By Darlene Lancer

Codependency was first observed by therapists studying alcoholic families. Not all children of addicts are codependent, but usually families with drug or alcohol addiction are dysfunctional. Still, half of adult children of alcoholics remain in denial that they have an alcoholic parent. Instead, they live in shame and guilt. The majority have been abused and, like victims of abuse, have issues concerning trust and anger about the past.

Chaos and the merry-go-round of denial

The household of an addicted parent is monopolized by his or her erratic, irresponsible, and often tyrannical, abusive behavior, and the situation worsens as the addiction progresses. The addict acts like a little despot, denies that drinking or using is a problem, and decrees that no one may challenge it.

Everyone’s behavior organizes around the denial of the addict’s disease. They try to maintain normalcy and protect and enable the addict. They repress thoughts, feelings, and observations in order not to make waves and live in fear of another binge, disaster, or blowup.

The personality changes caused by addiction create an atmosphere of chaos. Parenting is unreliable, inconsistent, and unpredictable, even though it may be carried out primarily by the sober parent, who is highly stressed, trying to manage the household, irrational demands, and crises of the addict.

Both parents are emotionally unavailable to the children. If both are addicts, they’re both physically unavailable, too. As a child, you never have a sense of safety and consistency that you need in order to thrive. You don’t invite friends over to avoid being embarrassed by your addict-parent. Your needs get ignored, and you learn not to ask rather than be disappointed. You become self-reliant and needless as an adult to avoid anyone having power over you again.

Even when one parent is responsible, plans and rules are in constant flux due to the unpredictable changes of the addict’s moods and drug and/or alcohol use, as shown in the following simple example:

Role of the non-addict

When drug addiction is present, the family tends to isolate from relatives, the community, and sources of help. Thus, the spouse of the addict has no support and will attempt everything from pleasing to threats in an attempt to control the addict’s addiction. He or she may try to safeguard the children by keeping them away from the addict as much as possible.

The non-addicted parent’s behavior depends upon his or her personality, coping style, and pre-existing codependency. It often begins by helping and protecting the addict, and then fluctuates between caretaking, scolding and blaming, and withdrawing emotionally as the drug addiction and codependency progress. The non-addict may eventually act out with drugs, alcohol, affairs, or other irresponsible behavior. When both parents are addicted, a child often assumes a parental role.

You fared better if you had positive role models in relatives or others who helped with parenting. Studies show that it’s harder on you if your mother is an addict and is devastating when both parents are addicted. Younger children are harmed more than older children, and boys are more vulnerable than girls.

If the non-addict parent overcomes the pull of denial and codependency and is able to confront and hold the addict accountable, maintain friends, and seek treatment or attend a Twelve Step program, it brings more stability and health to the family.

Roles of the children

Like the spouse, the children adopt behaviors to relieve the family tension, which vary depending upon the child’s personality and birth order. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse and Claudia Black each identified four roles:

  • The Hero: Often the oldest, you’re the most identified with the parents. In a chaotic environment, you seek structure to create a sense of security. The Hero provides companionship to the non-addict parent, helps with family responsibilities, and may protect and help parent younger siblings. You know what’s appropriate and do the right thing to be successful in school, socially, and at work. You develop leadership and organizational skills that are beneficial in achieving goals in school and into adulthood.

    The Hero is used to being responsible and self-reliant, but has trouble trusting and receiving help. Any failure is hard to tolerate because of underlying feelings of inadequacy. You’re serious, tend to be rigid and controlled, and lack flexibility and spontaneity. You may be uncomfortable playing or relaxing, and become a workaholic. Some use drugs in order to let go. One day, you discover that you have difficulty being intimate and open with your feelings and are anxious, lonely, and depressed.

  • The Adjuster: The Adjuster is the child who doesn’t complain and adapts to the family the way the wind blows. If you’re an Adjuster, you survived in the unpredictable environment of addiction by not drawing too much attention to yourself in the family and at school. Unlike the Hero, you feel the effect of events and circumstances and are not in charge of your life as an adult. Your challenge is to take control of your life and pursue your goals.

  • The Placater: The Placater is more sensitive to the actions and feelings of other family members and is hurt more easily. You’re the most caring and derive self-esteem from making others feel good. To survive, you tended to others’ emotional needs and never learned to consider your wants and needs. You feel guilty when you do. You give more than you receive. Like the Adjuster, you need to discover your wants, feel worthy of receiving them, and pursue your goals.

  • The Scapegoat: The Scapegoat acts out with negative behavior that takes the family’s attention off the addict. As the Scapegoat, you were constantly in trouble at home and at school and have issues with anger and conflicts with friends and coworkers. Your behavior is an expression of feelings that you can’t communicate, and because you neither comply nor withdraw, you attract even more punishment and abuse from your parents and authority figures.

    Many Scapegoats get arrested for delinquent behavior and begin using drugs and/or alcohol as teenagers. Sometimes, this unites their parents, which may be their unconscious motive, despite the consequences to themselves.

  • The Lost Child: The Lost Child is usually a younger or the youngest child who withdraws from the family drama into a world of fantasy, music, books, the Internet, or computerized games. As the Lost Child, you find security in solitude and stay out of harm’s way by being alone.

  • The Mascot: The Mascot is also often a younger or the youngest child, who manages fear and insecurity by being cute, funny, or coquettish to release tension in the family.

Some children use aspects of more than one and play more than one role. Children in other types of dysfunctional families also develop these roles to varying degrees. Over time, coping styles become defined roles that last into adulthood. Although they served a useful function growing up, they prevent you from fully expressing yourself.

You may be a rebel or a compliant, good student, but that role hides your true Self. Behaving differently from your accustomed role is difficult and frightening because it feels like your survival is still at stake — even after you’ve left your childhood family. Healing requires that you learn to value and express yourself in all areas of life.