The Family Circus: Rigid Roles and Thoughts on Breaking Free

Addiction or alcoholism doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Many times, a whole system grows up around the drinking or drug use to manage all the emotions that get triggered, and to keep the family going. One way in which families do this is to develop a system of roles for each member and to stay in those roles rather than behave in a more authentic or organic way.

If you have siblings, think back to your childhood, or try to remember other families that had a few kids in your neighborhood. Wasn’t there a “good kid” or a “class clown” or a “black sheep” in every family? Family roles like that are expectations about how that family member will act in pretty much every situation, and they are common whether or not addiction or other dysfunction plays a part. The difference is that in dysfunctional families – those families that are struggling with addiction or alcoholism – the roles are rigid and rigidly imposed. If a family member acts out of role or tries to shift roles, the entire system gets thrown off balance. While this can help a family break the cycle of addiction, more commonly at least at first it can also lead the rest of the family pressuring the member acting more organically to get back in line so to speak.

In a Christian family, this rigid pressure to stay in your role is clearly in conflict with the values of Christian parenting. Staying true to your faith and staying clear about Christian values can help expose the addiction by challenging the strict adherence to role-bound behavior.

In a family affected by alcoholism, the alcoholic or addict often has an ally. In treatment circles, this person is often referred to as the Chief Enabler, or just the Enabler. This role is a tough one: your job is to take care of all the duties and responsibilities the drinker is not doing. The Chief Enabler just seamlessly swoops in, managing kids, cooking, bills, etc. often while seething underneath. A key component of this role is to prevent the family (and thus the drinker) from experiencing the negative consequences of addiction.

Role of the Chief Enabler

The Chief Enabler is terribly stuck because one the one hand they feel important (indeed, the very survival of the family seems to be at stake) and valued by the rest of the family and community, but they also feel lonely and angry at being “dumped” with managing everything. However, these people are often excellent managers and do a fantastic job, both at work and at home, managing everything, often so selflessly as to end up with stress-related illnesses.

Their pitfall? They are so focused on managing everything regarding other people – the drinker, the drinking behavior and the havoc it wreaks, the children, and quite possibly a few people at work too – they have a very difficult time focusing on themselves, knowing their own heart, and ultimately being faithful. It is tough to maintain your faith and your spirit when your center of gravity is outside yourself. And once the drinker enters recovery and begins to take on responsibility, it can be really hard for the Chief Enabler to let go.

In some cases the Chief Enabler is one of the children, however, it is more common that the kids end up taking on one or more of the following roles: The Hero, The Scapegoat, The Lost Child, or The Mascot. The role of Hero is quite similar to the Chief Enabler. The Hero overfunctions placing a heavy burden of pressure to perform in all arenas upon him or herself: he or she will earn excellent grades, play sports, and charm adults with “people-pleasing” manners and a cooperative, helpful attitude. These kids try to help out the Chief Enabler, sometimes so much so as to act like a partner or parentified child rather than a kid. While the Hero’s good behavior can win him or her much positive attention, it comes at a cost. The Hero often feels guilt and shame over the drinker’s behavior and rage at his or her missed childhood.

The Scapegoat and the Lost Child Play Important ‘Roles’

The Scapegoat is a counterpoint to the Chief Enabler and the Hero. This child does everything “wrong,” often including using drugs or alcohol. The Scapegoat expresses all the pain and anger the family cannot deal with: this kid acts out all the repressed and denied emotions for the family. The Scapegoat also takes risks and behaves in a way that, due to the dangers to him or herself or other people, may well function to get legal or social service authorities involved with the family. While the Hero sacrifices him or herself to support the family by being “perfect,” the Scapegoat is also sacrificing him or herself by being “perfectly awful” in order to try to deflect attention away form the real problems, or to provide the way in for outside helpers.

The Lost Child is quiet, out of the way, and asks for nothing. This child’s sacrifice to the family is to have no needs and no wants, as often between the drama of the drinker, the Scapegoat, and the family Hero, there is just no energy left to deal with one more thing. The Lost Child, rather than compete with the other roles in the family, withdraws and retreats. The strength of this role is that this child is naturally predisposed to contemplation and spiritual seeking, as being alone and quiet feels comfortable.

However, if a Lost Child isn’t supported, they are at grave risk for developing depression and/or addictions as they are so divorced from their own needs.

Rounding out the Roles

The Mascot, often the youngest child, and sometimes combined with the Scapegoat, also seeks attention, and by doing so deflects attention away from the pain and suffering the family is experiencing. These are the kids who have amazing comedic timing, a goofy, fun-loving façade, and are the “life of the party” even if there is no party. These kids are also sacrificing themselves, ready to turn everything and anything into a joke to reduce tension, ease a difficult moment, or distract the family from the drinker’s problems. Like a court jester, they may also have a unique ability to speak the truth in jest, but like the others in the family, they must stay in role at all times.