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Feeling Left Behind: When Dysfunctional Family Roles Dictate Which Family Member Enables, Which One Develops a SUD, and Which One Becomes Lost


When one member of the family unit has a substance use disorder (SUD), everyone within the family is affected. The family becomes one of dysfunction as the SUD continues to develop and change the family dynamics. With a family history of SUD, this situation can feel like a losing battle for everyone, particularly when one family member enables the addictive behavior. Harder still is when the person suffering from the SUD is a child, the enabling person is the parent, and the other child is left to fend for themselves. 

Dysfunctional Family Roles Illuminate the Issues

Growing up in a dysfunctional family creates an environment of pain and trauma. Negative situations may occur due to the family member’s battle with their SUD, and subsequent harmful attitudes, words, and actions committed by them to other members within the family. Children raised in this environment grow up differently than others and may develop traits consistent with dysfunctional family roles. The oldest child may have to take on responsibilities at a very early age, parenting their siblings, and even taking care of their parent that is suffering from the SUD, while the youngest child may be more coddled and shielded from the traumas. However, the youngest child is also the most vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse due to their role within the family.

The oldest child may develop multiple dysfunctional family roles. For example, the oldest child may become “the lost child” or a loner role in a dysfunctional family who does not want to cause more trouble for the family and so therefore “escapes.” Escaping may mean getting lost in television shows or movies, reading, or engaging in any activity that allows them to be seen and not heard. The lost child seeks solace from the chaos and therefore may develop an elaborate fantasy life. Furthermore, solitude may lead to developing spirituality and creative pursuits, as long as low self-esteem does not diminish these efforts. It is common for the lost child to have few friends, difficulty with romantic relationships, and find comfort in material things or pets.  

This lost child is independent, and makes few demands on their parents, withdrawing into their world through their escapism. The lost child may isolate, be shy, and feel like an outsider within the family who is ignored by other family members. Furthermore, escaping the dysfunctional family and the subsequent drama may lead this child into their alcohol or drug use to momentarily escape the truth of their life. This role may develop at an extremely early age due to substance use by the parent with the SUD, and it may persist when a sibling follows the genetic path to addiction.  

The lost child may also develop traits of “the doer” in the dysfunctional family. By secluding oneself from the family, it is easy for the lost child to engage in activities outside of the home to escape. For example, the doer may become an outstanding performer, engaging in drama club, and acting in plays. Furthermore, they may become extremely responsible for themselves, leading to excellent grades in school, and even caring for younger siblings. The doer of the family is a self-appointed role, and this individual is psychologically over-developed and over-stressed at a young age when there is a parent with a SUD.

The youngest child in the dysfunctional family may find themselves in a deviant, or “problem child,” role. They may have problems in school, issues with authority, and distract the family from the parent’s SUD through this rebellion. Furthermore, this child may become “the scapegoat,” who is blamed for problems within the family, while they view the oldest child who makes no waves as the good one. This youngest child may develop psychological issues or learning problems due to their disruptive behaviors. Furthermore, they may learn to exploit their other family members to get what they want, becoming spoiled and entitled through their episodes of acting out. This child is at great risk for developing subsequent SUD to drugs or alcohol to deal with the guilt attached to these assumed roles. Furthermore, they may blame their sibling for their situation since the parent with the SUD was not responsible enough to care for them, and the sibling assumed that the caretaker role. 

The enabler of the family in this scenario is the parent without the SUD. Due to the other parent’s SUD and accompanying mental health disorders, this parent assumes responsibility for the household and the financial load, therefore leading the children to be more responsible for themselves and the daily functioning of the household. This enabling parent allows the SUD to persist and merely deals with the daily consequences as they occur. Furthermore, when the lost child and the problem child age, the lost child and doer accomplish educational and work-related goals, while the problem child persists in their deviant and irresponsible behaviors. The youngest child may then develop a SUD of their own, and the enabler parent continues to support them financially because that is all they have ever done. The SUD has merely jumped to a new family member. The lost child remains lost and alone, as the enabling parent continues to care for the family member with the SUD. 

If You are Experiencing a Dysfunctional Family and its Accompanying Roles, there is Hope for a Happier and Healthier Future

Feeling anxiety and inner rage is common when dealing with a dysfunctional family and generational SUDs. Life dramatically changes when having to deal with a family member battling a SUD, and problems arise when that behavior is enabled. Even if your family member, be it, parent or sibling, is not open to treatment right now, you have to believe they can recover, offer as much support as you can, and encourage them with love. These actions may help alleviate the pressures they feel in seeking help for their SUDs. If you or someone you know is battling a substance use disorder, call Enlightened Solutions today at 833-801-LIVE.