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Alyssa Digges, MA
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Amy Schell, LMHC
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Ariel Zeigler, Ph.D
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Begoña Núñez Sánchez, LP
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Braxton Stage, MHC-LP
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Carole Taylor-Tumilty, LCSW
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Caryn Moore, LCSW
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Christina Mancuso, LCSW
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Courtney Cohen, LMHC
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Daniel Rich, LMHC
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Elena Beharry, Psy.D
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Eliza Chamblin, LCSW
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Fanny Ng, Ph.D
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Gary Brucato, Ph.D
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Gavin Shafron, Ph.D
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Janel Coleman, LMSW
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Jen Oddo, LCSW
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Jessa Navidé, Psy.D.
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Joanna Kaminski, LMFT
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Josh Watson, LMSW
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Justin L.F. Yong, LMHC
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Karen Kaur, Ph.D
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Kristin Anderson, LCSW
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Logan Jones, Psy.D
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Lucas Saiter, LMHC
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Madeleine Phelan, LMSW
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Monica Amorosi, LMHC
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Nancy Lumb, LCSW
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Nicole Maselli, LMHC
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Peter Gradilone, LMSW
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Raquele Williams, LCSW
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Regina Musicaro, Ph.D
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    As a licensed clinical social worker and previous clinical director of an outpatient substance abuse clinic specializing in addiction, I’ve spent years helping families grappling with substance abuse. It’s been my professional and personal experience that the impact of addiction isn’t limited to the person struggling with substance abuse issues; the consequences extend deeply into the lives of family and friends. 

    The sweeping ripple effects of addiction become strikingly noticeable in relationships, financial stability, and overall emotional and physical safety.

    The sweeping ripple effects of addiction become strikingly noticeable in relationships, financial stability, and overall emotional and physical safety. When a family member is tackling addiction, the lives of all other family members are touched in significant ways. The family dynamics shift drastically, regardless of who in the family is the central point of addiction, be it a child, parent, or spouse. The ramifications are multifold, encompassing strained relationships, excessive worry,  financial hardship, and a heightened risk of abuse. 

    Each family’s interaction with addiction is unique but in many cases it is intergenerational. Through many years committed to supporting families in these challenging circumstances, I’ve witnessed firsthand and gained a deeper understanding of this complex issue. It’s my hope to shed light on what it truly means to be a loved one navigating the turbulent seas of substance abuse, and how you yourself can find and honor your own journey of healing and change. 

    Therapeutic help can either be individual or family which then shifts the perspective and gives principle consideration to the family or loved one allowing  the opportunity to develop and grow creating potential to break the cycle of addiction. Finding emotional clarity is possible and it only takes one person in the family to begin the cycle of change. 

    The Impact of Addiction on Children

    Children living in an environment where a parent is wrestling with addiction often experience a lack of support and guidance. This shortfall does not merely influence their present environment; it can impede their personal development, impact their emotional health, and shape their life trajectory in profound ways that continue into adulthood. The struggle, confusion, and feelings of guilt they might experience can translate into behavioral issues and emotional instability, which might manifest as difficulty in forming healthy relationships, academic struggles, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and a predilection for self-destructive behaviors. 

    The mental health of these children often suffers from living in an unpredictable environment marked by parental inconsistency. The long-term ramifications of a disrupted childhood can, in turn, lead to an increased risk of addiction in their later years, perpetuating a cycle that’s as heartbreaking as it is challenging to break. As a therapist I support parents in recognizing the effects of addiction on their family members, teaching parents skills in order to protect and provide the necessary emotional support and help them protect their children within these life altering circumstances.  

    The Influence of Addiction on Parents

    Parents dealing with a child battling addiction face a unique set of challenges. Their lives are often plagued by incessant worry about their child’s safety, combined with feelings of accountability for the choices their child has made. 

    As a trained therapist I work with my clients to offer guidance to navigate these challenges. I can help parents find balanced ways to support their children without fostering their addiction.

    The Effect of Addiction on Siblings

    Siblings of loved ones with addiction often feel overlooked and excluded. They grapple with a plethora of emotions, spanning from confusion and frustration to shame and resentment.

    In working with siblings, my aim is to offer them the necessary tools to manage their emotions and make healthy, beneficial decisions for themselves.

    How Does Addiction Impact Families?

    In the vast majority of families impacted by substance misuse, there is a common inclination to preserve homeostasis. This means that family members will engage in behaviors aimed at maintaining the family’s regular functioning, even if it means going along with the substance use of a family member to avoid disruption or instability. Family members themselves many times experience their own addiction or codependency struggles which many times is anchored in the trauma of living with the addiction of others. 

    Unhealthy dynamics often emerge within family relationships, roles, rituals, and functions as a result of this quest for homeostasis. This quote is an illustration of how a family strives to maintain balance while confronting a substance use disorder:

    “When one person in a family begins to change his or her behavior, the change will affect the entire family system. It is helpful to think of the family system as a mobile: when one part in a hanging mobile moves, this affects all parts of the mobile but in different ways, and each part adjusts to maintain a balance in the system.” (Lander, Howsare, & Byrne, 2013, p. 197)

    family impact

    The Six Family Roles in Addiction

    The Enabler

    The Hero

    The Scapegoat

    The Lost Child

    The Mascot

    The Caretaker

    Identifying the Six Family Roles in Addiction

    As a licensed psychotherapist and addiction specialist, I often come across six distinct family roles that tend to manifest in the context of addiction. These roles provide insights into the dynamic relationship between family members and how addiction impacts each individual within the family system.

    It’s important to recognize that these roles aren’t fixed or limited to one family member. Roles may shift and evolve over time, highlighting the complexity of breaking free of problematic behavior patterns within families. By understanding these roles, we can better address the underlying dynamics and support each family member’s journey towards healing and recovery.

    As family members learn to take responsibility for themselves, choices and opportunities for recovery begin. Learning how to set boundaries and no longer enabling will change their lives.  Addiction is intergenerational but so is recovery. 

    As you read these descriptions, I encourage you to see if you identify with any of the below examples:

    • The Enabler: An enabler is often driven by a deep desire to protect their loved one from the consequences of addiction. They may provide financial support, make excuses, or cover up their loved one’s addictive behaviors. For instance, I often see this manifest as a spouse who consistently covers up their partner’s excessive drinking, making excuses for their behavior to their employer or to friends and family. The enabler may lie about their loved one’s whereabouts or make efforts to hide empty bottles or evidence of alcohol consumption. In doing so, the enabler inadvertently enables the addicted individual to continue drinking by shielding them from the negative repercussions and avoiding confronting the issue head-on.

    • The Hero: The hero takes on the responsibility of maintaining the family’s image and reputation. They strive for success and are often accomplished academically or professionally to compensate for the family’s struggles and underlying shame associated with addiction. This role can be observed in a family member who consistently achieves high grades or excels in their career while often neglecting their own well-being due to the pressure to present a flawless facade.

    • The Scapegoat: The scapegoat acts out and draws negative attention away from the addiction within the family system. They may engage in delinquent behaviors, have frequent conflicts, or be known to start drama. Although their behaviors attract the focus of the family’s frustration and blame, it serves as a distraction and relief for the rest of the family, who can temporarily avoid facing the underlying issues of addiction.

    • The Lost Child: The lost child seeks solace in isolation and tries to remain unnoticed within the family. They withdraw emotionally and socially, avoiding conflict and harsh realities. This role is exemplified by a family member who spends extensive amounts of time alone, often escaping into hobbies, virtual worlds, or engaging in excessive screen time.

    • The Mascot: The mascot uses humor and lightheartedness to diffuse tension and provide temporary relief from the impact of addiction. This individual often uses comedy as a coping mechanism to mask pain and create temporary distractions. In my experience, this often looks like the family member who constantly cracks jokes and tries to keep everyone entertained, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

    • The Caretaker: The caretaker assumes the responsibility of taking care of everyone else’s needs, often neglecting their own well-being. They prioritize the addicted individual’s needs above all else, and may become emotionally exhausted from their caregiving role. An example of this role can be seen in a family member who sacrifices their own needs and neglects their personal life to provide constant care and support to the addicted individual.

    As family members learn to take responsibility for themselves, choices and opportunities for recovery begin.
    family impact

    How Addiction Reshapes a Family

    As we can see, addiction impacts the family system as a whole, while also shaping and distorting the individual roles each member plays. 

    Another common dynamic in unhealthy family systems is enmeshment. Enmeshment refers to blurred boundaries between individual family members, where personal identities and boundaries become intertwined and unclear. In the context of addiction, enmeshment can manifest as over-involvement and an excessive sense of responsibility for the actions and well-being of the addicted individual. Family members may sacrifice their own needs, desires, and identities to accommodate the demands and consequences of addiction. 

    Similarly, codependency is a specific type of enmeshment characterized by excessive reliance on meeting the needs of others, often to the detriment of one’s own well-being. Codependent individuals may have a strong desire to rescue, control, or fix others, particularly the addicted person, while neglecting their own emotional, physical, and mental health. Codependency reflects an unhealthy pattern of enmeshment that extends beyond the familial context and can manifest in various relationships.

    Family members may sacrifice their own needs, desires, and identities to accommodate the demands and consequences of addiction.

    While enmeshment describes the blurred boundaries within a family system, codependency focuses on the individual’s tendencies to over-depend on meeting others’ needs. Both concepts play a significant role in unhealthy family dynamics during addiction, and addressing and untangling these patterns is crucial for promoting healthier relationships and supporting individuals in their journey to recovery.

    When I work with clients who are enmeshed with their families, they have difficulty with healthy individual growth and adopting appropriate coping mechanisms, and they often perpetuate enabling behaviors despite their best efforts. In my experience as a licensed psychotherapist, recognizing and addressing enmeshment within the family system is therefore crucial for fostering individual autonomy, establishing healthy boundaries, and supporting the recovery process for both the addicted person and their loved ones. 

    Even when individuals are on the path to recovery and striving to improve their lives, their relationships can be negatively impacted.According to the research, in the early stages of recovery, partners may face challenges such as:

    • Difficulty adapting to and expressing their feelings about their partner’s recovery.

    • Feelings of loneliness and separation when the person enters residential treatment.

    • Struggling with changes in intimacy and communication within the relationship.

    • Feeling threatened by their partner building new emotional connections with others in recovery, such as 12-Step sponsors and attendees, or spending a significant amount of time engaged in recovery activities that don’t involve the partner.

    • Struggle with no longer being the person’s sole source of support.

    • Feeling like their partner’s main focus and priority is on recovery versus the relationship.

    • Feeling excluded from the recovery process (especially if not invited/allowed to attend closed AA meetings, for example)

    Please remember that you’re not alone.

    There are a variety of resources available to you including individual and family therapy.


    Taking the first step towards healing can sometimes be daunting but also freeing and empowering. If any of this blog resonated with you, I encourage you to reach out to me to schedule a complimentary phone consultation today.

    Nancy Lumb

    Nancy Lumb is a licensed psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy, specializing in therapy for anxiety, depression, trauma, divorce, and relationship issues. With expertise in supporting family members and loved ones through addiction and recovery, Nancy provides compassionate support and practical guidance to help clients navigate healthy boundaries and tap into their inner strengths.
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