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Old 02-01-2009, 12:18 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Roles in an Alcoholic Family

Roles in an Alcoholic Family

The Alcoholic
- other family members revolve around this person
- likely to be experiencing quite a bit of pain and shame even though they may not see it as the result of excessive alcohol or drug use
- as things get worse, the alcoholic is faced with increasing feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, fear, and loneliness
- develop a number of defenses to hide their shame and guilt -> may include irrational anger, charm, rigidity, grandiosity, perfectionism, social withdrawal, hostility, and depression
- project blame or responsibility for their problems onto others including family members who take on unhealthy roles in order to survive
- children of alcoholics feel guilty for their failure to save their parents from the effects of alcohol
- "The alcoholic parent is not satisfied with his own childhood," Bly says, using the bruised rhetoric of recovery. "He wants yours too... When the father vanishes into alcohol, the son lingers and lingers, searching for a lost part of himself."

Codependent/Enabler/Caretaker
- steps up and takes control if the alcoholic loses power
- enabling is anything that protects the chemically dependent person from the consequences of their actions
- spouse often takes on the role, but children and siblings can also be enablers (multigenerational alcoholic families will sometimes designate a child in this role, a sign of more serious pathology)
- tends to everyone's needs in the family
- loses sense of self in tasks of a domestic nature
- never takes the time to assess his/her own needs and feelings
- person never gains what they need most in order to get better: insight
- never are confronted with the facts that would drive home the point: drugs or alcohol are destroying their lives and their family
- as long as the enabler and the chemically dependent family members play their game of mutual self-deception, things never get better - they get worse
- others cannot bond with the caretaker due to the bustle of activity
Caretaker's purpose: to maintain appropriate appearances to the outside world.

Hero
- high achiever; takes focus off the alcoholic because of his/her success; perfectionist; feels inadequate; compulsive; can become a workaholic
- alcohol bestows this role onto the individual whose accomplishments compensate for the alcoholic's behavior
- often the oldest child who may see more of the family’s situation and feels responsible for fixing the family pain
- child excels in academics, athletics, music or theatre
- gets self worth from being "special"
- rest of family also gets self worth ("we can't be that bad if one of us is successful") -> his/her deeds assure the family that their definition is more than alcohol
- hero does not receive attention for anything besides an achievement; therefore, inner needs are not met
- he/she loses the ability to feel satisfied by whatever feat he/she has manifested
- as things get worse, the hero is driven to higher and higher levels of achievement. No level of super responsible, perfectionist, over achievement can remove the hero’s internalized feelings of inadequacy, pain, and confusion
- many others grow up to become workaholics and live under constant stress as they work in the service of others seeking approval for their extraordinary effort
- they often end up distancing themselves from their family of origin
- interestingly, many family heroes grow to marry alcoholics and become enablers
Hero's purpose: to raise the esteem of the family.

Scrapegoat
- goes against rules; acts out to take the focus off the alcoholic; feels hurt & guilt; because of behavior, can bring help to family
- lightening rod for family pain and stress
- direct message is that they are responsible for the family’s chaos
- family assigns all ills to the person who harbors this role, e.g. "Mom would not drink so much if (Scapegoat's name) were not always in trouble."
- in reality the misbehavior of the Scapegoat serves to distract and provide some relief from the stress of chemical dependency
- child has issues with authority figures as well as negative consequences with the law, school and home
- on the inside the child is a mass of frozen feelings of anger and pain
- may show self-pity, strong identification with peer values, defiance, and hostility or even suicidal gestures
- this role may seem strange in purpose. However, if there were no scapegoat, all other roles would dismantle. He/she allows others a pretense of control
- alcohol is not identified as an issue -> often, the scapegoat is identified as 'The Problem.'
Scrapegoat's purpose: puts the focus away from alcohol thereby allowing the alcoholic to continue drinking.

Mascot/Cheerleader/Clown
- uses humor to lighten difficult family situations; feels fear; others see him/her as being immature; limited by bringing humor to all situations even if inappropriate
- this individual most popular in the family; brings fun and humour into the family
- learn to work hard at getting attention and making people laugh especially when the anger and tension of substance use are dangerously high
- often named a class clown in school; frequently demonstrates poor timing for the comic relief; most people don't take this child seriously
- often hyperactive, charmers, or cute
- inside, they feel lonely knowing no one really knows the real person behind the clown’s mask
- may grow up unable to express deep feelings of compassion
- may put themselves down often as well as cover up their pain with humour
- accepts laughter as approval, but the humor serves to hide inner painful feelings
- the laughter prevents healing rather than produces it
Mascot's purpose: to provide levity to the family; to relieve stress and tension by distracting everyone.

Lost Child
- no connection to family; brings relief to family by not bringing attention to the family; feels lonely; does not learn communication and relationship skills
- has much in common with scrapegoat -> neither feels very important
- disappears from the activity of the family
- sees much more than is vocalized
- reinforced for causing no problems
- build quiet lives on the edges of family life and are seldom considered in family decisions
- they hide their hurt and pain by losing themselves in the solitary world of short-term pleasure including excessive TV, reading, listening to music, drugs, object love, eating and fantasy
- favorite places for the lost child are in front of the T.V. as well as in his/her room
- due to the sedentary lifestyle, a lost child tends to have issues with weight
- as adults they feel confused and inadequate in relationships
- may end up as quiet loners with a host of secondary issues such as: sexuality problems, weight problems, excessive materialism, or heavy involvement in fantasy
Lost child's purpose: does not place added demands on the family system; he/she is low maintenance.


Alcoholic relationships disintegrate upon close inspection. If pursued, family members will admit that none are entirely comfortable in their designated role. Moreover, if outside circumstances change, the alcoholic family is less able to adapt. Instead, if a crisis or alteration in the system occurs such as a death, birth, divorce, etc, the roles simply switch to accomodate the change. In other words, a child may have been a lost child in younger years, but may grow up to be a mascot when the her role leaves for college. Unfortunately, this switch which occurs to meet the family dynamic is often a shock to the one who now has a new role.

Finally, alcoholism demands that the problem drinker maintain a constant supply of alcohol. This demand encourages enabling behaviors in loved ones. Enabling is not a dirty word as is often indicated on popular television talk shows. Enabling means that family members end up facilitating the drinking, in order to prevent negative consequences from occurring to the family. An example of enabling behavior is the purchasing of alcohol by the loved one. The loved one rationalizes this purchase with the excuse that at least the alcoholic will not have to drink and drive. Another enabling example is a family member volunteering to call the alcoholic's employer with a feigned illness when in fact the alcoholic has a hangover. While well intentioned, the enabling behavior serves to protect the alcoholic from accountability.

The examples listed above are not exhaustive but help to demonstrate the amount of energy that the loved one uses to placate alcoholic reactions and stress. In essence, alcoholism dominates the family members without ever reciprocating or apologizing. In time, members lose the ability to coalesce as a united force. At that juncture, alcoholism has won the battle.



References:
Davis, M. Surviving An Alcoholic Family. Accessed from: http://www.smcok.com/media/newspaper...lic_family.htm
(article no longer available from this website unfortunately)
Children of Alcoholics. Accessed from: This Is A War - ADDICTION
Alcoholic Family Roles. Accessed from: Alcoholic Family Roles Alcohol Self-Help News

Recommended Reading:
The Complete ACOA Sourcebook: Adult Children of Alcoholics at Home, at Work and in Love by Janet Woititz and Robert Ackerman.
Perfect Daughters (Revised Edition) by Robert J. Ackerman
Silent Sons: A Book for and About Men by Robert Ackerman
Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward and Craig Buck
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Old 02-01-2009, 01:09 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Thank you for this post, Dothi, it is very helpful. I can see aspects of myself in all of these depending on different times of my life.
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Old 02-01-2009, 02:22 PM   #3 (permalink)
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The 'lost child' has also been called the 'adjuster'
We play all the roles at some point, but for me it was -
70% 'lost child'
20% 'hero'
10% 'placater'
One of my brothers was all scapegoat. My other brother and my sister were 80% enablers and 20% heroes.
Oddly enough, the scapegoat turned out the most 'normal' and I greatly admired the success he achieved once past school. I think his rebellious attitude helped him break away from the shame and guilt.
Being a 'lost child' makes one kind of selfish - like a turtle always looking for a better shell.
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Old 02-01-2009, 02:29 PM   #4 (permalink)
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When I was twenty I already felt like I had lived my life. I'm the oldest of three children, with an alcoholic father and codependent mother. I am the family hero; my AF has ever commented that he can't be doing *that bad* of a job if I turned out so well. I'm the successful academic who is never allowed to need help. My younger sister is the lost child, and I have watched her persevere through blatant neglect, struggling under the label of "family failure". My youngest brother is the family clown and favorite. An athletic success, he is the current sparkle in my dad's eye. You can tell by the coffee table loaded with portraits of him from sports events. He's also the favorite because my AF obviously relives his teenage years through drinking with my brother and his friends.

Since I was a child I have been mediating between the AF and my mom. They've always had an angry marriage, fueled by my AF's drunken absences punctuated by fighting. I tried to mediate because I wanted to provide the sense of stable security that was missing from my environment. I didn't know how to have fun. How can you, when you don't know if you're celebrating christmas this year, or if it's cancelled because mom and dad are angry again (and AF is gone drinking). As a result, I grew up to be a controlling person, trying to anticipate and correct problems that had not happened yet. This has been a toxic trait for me in relationships.

I never understood why exactly I was such a wound up person; I just knew that I was, and that it was becoming a problem. I heard someone refer to family roles one day, and decided to google it. I was very ashamed to read about the kind of family I have right here on the internet, then in more detail in books. But I wasn't able to begin healing until I finally understood exactly where the pressure was coming from (not just the alcohol, but the alcoholic's behavior). Then I could finally change how I was reacting to and dealing with that pressure.

Climbing out of bad habits has been hard. My family escalated their behavior, just like the books describe, to convince me that I should maintain my role in the family. I recognize now that my AF plays a victim role, which brings out the control freak in me, which brings back the bad habits. I still feel terrible guilt when I have to tell him "NO" and fail to meet his expectations. But I would never go back. The rewards of this change have been beyond what I could have envisioned while still growing up with my family. When I was still enmeshed in my family, I definitely saw things in black and white. Now a whole world of grey possibilities are open to me, and there is no one right choice (or wrong choice, for that matter).

Please feel free to add to this thread. I would really like to see how strong these patterns hold in people who visit the ACoA forum.
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Old 02-03-2009, 07:16 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Oddly enough, although both of my parents were actively alcoholic through most of our childhood, none of us four siblings took on the classic roles 100%. There was no one 'hero', and we were all more active as 'enablers' than anything else.
My now deceased (cancer) brother and I took on the roles, respectively, of 'scapegoat' and 'lost child' to a 60%-70% degree, but he was successful socially and, later, in business. I managed to get a graduate degree from a good school, but have since drifted a bit in careers. And the lack of any significant intimate relationship outside of family, ever, confirms a big percentage of the 'lost' role.

I would speculate that we all predominantly took on the role of 'detente-keepers', sort of a super-enabler. All four of us never argued or yelled at each other - we settled problems quickly without going to our parents. Sound's like a parent's dream, huh?!! We all knew any conflict was just fuel for a future withering drink-fueled attack from my father. Nothing could make one feel corrupt and to be a waste of the universe's atoms like the verbal machete attacks of my father. To take the Cold War analogy further, we lived under MADness (as in mutual assured destruction).

My two remaining siblings and myself have a strong tendency to avoid conflict and emotionally difficult situations. It is just hard to turn off that Distant Early Warning system that sends one quickly to the emotional bomb shelter (ok, ok that is the last cold war thing I will use). This has really impacted each of us in our careers, as no one has really had much of any success. But, having read the trials of many of the people here, it is the truth that we have done fairly well given the so-called upbringing we had. I am not angry at my deceased parents anymore, as it is clear that they did the best they could with a really limited set of tools and years of addiction.
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Old 02-03-2009, 08:58 AM   #6 (permalink)
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although I don't think there is any alcoholism in my parents (my father no longer drinks, but he has a stoumach condition) my mother is highly co-dependent, as am I and my brother, my aunt is an alcoholic and my mother's cousin died of an alcohol-related illness two weeks ago at the age of 41.

So I'm not an ACOA, but we def have those patterns, I am the hero/caretaker my brother is the scapegoat/caretaker. But I do wonder, given my situation, if there are any famillies that wouldn't recognise patterns in that set? not to diminish the effect of being anACOA, but are there any HEALTHY famillies do you think? I guess I'm just no good at recognising them? I'm trying to steer my own parenting style to a more healthy one, but although I have a shopping list of unhealthy behaviours that I try not to do, I'm finding it very hard to find a description that means anything of what healthy looks like, which pretty much leaves a void.....LOL.
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Old 02-03-2009, 09:46 AM   #7 (permalink)
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When I learned about these roles, it was extremely helpful for me.

The kids in my family changed roles around a lot, so looking through the lists of behaviors to understand what coping methods we used at different times was very, very useful.
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Old 02-03-2009, 10:30 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Hehe... I saw myself in "hero" for a minute. Then thought, Impossible. I haven't done anything good enough for that role.

(sad smile)
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Old 02-03-2009, 02:51 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Lightbulb

Quote:
Originally Posted by dothi View Post
I'm the oldest of three children, with an alcoholic father and codependent mother. I am the family hero; my AF has ever commented that he can't be doing *that bad* of a job if I turned out so well. I'm the successful academic who is never allowed to need help.

...Since I was a child I have been mediating between the AF and my mom. They've always had an angry marriage, fueled by my AF's drunken absences punctuated by fighting. I tried to mediate because I wanted to provide the sense of stable security that was missing from my environment. I didn't know how to have fun. How can you, when you don't know if you're celebrating christmas this year, or if it's cancelled because mom and dad are angry again (and AF is gone drinking). As a result, I grew up to be a controlling person, trying to anticipate and correct problems that had not happened yet. This has been a toxic trait for me in relationships.

Phew. Me too! Oldest of 3, AF + Codie Mom (who drank plenty herself) = angry marriage with me mediating and never getting any emotional support myself.

The statement that really jumped out at me, though, was this:
Quote:
Originally Posted by dothi View Post
When I was twenty I already felt like I had lived my life.
I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was that made me feel so suddenly directionless at age 24 (now 28). Why my vision of the future beyond that point was an empty space. You said exactly how I felt/feel - "I already felt like I had lived my life."

Wow. Thanks. This clarity will help me move forward more than I have been.
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Old 02-03-2009, 03:07 PM   #10 (permalink)
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I'm the oldest of four, was always trying to "make" my younger siblings behave. I believed for the longest time that if they would just be quiet, my dad would stop exploding/mom would get happy. Poor them!
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Old 02-04-2009, 05:09 AM   #11 (permalink)
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I'm like Ceridwen in that I am not an ACOA. My father is now passed away but I strongly believe that he was an ACOA. Just today I was going through the family tree, up to the great grandparents on his side and all the offspring. Looking at the aunts and uncles, my first cousins, my second cousins. I was shocked at the amount of alcoholics, bitter divorces, people never marrying, a born again christian - my thoughts are that for somebody to find God when they aren't born into a religion is that they have gone through hell and back. I think they are all signs that we all had poor role models. My father taught me black and white thinking, perfectionism, if you aren't good at it then don't try. I turned into a high achiever but then imploded in graduate school and have curbed back my ambition. Another consequence of my upbringing is that I am married to an alcoholic.

I suspect my father was the clown. I never saw him with his parents because they died when I was very young but he always pretented to be more stupid than what he was. The wording of that is poor because he was not stupid at all. But he was always trying to fill a silence with a joke.
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Old 02-04-2009, 10:04 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Googling "roles in a dysfunctional family" gets a lot more hits than "roles in an alcoholic family". Apparently these roles were first recognized in families of alcoholics, but now they are identified in just about every other dysfunctional family dynamic as well.

Wikipedia explains, "Dysfunctional families are most often a result of the alcoholism, substance abuse, or other addictions of parents, parents' untreated mental illnesses/defects or personality disorders, or the parents emulating their own dysfunctional parents and dysfunctional family experiences."



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My father taught me black and white thinking, perfectionism, if you aren't good at it then don't try. I turned into a high achiever but then imploded in graduate school and have curbed back my ambition.
We have a lot in common.
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Old 02-05-2009, 08:24 AM   #13 (permalink)
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icant said:
Quote:
My father taught me black and white thinking, perfectionism, if you aren't good at it then don't try.
Alcoholic roles and behaviors definitely get passed down even if the drinking is absent. I have seen this in my siblings.
The common thread in all the roles is a compulsion to hide the family secret, and as Dothi pointed out, this compulsion occurs whenever there is something that the family wants to hide.
Only recently have I realized how much I fear interactions that may, even remotely, result in judgment. It may underlie a lot of my procrastination and a weird tendency to space out at alanon meetings - I am averse to judgment. This might be a learned habit of avoiding anything that might give others a yardstick to measure what is going on at home, or a habit of hiding mental/spiritual bruises.
Its a really bad habit.
Yuckier that chewing tobacco and nose-picking.
A lesson: You can't move forward if you keep circling the wagons.
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Old 02-05-2009, 08:38 AM   #14 (permalink)
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Thanks dothi for all this information have not seen it all written down together!
I've read it once got scared about how many times I saw myself and my children,
so later I'll read it again calmly!
Take care
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Old 02-05-2009, 10:26 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Thanks so much for this, Dothi.

The scapegoat and the hero among my siblings are now dead. The mascot continues on his addictive road, and the lost child (me) is a little less lost every day.

There's hope for us.....giving these things a name really helps me to work through it.
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Old 02-08-2009, 05:39 PM   #16 (permalink)
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I just copy and pasted the "Clown" part of this for my sister. Hope that's ok? She admitted to me (obviously hard for her being the one that diffuses emotional situations!) that it made a lot of sense to her about the way she relates now. I'm trying to help her out using the stuff I learn on here and in therapy and think it's getting through the tough persona she puts on. She's my best friend and I know that she's unhappy but because she's emotionally stand-offish it's hard to communicate with her. I'm so grateful to you for posting this, Dothi, as this really interested her and I can see how she's starting to open up.
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Old 02-08-2009, 08:46 PM   #17 (permalink)
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Hugs SelfSeeking.

:ghug3



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Originally Posted by SelfSeeking View Post
Hehe... I saw myself in "hero" for a minute. Then thought, Impossible. I haven't done anything good enough for that role.

(sad smile)
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Old 02-08-2009, 08:48 PM   #18 (permalink)
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My oldest sister was the caretaker, my second oldest the hero, and I was the scapegoat though now I feel like the Lost Child! Alot of these dynamics are still very much in place today as adults.
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irisgardens (12-04-2014)
Old 02-10-2009, 11:49 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Thanks for posting this. I found out about these roles last year (which intrigued me very much) when my brother mentioned that he had learned about it in some high school class. He said that I was in the hero role and that he switched between lost and clown. He was entirely right. I was/am the perfectionist. It's amazing to read the description and relate totally to each thought. I never understood why. For so long I've had no idea why I was "different" just that I was.

To the OP, I could have written your posts.
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irisgardens (12-04-2014)
Old 02-11-2009, 08:58 AM   #20 (permalink)
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I have read one reasonable criticism of these roles: they are not unique to alcoholic families, or even those struggling with any addiction, as they exist in all families, with or without addiction and/or trauma.
I think there is some truth to this, but in families struggling with addiction the roles become fine tuned to respond to the needs of the addict, and the addict's fundamental need is to stay addicted. So what is normally nature/God's way of making lots of different and interesting people becomes a set of roles that only function well in response to addiction. There lies the problem - how make one's role and one's strengths/weaknesses function in normal society, responding to normal ups and downs in a manner that is at least approximately, at-least-in-the-ballpark, sane.
For me my brain is still working and responding like it did all those years ago. But at least I can see what is going on and that is progress.
Here's progress: I missed the last few al-anon meetings last week because of various excuses, and last night they said they were worried about me. And these are people against whom I still harbor little expectations, resentments and distrust! I feel a little less lost.
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