The Effects of Addiction on the Family: Roles and Co-Dependency

It was the last straw. Something had to be done. Brady’s actions and attitudes had escalated to an unbearable level for the entire family. The twelve-year-old was in constant conflict at school with teachers and fellow students. His grades were failing and he began skipping out of classes. He had been suspended from school numerous times. More recently he had some brushes with the law. At home, he was disrespectful to his family. He constantly fought with his sister and threw temper tantrums toward his mother when she attempted to discipline him. His behaviour seemed to be the cause of chaos in the family. It was this chaos that finally brought the entire family into counseling. Upon further investigation it was evident that Brady’s troubled behaviour was simply a symptom of the effects of his father’s alcohol addiction on the family.

The effects of addiction on the family are complex and far-reaching, all too often being passed from one generation to the next. When one person in the family becomes dependent on a substance, the other members of the family tend to become co-dependents and enablers, each taking on a different role and displaying behaviours specifically appropriate for their new roles. To successfully help addicts, many experts agree that it is best to work with the whole family. The family is basically seen as a system – if one part is sick, the whole system is affected. A system approach believes that “no man is an island” and that the actions taken by one individual will affect the rest of the system. The basic system for most of us is our family.

The General Systems Theory holds that a system tries to maintain itself and resists change. Rather than learn new coping behaviours, a family might continue to enable the addict. By enabling I mean going out of their way to make it easy for the person to continue their addiction. Co-dependents are individuals (spouses, for example) who are generally afraid to confront the addict. As a result they serve to protect the addict, make excuses for their behaviour, often fearing loss of the relationship, even though it may be very destructive. Often the co-dependent is viewed as addicted to the addict. It is said that living with an addict is not a spectator sport. All are involved to one degree or another, including the passive participants. This cannot be denied away.

One of the most common ways in which families deal with stress is to assign roles to each family member. These roles are the means of survival for the family when a crisis develops in the family system. The family members will become very rigid in these roles in an effort to keep the family functioning. Roles may vary from family to family, but it is important to recognize that children will adapt to their environment in order to cope. To keep balance in the family, the system finds someone to fulfill each role. Often in small families it may be that one person plays several roles alternately. Understanding that these roles may be taken on by family members of a substance abuser is a primary reason for involving the entire family in a treatment plan.