Roles adopted in families where there is addictions

Family members form a system and a change in one member of the family affects all the others. Think of what happens in your family when for example, someone is in a major car accident, or is ill or has financial difficulties. The whole immediate family is affected as other members of the household seek to compensate for the change in one family member. In a similar fashion, all the members of the family where there is chemical dependency are affected, This article will focus on the roles adopted by children in families where there is addiction. Adult children often continue to be impacted by the addiction in ways that are not immediately apparent. A person who is in an addict or chemically dependent, has lost the ability to control their drinking or use of substances. They cannot predict their behaviour once they start to use substances or drink. Their drinking/drug use causes problems in major areas of their lives and yet they continue to indulge their habit. There is a change in tolerance to the drug or alcohol and one needs to drink or use more to acquire the desired effect. The person becomes preoccupied with the substance and their need for it. Use of the substance becomes a compulsion. Patterns of addiction vary. Some will drink or use substances daily and others are more episodic. Some report that they became hooked the day they started using substances but with others the process of addiction involved slowly slipping over an invisible line where control was lost. It is important to note that addiction has negative consequences both for the addict and for those around them, but the addict seems unable to notice the impact of his or her addiction on others. The focus of this article is on the hidden in impact on children which often only becomes apparent later in life

Co dependency

Irrespective of the substance or object of addiction, the spouse or partner of the addict is often affected very deeply. Typically these people experience what is called codependency. This refers to :

  • a loss of sense of self, how one feels and what one needs.
  • They become obsessed with dealing with the addict. Much behaviour is motivated as a reaction to the behaviour of the addict, instead of acting from personal motives.
  • The co dependent partner becomes consumed with the addict, putting his or her own priorities on hold. They often find themselves taking responsibility for other people, tasks and situations and engaging in the denial that typifies addiction.

Children in the family often experience the effects of a combination of addiction and co-dependency. They frequently have the feeling that neither parent is responsive or available on a consistent and predictable basis. Unhealthy family dynamics are created as a consequence of living in the chaotic system. These roles may not differ markedly from the roles in other families. However in an addictive family the roles are defined by expectations of the parents and fuelled and created on the basis of fear and shame. In most families they are clearly defined roles. It is typical for adults to share the roles of being a breadwinner and decision maker. Children adopt flexible roles and learn how to be responsible, organise, develop goals, play and enjoy themselves. They learn to be flexible and spontaneous and sensitive to the feelings of others. They learn how to be independent and how to rely on each other. They learn a combination of roles which are flexible. In families of addiction however children often become trapped in a role. They do what they need to feel safe.

In most well functioning families, emotions are expressed clearly and each person is given the opportunity to express their feelings. Emotions are accepted with understanding and support. In a home in which addiction is present, emotions are suppressed and become distorted .When they are expressed it is often in a judgemental and blaming fashion. Alliances with in the addictive family tend to be destructive. In healthy families, rules protect members and are flexible. For example the rule may be “no hitting” or “everyone will have the chance to be heard.” In chemically dependent families, there are often unspoken rules such as “you won’t tell others how you got that bruise’ or “you won’t say why there is no lunch money.”

The roles that are adopted in chemically dependent families are based on a need to survive the unpredictability and inconsistency that characterises these households.Children become locked into them. These roles are based on what the child perceives as necessary for survival. Consequently these roles become very rigid to the point that a positive becomes a negative. One of the characteristics of a smoothly working family is consistency, but in the case of a role that is adopted as a response to addiction consistency becomes rigidity. The child loses their ability to choose a role or to shift from one role to another. The majority of children in addictive households adopt one of four roles namely the role of the responsible child, the adjuster, the placater or the acting out child. Usually there is a primary role and in a secondary role and each has its own strengths and vulnerabilities.

The responsible child

Children need consistency and structure. As one person becomes more and more engrossed in the addiction, and their partner becomes more preoccupied with the addict, then this consistency and structure is lost. On some days when the alcoholic is drinking, there may be no disruption or tension. At other times the drinker may become loud, opinionated and demanding in his or her expectations of the children. The partner may at times be passive or at other times make arrangements for the children to be out of the house until the alcoholic goes to bed or calms down. Children do not know what to expect from either parent. Someone may take over responsibility for the family.

It is often the eldest child who adopts the role of the responsible one in the family. This child may try to create structure and provide consistency. The child may decide that, when for example dad becomes verbally abusive, she will gather the younger children and take them to the neighbour’s home. It is the responsible child who, for example, directs the other children to bed, ensures they complete their homework, sees to the locking up of the house and takes on the role of being responsible for the others. This child may realise that it helps to keep mom calm. He or she may note that it helps when the housework is done, the house is tidy and the laundry is put away in the cupboards. She or he may see that the younger siblings feel safer when she/he gives instructions rather than relying on an inconsistent parent to do it.

Responsible children are often very organised. They become very adept at planning and learn to manipulate others and accomplish goals. They often emerge with strong leadership qualities. They learned to set tangible goals such as “I’ll be sure to get the groceries on the way home from school.” They often think of short-range goals such as “what can I get done today?” However if they begin thinking about what they want to do over the next few weeks or months, they know that the home may not remain stable enough for them to follow to with the plans. For example one responsible child said “I never planned date a week in advance. The best way was to call mom an hour before to see if I could go. It always depended on dad’s mood and she only knew what that would be like a few hours ahead.” Responsible children learn to rely on themselves. They come to believe that adults will not be available to help them.

Most adults perceive responsible children as mature, dependable and serious. peersoften feel that they are not much fun. Because the responsible child is serious, and dependable, likely to work hard an school and be goal orientated it is not surprising that they seldom come to the attention of councillors and supportive organisations.Their pain , feeling of stuckness , resentment and issues with trust and guilt may go unnoticed for years.

The adjuster.

The adjuster is likely to say “put me in any situation and I will adapt. But don’t ask me to change it.” When others in the home, typically be responsible child, provide structure, the younger children may find it is not necessary to be responsible for themselves. As the addictive family becomes more chaotic, some children find it simpler to adjust to whatever happens. The adjuster doesn’t think much about the situation and simply adapts, believing “I can’t do anything about it anyway.” The child seems almost detached from the family. This child often seems invisible. Typically the child may retire to his or her room and spend less time at home and more with his or her friends and seems to ignore the conflicts and emotions at home. Other children in the home may perceive this child as selfish and the parents may notice this child less than the others.

The adjuster avoids confrontation. If example the child was leaving to visit a friend for the night and a drunk dad yelled “where are you going? You aren’t going anywhere!” The adjuster will turn round, unpack his or her clothes and quietly call the friend and give an excuse for not coming over even though he or she had permission to sleep over earlier in the day. These children often describe the many times that mom has packed her bags ready to leave and has raced off with them to a relative only to sort things out a day or two later and go back to dad. Nothing is said about the departure. Everyone starts acting as though what happened the previous day never took place.

The role of the adjuster is permeated with denial and lack of attention to others. This is what helps the person to survive. Acting without thinking or feeling is typical of an adjuster.Such a person will not acknowledge feelings but will simply respond to the situation as it presents itself. Such children seldom stand out at school, do not adopt leadership roles and seldom create any problems within the academic system and so are often ignored.

The placater.

In most homes there is a child who is more sensitive than the others and is more involved from an emotional point of view. This child typically adopts the role of the placater, that is the child who tries to make everybody feel better. This child usually finds that the best way of dealing with the tension filled, inconsistent home is by acting in a way that will lessen the tension in as many family members as possible. This child spends his or her time trying to fix the sadness, fear, anger and problems of his or her siblings and certainly of mom and dad. For example, while mom and dad are arguing, and the other children are afraid, the placater will try to ease their fears. When the others are embarrassed by a parent ‘s drunken behaviour, this child will try to make the situation less painful for the others. When a parent has let a sibling down and the child is angry, the placater will try to do something to defuse the anger.

As this sensitive child grows into adult hood, he or she is often perceived as a nice person. The placater spends his or her time trying to please others. The placater become skilled in listening and is reluctant to disagree with anybody. He or she may apologise, even if something is not his or her fault. The child frequently assumes that he or she has done something to make parents unhappy.

The parents are often proud of the placater, believing he or she is unselfish. They don’t have to worry about disappointing this child, because the placater won’t show that they are bothered about anything. This is not a child that will argue or confront the parent. If this child risked self-disclosure, they would have to deal with their own painfulreality and they avoid this by focusing on others. They are skilled at focusing attention on others and diverting it from themselves. It is easy to understand why their pain is ignored because they seldom draw attention to themselves.

The acting out child.

The acting out child is the stereotype in an addictive family. They are the ones who cause disruption in their own lives as well is that of other family members. In doing so they provide a distraction from the real issues. It is often easier for the parents to focus on the troublesome child, than to worry about their own contribution to the dysfunctional family system brought about by chemical dependency. These are the children who have performed poorly, drop out of school, get pregnant early, drink or abuse drugs themselves and exhibit socially unacceptable behaviour. They are the children who are most likely to be addressed and receive help from professionals.

Unacceptable behaviour is learned, and parents are the primary role models in the learning process. Parental immaturity, expressed by selfishness, lack of consistency, teasing, and inappropriate discipline, frequently characterises life in addictive families. Most children have a poor self-image and feel inadequate. The acting out child is unable to communicate feelings in a healthy way and uses unacceptable forms of behaviour as a way of saying “care about me! I cannot cope!” They act as the voice of the family saying “Help!” They can be creative and have strong leadership, but may be leading in the wrong direction


Each of these roles has its own inherent and strengths and weaknesses. The responsible child is likely to be organised, have leadership skills, be a decision-making, an initiator, a perfectionist, goal orientated and self disciplined. They struggle because of an inability to listen, to follow, to play, to relax, to be flexible have a need to be right, in control, lack spontaneity and are afraid of making mistakes.

The adjuster has the strengths of flexibility, ability to follow, an easy-going attitude and is not upset by negative situations. However they are afraid to initiate, make decisions, lack direction, are unable to perceive options and tend to follow without question.

The placater demonstrates strengths of caring, empathy, good listening skills, sensitivity to others, ability to give and to be warm. He or she struggles to receive, is unable to focus on self, carries great guilt, is afraid of anger and is highly tolerant of inappropriate behaviour.

The acting of child has the strength of being close to his or her own feelings, is honest and creative. Other strengths are a sense of humour and the ability to lead without questioning. However, he or she tends to express anger in inappropriate ways, struggles to follow direction, may be intrusive and may have social problems at a young age. Sadly it is usually only the acting out child who comes to the attention of professionals. In my practice I frequently see adult survivors of alcoholic homes in adulthood who was struggling as a consequence of the roles that have emerged in response to the chaotic and unstable homes in which they are raised. In families where chemical dependency is a problem, everyone suffers and the need for help is far more widespread than initially perceived. It is not only the addict him or herself and the acting of child who needs attention that everyone in the system suffers in hidden ways and needs support.

Reference Black c. (2001) It will never happen to me: Hazelden



Olive Branch 37 Wordsworth Avenue Farrarmere Benoni
Tel: 072 122 4766 / 011 849-7473.
Dr Barbara Wade is an accredited member of Saaswipp (the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice) and practices in the field of individual and family therapy, as well as specializing in all forms of trauma