dysfunctional Family Roles

According to “Family Roles, Family Dysfunction, and Depressive Symptoms” by Hanna Zagefka et al., every family has expectations about the roles each person plays. Your role or what you do and how you behave within the family is an explicit rule of the division of labor and behaviors that are considered appropriate for each family member. For example, gender stereotypes often put different role expectations on women and men within a family. While many families settle into roles that function well within the family, addiction can warp those roles. Addiction can lead to these six dysfunctional family roles:

  • Actor-outer
    • The individual with addiction
    • Source of the family’s dysfunctional conflict
  • Hero
    • Tries to make the family look good to the rest of the world
    • Covers up the actor-outer’s mistakes
    • They are a perfectionist
    • Challenged by feelings of fear, guilt, and shame
  • Mascot
    • The comedian of the family
    • Tries to use humor to lessen and distract the family from the distress of the actor-outer’s behavior
    • Challenged by feelings of embarrassment, shame, and anger
  • The lost child 
    • Seen as the black sheep or the silent out of the way family member
    • Often goes unnoticed by the rest of the family
    • They are quiet and reserved
    • Tries not to cause trouble or be a problem
    • Gives up on meeting their emotional needs to avoid talking about the problem 
    • Challenged by feelings of guilt, loneliness, neglect, and anger
  • Scapegoat
    • Perceived as the problem child
    • Tends to act out in front of others to divert attention from the actor-outer
    • Can be defiant and hostile in their rebellious efforts to cover for the actor-outer
    • Challenged by feelings of shame, guilt, and emptiness
  • Caretaker
    • The enabler of the family
    • Tries to keep everyone happy and balance the family while avoiding the actual issue
    • Makes excuses for the actor-outer’s actions and behavior
    • Puts on a show of normalcy to people outside of the family
    • Covers for the actor-outer’s behavior and responsibilities
    • The martyr that protects the actor-outer from the consequences of their behavior
    • Challenged by feelings of inadequacy, fear, and helplessness 

When left unaddressed, dysfunctional family roles from addiction can morph into codependency. Codependency supports unhealthy relationships and dependency on the people in the dysfunctional family roles to function. While the dysfunctional family roles that are warped by addiction feel overwhelming, healing is possible for the whole family. Seeking support to build healthy coping tools can be vital to addiction recovery and the long-term well-being of the family as a whole. 

Ways to Heal Dysfunctional Family Roles at New Creation Recovery

As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) states, well-nurtured family relationships can be a source of comfort, guidance, and strength. Although it will not happen overnight, dismantling dysfunctional family roles and healing is possible. With hard work, you and your loved ones can break the cycle of dysfunctional family roles. Listed below are some of the healthy strategies you can engage in to cultivate and strengthen your relationships with your loved ones:

  • Build communication skills
    • Make time to talk to each other and listen to each other
  • Work on establishing traditions, values, and goals together
  • Make a point of spending time together and trying new things together
    • Try new foods 
    • Take cooking classes
    • Play a new board game 
    • Start a book and or movie club
  • Stay active together
    • Have family dance parties
    • Take weekly walks 
    • Set exercise goals together

With support, you can learn how to engage in using healthy coping tools to dismantle dysfunctional family roles. At New Creation Recovery, we recognize the impact codependent behavior in dysfunctional family roles can have on the wellness of the whole family. Everyone wants to help their loved one overcome the challenges of their addiction and lead a long and fulfilling life. 

However, sometimes the desire to help can hinder treatment when you do not have the tools to address addiction and other issues in healthy ways. Therefore, as a holistic Christian rehab, we are committed to helping you and your loved ones build healthy patterns of behavior, lifelong coping tools, and hope for the future. Through our Christian drug and alcohol rehab treatment centers, we provide a pro-family treatment program to address the unique needs of the whole family.

Healthy family dynamics is an important part of your well-being. Families are often a source of emotional, physical, and economic support for each other to connect and cope through difficult life experiences together. However, risk factors like traumatic experiences, mental health disorders, and SUD can lead to family dysfunction. Addiction, in particular, can contribute to dysfunctional family roles in which the family engages in unhealthy thinking and behavior patterns to cover for the loved one with SUD. When left unaddressed, dysfunction in the family leaves every member feeling overwhelmed by the distress. Thus, at New Creation Recovery, we are committed to providing holistic care to support healing for the whole family. Call us at (877) 868-5730 to learn more today.