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Roles Children of Addicts Use to Connect with their Family
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In the last section, we discussed why families of addicts are resistant to trying new strategies to improve their situations. These were being locked into past habits; relegating themselves to the sideline; and "feeling comfortable".
In this section, we will discuss survival skills practiced by the families of addicts. These are being a contortionist, trying to keep the addict happy, inventing new ways of connecting, and unspoken rules.
4 Survival Skills for Families
♦ Survival Skill # 1 - Being a Contortionist
I find that children of addicts are like contortionists. They twist and bend to counterbalance their parent's addiction. They contort themselves to gain approval from a parent who does not fully attend to their needs. They balance between attracting positive attention and avoiding the wrath of addiction. These contortions are their survival skills, and the beginnings of character defects and problems that may haunt them their entire lives.
One difficulty families of addicts face is the difficulty of communication. Addiction discourages healthy communication, so families must resort to extreme measures to get their messages across. The volume on everything is turned up: concern becomes panic, persuasion becomes manipulation, and disagreement becomes hostility. Children, especially, learn they must be larger than life to communicate.
♦ Survival Skill # 2 - Trying to Keep the Addict Happy
I find that a second trap that families fall into is trying to keep the addict happy to maintain relationships. Sharon has been married to Larry for forty years. By the time their children reached school age, Larry's heavy drinking had turned into alcohol addiction. Although his alcoholism never interfered with his work, he was emotionally unavailable to his family.
After a few beers, Larry withdrew and talking stopped. Sharon automatically ushered the kids to bed, and made Larry comfortable in front of the TV. Sharon said, "Larry worked so hard, he deserved some downtime. It was in the best interest of our marriage for me to give him what he needed." The more time went by, the more of a malcontent Larry became, and the more Sharon strived to be the ideal wife to make him happy.
She trained herself to work around his addiction, and connecting with Larry became her primary motivation for her every behavior. Sharon said, "Every once in a while he did something so sweet, it made it all worthwhile. Those moments were rare, but they outweighed all the bad times."
♦ Survival Skill # 3 - Inventing New Ways of Connecting
As you know, addiction disrupts normal coming-together activities within a family, so families invent new ways of connecting.
4 Roles Children of Addicts Use to Connect with their Family
There are four basic roles children of addicts adopt to connect with their families:
-- Role # 1 - The first is the hero, who brings accolades to the family through top grades or sports achievements.
-- Role # 2 - The second is the scapegoat, who attracts negative attention away from the others by always getting into trouble.
-- Role # 3 - The lost child withdraws and stays out of the way, and is rewarded for never being a nuisance.
-- Role # 4 - In addition to the hero, the scapegoat, and the lost child, there is the mascot, who takes on the role of the clown to make everyone laugh.
As you can see, these survival strategies each come with their own pain and symptoms, and children may become so used to these roles that they cannot break out of them later in life.
♦ Survival Skill # 4 - Unspoken Rules
Often, it is the unspoken rules that affect the family of an addict the most. As you know, addiction is threatened by honesty, so the entire system shuts down - no information in, no information out. Truthful expressions of negative feelings and discussion of what’s happening in the family are unacceptable. Sharon was a good example of this - no matter what Larry did, she acted according to the unspoken rules, without taking time to consider her own feelings.
Feelings Excavation Exercise
I asked Sharon to work through the "Feelings Excavation" exercise with me.
-- Step # 1 - First, I asked "What is the predominant feeling you have right now?" Sharon thought for a moment, and answered "Well, I guess I’m a little upset."
-- Step # 2 - I then asked Sharon to make a list of words that more accurately described how she was feeling. Sharon listed: frustrated, embarrassed, disappointed, and hurt.
-- Step # 3 - "Ok," I said, "Now, what happened that made you feel this way?" Sharon answered, "Last week Larry and I were supposed to go have dinner with our closest friends, but Larry came home drunk, and we couldn’t make it. I had to call our friends and tell them Larry had to work late." I encouraged Sharon to think about how she expressed her feelings when she had to make excuses for Larry. She told me she would usually just make Larry comfortable in front of the TV, make him dinner if he could eat, and then work on cleaning the house.
-- Step # 4 - Finally, I asked Sharon to come up with some other ways to express herself. Sharon said, "Well, I suppose I could have gone to dinner by myself. I do always have a good time with our friends, and I really shouldn’t have to miss it because Larry is too drunk to go."
In this section, we have discussed the survival skills used by the families of addicts. These are being a contortionist, and trying to keep the addict happy, families invent new ways of connecting, and unspoken rules. Would it be beneficial to play this section during your next session?
In the next section, we will discuss establishing communication within the family of an addict through identifying who is most open to change, asking for help, finding allies outside the immediate family, and dealing with family members who refuse to cooperate.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Church, S., Bhatia, U., Velleman, R., Velleman, G., Orford, J., Rane, A., & Nadkarni, A. (2018). Coping strategies and support structures of addiction affected families: A qualitative study from Goa, India. Families, Systems, & Health, 36(2), 216–224.
Jarmas, A. L., & Kazak, A. E. (1992). Young adult children of alcoholic fathers: Depressive experiences, coping styles, and family systems. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(2), 244–251.
What are the four basic roles children of addicts adopt to connect with their families? To select and enter your answer go to .