Toxic Family ROLES (Part 2)


or we’ll implode, & then what?


See ACRONYM page for abbrev.



TOXIC FAMILY ROLES (TFRs) develop in a dysfunctional family when healthy emotional bonds are weak or missing.  They are defense mechanisms to help each person adapt to a difficult environment they can’t fix or escape.

Such families revolve around a serious problem – not only chemical addictions, but also a mentally or physically impaired person, someone in jail, infidelity, physical & sexual abuse, a parent who has left, disappeared or died……

This addict or perpetrator is a severe burden on the family – taking up so much time, emotional energy & resources – that the rest of the family can’t get enough of their needs met to thrive.  Children get pulled into parents’ personal or sexual problems, become a spousal substitute to one parent, and may force an older child to be physically & emotionally responsible for younger ones or a mentally ill parent….

• TFRs are Rigid : assigned not chosen, fixed not flexible, not created or maintained by a single member, & have little to do with each person’s fundamental personality

• TFRs are formed & perpetuated because they keep the system from complete disintegration. They develop gradually, unconsciously, so most members don’t realize they’re hooked, which become a deeply ingrained part of everyone’s False Self. While there’s an internal ‘logic’ keeping the mobile pieces in place, they reinforce dysfunction, which is passed down the family treedefense

ROLES provide a sense of purpose in the chaos,
— manage anxiety, minimize blowups or dissolution
— deflect the addict’s blame away from themself
— protect family honor from disgrace by presenting a ‘good’ image to the world….
For them to work, the entire system is forced to participate.
To TEST this, try taking on someone else’s role in your family, or refuse to play your own. Immediate, intense pressure will come down on you to get back to your ‘job’!

1. ADULT Roles
a. The Addict – Can be parent, teen or adult-child. They get all the attention as the center of the family ‘universe’.  Al-Anon says: “The sickest person in the room wins!” & “The alcoholic has their arms wrapped around the bottle, while the co-alcoholic has their arms wrapped around the alcoholic.”
Once this ‘dance’ is set in motion, all that’s left is for everyone else to automatically fill in the rest of the roles, completing the mobile.

Internal prerequisites for addiction are: genetic inheritance, personality traits, attitude, beliefs, history of trauma & their capacity for coping with life’s challenges
Externally – addiction is impacted by important relationships: family & friends, cultural beliefs, social influences & pressures

b. The Caretaker (Co-Dependent, Enabler / Rescuer, Martyr)
This person, usually a spouse but can be an older child, makes all the other roles possible. They have to keep the family together, keep everyone going, keep the addict from injuring or killing themselves…..
They make excuses for bad behavior, emotional abuse & irresponsibility, avoiding any mention of the addiction or the possibility of Recovery, & try to present a problem-free face to the world. But Al-Anon says: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

• As the long-suffering martyr, Enablers take on the addict’s problems & self-blame for failures, living on the highs & lows of another person.  That’s why addicts consciously or unconsciously attach to then.

This Role allows the co-dependent to ignore their own low self-esteem, gives them a sense of purpose & staves off fear of abandonment. So giving up their Role to interrupting the codependent cycle – which could actually lead to healing – is not their 1st choice. Underneath, they don’t believe anyone healthy would want them, but may not admit it even to themselves.
ARTICLE: “Being addicted to the Addict by K. Capell-Sowder

2a & b. The CHILDREN : Hero, Scapegoat, Lost Child, Mascot (next 2 posts).

NEXT:  TFRs (Part 3) – Categories for ACoAs

Toxic Family ROLES (Part 1)


& it’s up to me to help everyone!

PREVIOUS: Family ROLES – general




These posts are focused on the alcoholic family, but we can also apply the Roles to other dysfunctional systems.
DEF: Addiction = any substance, person or activity which is used as a numbing agent against inner pain, becomes the only center of someone’s life & which cause chemical changes in the brain – ‘love’, sugar, alcohol, over-exercising, drugs, porn, pot, religion …. drug = anything used compulsively

REALITY: In any addictive system :
• the addict’s use of their chosen drug(s) is the most important thing in the life of the whole family, & nobody’s allowed to discuss the problem outside

• addiction in not the underlying cause of family problems but rather:
— the denial of it & the emotional pain everyone’s feeling
— nobody saying what they really feel or think, to themselves or to others
— not talking about the “use” & actions that cover it up, blaming others,
— providing alibis & undeserved loyalty of the family to the active addict & to the whole toxic system – which enable the addictions to continue

TYPICAL emotions of an addictive systemACoA pain
Anger: kids resent the drinking parent, but often transfer that anger to the non-drinking parent for being over-controlling, not providing support & protection, or for not leaving the addict
Anxiety: fear because of arguments, neglect & violence, creating constant worry & emotional hyper-vigilance (never relaxed)

Confusion: the drinking parent’s mood swings & unpredictability cause uncertainty & inner turmoil, paralyzing kids who don’t know what to do first, second or next

Depression: feeling lonely, helpless & hopeless, common & inevitable
Distrust: constant disappointments, broken promises & mistreatment make it hard for kids to trust anyone or develop close bonds with others

Embarrassment: kids are ashamed of the family “secret” & withdraw from other family members, classmates, friends….
Guilt: kids assume they’ve somehow caused the parent’s drinking & chaos

Alcohol-ISM is the organizing principle in an addictive or depressed family system, says Claudia Black. The active addict becomes the central figure around which everyone else arranges their actions & reactions, usually in a slow insidious process, which becomes the family mobile.
Members do what they can to bring as much consistency, structure & safety as possible into a family that’s unpredictable & dangerous.
To do this they adopt certain roles, while the ‘problem’ becomes the “elephant in the room , which no one addresses

• In addictive & other narcissistic homes – with the endless tug-of-war between family & the ‘problem’ – children’s need for love, support & emotional nurturing is often minimized, made fun of or forgotten altogether.
With few role-models to show how emotions can be expressed positively, children shut down & stuff themselves into the straight-jacket of the Roles.

• Trouble follows when the people or tasks in a subsystem overlap, becoming blurred with those of others (such as role reversal). Members may be well-meaning, but the impulse for secrecy prevents anyone from reaching out for help, so the only option they have is a misguided attempts to protect the unit through denying or minimizing the problem.

The need to appear “normal” comes out in distorted ways because they don’t know what normal looks like. They compare their insides with everyone else’s outsides, & always loose by comparison

• At the same time, their worry about & love for the addict, & the all-pervasive fear of change inevitably cause family members’ to gradual slide into a hole. As a parent’s substance abuse progresses, everyone has to play a part in preserving the home.

Toxic Family Roles (TFRs) may seem to be the ‘recipe for living’ in that barely surviving environment, but they actually discourage growth, preventing everyone from responding from their True Self. That makes it hard to give or receive support.
And the Toxic Rules attached to the Roles are unrealistic, & difficult or impossible to obey, which encourages dishonesty & manipulation, to avoid rejection or punishment

NEXT: Toxic Family ROLES (Part 2)