What’s your role in my addiction?

“The alcoholic parent is not satisfied with his own childhood,” …. “He wants yours too!… When the father vanishes into alcohol, the son searches for a lost part of himself.” 

My mother is not a drinker… and has hated it everyday of her life. She explained to me as a young child the horrors of living with an alcoholic parent. She made a statement to me that I never forgot … she said… “What we experienced as children made my sister weak … but it made me tough!” Wow … what a sad outcome for children. What roles did they play to be awarded the honor of being “weak” or “tough”?

Sadly, my children were assigned roles as well… being raised by this alcoholic father was simply history repeating itself from one generation to the next. The damage done to my mother and my children as a result of addiction is painful and long lasting. When a parent misuses or abuses alcohol, it can have a profound effect on the whole family. Being a child in an alcoholic family means learning to relate to the world and the people in it in ways that are not necessarily healthy.

The alcoholic family model goes something like this ….

Little caretaker

The little caretaker role is often a carbon copy of the partner of the alcoholic. They take care of the alcoholic; getting drinks, cleaning up after the alcoholic and soothing over stressful situations and events. They are validated by approval for taking responsibility for the alcoholic and their Behavior. This little person often goes on to become a partner of an alcoholic or other dysfunctional person if they do not get treatment.

 Family hero

 The family hero role brings pride to the family by being successful at school or work. At home, the hero assumes the responsibilities that the enabling parent abdicates. By being overly involved in work or school, they can avoid dealing with the real problem at home and patterns of “workaholism” can develop. Although portraying the image of self-confidence and success, the hero may feel inadequate and experience the same stress-related symptoms as the enabler.


The scapegoat role diverts attention away from the chemically dependent person’s behavior by acting out their anger. Because other family members sublimate their anger, the scapegoat has no role model for healthy expression of this normal feeling. They become at high risk for self-destructive behaviors and may be hospitalized with a variety of traumatic injuries. Although all the children are genetically vulnerable to alcoholism, this child is often considered the highest risk because of their association with risk-taking activities and peers. Although tough and defiant, the scapegoat is also in pain.

 Lost child

 The lost child role withdraws from family and social activities to escape the problem. Family members feel that they do not need to worry about them because they are quiet and appear content. They leave the family without departing physically by being involved with television, video games, or reading. These children do not bring attention to themselves, but also do not learn to interact with peers. Many clinicians have noted that bulimia is common in chemically dependent families and feel this child is prone to satisfy their pain through eating.

 Family clown

The family clown role brings comic relief to the family. Often the youngest child, they try to get attention by being cute or funny. With family reinforcement, their behavior continues to be immature and they may have difficulty learning in school. The family clown often hides the pain with laughter and suffers with an inability to have long term relationships as an adult. 

Some of these roles may look more effective than others, but each has its own drawbacks and its own pain. From the perspective of your role, it may be hard for you to understand the pain of a brother or sister in another role. Even though their pain may not be obvious, all of these roles have potentially serious consequences.

 “The past is the past …  shouldn’t I just try to forget it and move on?”
Trying to forget the past without understanding how if affected you will usually not work and may lead to more problems. The best way to “move on” is to squarely face the past, its importance, and its meaning for you. Often this means understanding and forgiving your parents so that the healing process can begin. You can learn more about making peace with the past in several ways. Adult children of alcoholics have websites and organizations to help deal with life on life’s term.  No one has to do this alone. Learn from your past… don’t spend another day living it!

This is my journey… this is my life.

Rob Cantrell

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