About the Family with Addiction

Unique Characteristics of an Alcoholic Family

Despite the internal family distress, outside observance of the family in their daily affairs often fails to show the presence of an alcoholic member.  In families where alcohol addiction is prevalent, family members become isolated from the community because of the negative societal stigma.  Culture plays an important role on how alcoholism shows itself within a family; however, there are some common factors that are present in all families where there is alcohol abuse.  Recent research suggests that in families where alcohol abuse is present, there is incredible endurance to long-term stress and these families have highly complex behavioral systems.  They often learn to adapt behaviorally in such unique ways in order to survive the challenges that come with living with the effects of alcohol abuse that it is worthy of admiration.

In most families where there is alcohol abuse, the alcohol abuse is the big family secret.    Levels of denial vary for each family member.  Some deny the problem absolutely, others acknowledge it but minimize the seriousness of it and some explain it away as something else.

The entire family system centers on the alcoholism, and unknowingly, the techniques that families use to cope with the problem tend to make the drinking worse.  The alcoholic’s behavior is so reactive and unpredictable that family members tiptoe around the alcoholic in an attempt to avoid triggering volatile and destructive behavior.  Because this volatile behavior is part of the alcohol addiction, this careful behavior fails to help the situation.  Family members learn to communicate in very unclear ways in an attempt to avoid volatile behavior, using language that has ambiguous meanings.  This unclear way of communicating only adds to the tensions that already exist within the family.

Children form a sub-system within the family.  The adult couple often stay in the marriage for the sake of the children but run into great difficulty when the children grow up because the partnership relationship is basically non-existent.   Because of the tension between the parents, the children will often take on the job of helping their parents communicate, and thus the children become stuck in the middle, and often blame themselves for their parent’s struggles.  Children are often drawn in to meet the emotional needs of the spouse who feels abandoned by the addicted spouse in the relationship.  Family members have had to endure endless broken promises and they are often very angry and may use various emotional methods of punishing the alcoholic, such as refusing to talk to them.  The alcoholic is pushed to the periphery; feeling the pain of this withdrawal, the addicted person continues to drink more in an attempt to numb out the emotional pain, which, in turn, causes greater distancing and reinforces the unwanted behavior.

Because family members develop unhealthy attitudes in order to cope with the daily stress, the whole family becomes “sick”, and develops many of the same unhealthy attitudes as the alcohol addicted member.

Family of the Alcoholic

The family life where alcoholism is present can be demonstrated by using a mobile.  The mobile is perfectly balanced yet when one piece becomes out of balance the whole system is out of balance .  Within the family system, individual family members utilize coping strategies that become defining roles.  Each role is an attempt to fill some necessary aspect of the family life.  Some of the common roles within the family are:

The Caretaker
This role is usually filled by an adult however, in cases where there is only one adult or both adults are chronically addicted to drugs or alcohol, the role may be filled by a child.  This role is an especially demanding role for a child.  The purpose of this role is to maintain appearances to the outside world.  The Caretaker takes care of everyone’s needs in the family as well as assuming the day-to-day domestic duties.  The Caretaker tends to lose their own identity within this role because he/she never takes time to attend to his/her own needs and feelings.  Other family members only connect with the Caretaker to have their own needs met.
The Hero
The Hero’s role is to show to the world that there is really nothing wrong with the family.  The child excels in academics, music or sports.  The Hero only receives attention because of his/her accomplishments therefore the Hero does not have his needs met.
The Scapegoat
The problems in the family are blamed on the Scapegoat.  The scapegoat is often in trouble at school, with the law, and at home.  The Scapegoat is usually the one who is most aware and vocal about the alcohol problem.  This role is necessary in the family in order to distract attention away from the alcohol.  If Scapegoat leaves home there is often another family member appointed to this role.  Self-fulfilling prophecy allows this person’s negative self-image to perpetuate negative behavior.  This individual has a very low opinion of self.  Ironically, the individual in this role is often the one most often to seek help.
The Mascot/Cheerleader
Often named the class clown.  This person is popular and provides humor and levity to the family.  The Mascot ignores negative emotions and does not receive healing for own needs and does often not acknowledge that there is a problem.
The Lost Child
This child disappears within the daily activity of the family.  Child often spends time alone and is very quiet.  The Lost child is often very aware of the family situation yet rarely vocalizes it.  The Lost child receives very little attention and is often ignored.

Understanding Addiction

It has been established that there is a correlation between those who have problems with addiction and those who have often been raised in families where there was ineffective and inappropriate communication.  These people have learned that sharing feelings is fearful.  These children are much more susceptible to displaying addictive behavior later in life.

A great deal of research has been done in an attempt to understand the cause and effect of addiction.  This issue is extremely complex because people use substances for different reasons; people choose specific behaviors for individual reasons; in the case of the alcohol dependent person, drinking habits are unique; and each person has a unique set of life circumstances that are not exactly duplicatable for research purposes.

Trying to understand the “whys” behind addiction is not an easy task.  I will give some examples to emphasize my point.  Because alcohol addiction is so prevalent in our society I will refer to typical patterns for alcohol use.  Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence develops and progresses in various recognized patterns and styles.  Some people abuse alcohol from their first experience and continue in a slow progression toward alcohol dependence; others may drink socially for many years and suddenly, progress rapidly into alcohol dependence.  In some instances, people routinely abuse alcohol at periodic intervals, never moving into physical dependence yet life revolves around the obsessive thoughts and actions of alcohol use; and, still, others may drink continually on a daily basis.  There has been extensive research that has attempted to isolate a specific genetic predisposition toward alcohol dependence, however, to date, none of the findings have been conclusive.