The members of an alcoholic/addicted family adopt roles to maintain peace and balance among themselves. One researcher likened this to a ‘mobile’ hanging from the ceiling where each piece keeps the others in balance. When one piece of the mobile changes or falls off the others become chaotic and out of balance.
When the family is chaotic, out of balance the others try to compensate to restore balance. Children are especially vulnerable to these dynamics.
One model that is helpful in identifying child behaviors is that of Sharon Wegscheider (1981). In this model children adopt various coping and enabling roles.
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 Behaviour. This little person often goes on to become a partner of an alcoholic or other dysfunctional person if they do not get treatment.
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.
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.
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.