The Maladaptive Process in Addiction


Sober Recovery Expert Author


Most children, regardless of family of origin, look to their parents and the family system as a whole for clues on how to behave. In doing so, they engage in a process of adaptation: adapting to the environment around them in an effort to gain a sense of belonging and balance. In essence, children and family members go along to get along.

Ideally, these shifts in the system are positive—like moving to another city for employment opportunities, seeing a son or daughter off to college, or welcoming the birth of a new family member—and there are no threats in going along with the changes. In fact, in positive instances, a level of personal growth and healthy development is usually achieved.

There are also unfortunate changes that take place and bring a family out of balance, including addiction.

However, there are also unfortunate changes that take place and bring a family out of balance, such as an unexpected diagnosis of a deadly disease. However, with regard to most socially-accepted and widely medically-treated diseases—cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, etc.—families typically strive to keep positive attitudes and their everyday lives as normal as possible for the overall emotional health of the family system and consideration for the diagnosed individual.

Of course, individual stories vary and certainly there are family units which approach any and every foreseen or unforeseen situation with a varying degree of dysfunction. However, there is one grievous occurrence which almost always destroys an entire family. Regardless of the otherwise healthy functioning of the family of origin, this particular diagnosis—official or otherwise—often causes each member to maladapt, or negatively adapt, usually to their own individual detriment.

The diagnosis? Addiction.

Addiction: An Unruly Disease

Addiction is a disease which negatively impacts families in ways no other disease does. Yet, because of the ways in which it is currently viewed, addressed, treated and often punished, the diagnosis is not as easily managed by the individual or the family. In fact, individuals and families are typically left to research the treatment options and seek out assistance on their own. The latter results in chaos and catastrophe for most families with little to no access to addiction education, information, resources or helping professionals.

Family members struggle with the painful experience of witnessing the devastating effects of the disease, the toxic and self-destructive behaviors that accompany it and which usually result in punitive measures. The strain of social, financial and legal consequences combined with the shame and embarrassment the family typically feels as a result of social perspectives creates a vicious cycle of enabling and forces any children involved to permanently maladapt via one or more of the following five dysfunctional family roles:

  1. The Hero: the child who overcompensates for the active addict’s dysfunction by trying to be perfect

  2. The Scapegoat: the child who acts out as a result of the dysfunction and chaos, unwittingly providing the active addict with excuses to use, deny accountability and distractions from the actual issue

  3. The Mascot: the child who makes light of the situation, regardless of how serious or potentially fatal, in an effort to mask the pain and deny the emotionally torturous reality

  4. The Lost Child: the child who escapes the chaos and potential abuse by hiding out in their room, getting lost in books, tv, video games, etc.

  5. Chief Enabler: the individual (child or adult) who covers up the evidence of active addiction and dysfunction

Regardless of which role a child of an addict inadvertently acquires, he or she will experience the self-sabotaging, unhealthy patterns of behavior modeled and typically unwittingly promoted within the family.

Each role, regardless of outward appearance, is by nature detrimental to the child’s holistic well-being and has its own specific, self-sabotaging characteristics. However, the common aspect shared by all is the lack of true identity, because until they seek or are offered professional help to recover from their own emotional traumas and resulting maladaptive processes, who they are is not who they were born to be. Instead, they are sadly a direct result of or response to the active addict and addiction itself.

If you or someone you know is seeking professional support, please visit our directory of counseling and therapy centers or call 866-606-0182 to start the path to recovery today.

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