Why is Addiction a Family Disease?

American society has long held a vision of what the “perfect” family should look like — a happily married couple with 2.5 children, a dog, and the classic white picket fence wrapped around their beautiful home in the suburbs. Most American families do not look that way today, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t successful, loving, raising well-mannered children, or taking care of their homes. Instead, what it means is that Americans are moving away from what the utopian family looks like and are striving to be uniquely and unapologetically themselves. No longer are most families operating under the guise of shame when something negative occurs within their lives and no longer are families trying to portray a picture of perfection. While progressive in comparison to past decades, American families today are still facing serious, stressful situations that often occur behind closed doors, such as addiction.

When a family member becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, they can struggle with several firsthand challenges. One of those challenges is seeing just how deeply the rest of their family is impacted by their disease. In keeping with the dangerous cycle of addiction, their use is likely to continue despite witnessing the consequences it places upon their loved ones. And while they might desperately want to stop, being able to actually do so can feel impossible. 

So, as the addiction rages on, both the addict and their family continue to experience the effects of untreated addiction in their lives. That is because addiction is a family disease.

Family Roles in Addiction

To put it simply, addiction is a family disease because it affects everyone in the family unit. There is no hiding from addiction when it is occurring within the family, nor is there any viable way to try and ignore it. Addiction changes the equilibrium of the entire family and usually for the worse. 

The impacts that addiction has on a family can depend on several factors. It is typical to see the families of individuals with the most severe of substance use disorders struggling the most, while families of those with a mild addiction may not experience as many hardships. Other factors that influence how much addiction permeates through the family include the following:

  • The presence of mental illness in some or all of the family unit
  • What (if any) type of substance abuse is occurring among family members
  • The past history between the addict and their family members
  • Mental illness in the addict that is untreated
  • Unaddressed psychological or emotional issues within the family members 
  • Finances and how they are related to the family member’s addiction
  • History of violence in the household

Even when addiction hits the most “perfect” or families, it does not hold back and can quickly become the great equalizer between different classes, races, and genders. In fact, when addiction is rampant in a family, members often find themselves taking on the following roles:

  • The enabler — The family member who behaves in ways that fuel their loved one’s addiction (intentionally or unintentionally) is the enabler. The enabler may do things such as continually giving the addict money despite knowing that it will go towards paying for drugs. They may make excuses for the addict, allow the addict to treat them poorly, or even go as far as taking them to obtain drugs in an attempt to keep them safe. If the enabler continues their behavior, they are actively aiding in the continuation of the addict and, in turn, the pain their family is experiencing. 
  • The hero — The hero is the family member who attempts to do everything perfectly and achieve the greatest accomplishments. When it comes to addiction, the hero tries to distract the family’s focus from the addict and on them and their success. The hero is often the oldest sibling in the family and feels a sense of responsibility to keep everything together — even if it means exhaustively attempting to maintain a false family image. 
  • The scapegoat — The family member who is blamed for everything is known as the scapegoat. When something goes wrong, the rest of the family becomes quick to blame this individual. The scapegoat often goes on to battle with anger, rejection, and resentment which can lead to poor, dangerous behavior later on in life.
  • The mascot — The mascot of the family is the one who is always attempting to make light of every situation. They utilize humor as a survival technique to cope with the uncertainty of the addiction that is occurring within their home. The mascot may appear to be the only jovial one around, but it is common for them to begin self-medicating with drugs and alcohol themselves. 
  • The lost child — The lost child is the child of the family who has gotten lost in the mix. They are typically quiet, reserved, and socially isolated from others. Everyone else in the family becomes so preoccupied with the loud chaos of the active addiction that this child becomes lost in the mix. Many times, the lost child grapples with developing and maintaining relationships, as well as making decisions.

Of course, the one role not mentioned above is the role of the addict. The addict is the family member who is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and is active in their use. They tend to exhibit behavior such as dishonesty, disrespect, brashness and impulsivity and are highly self-involved. The disease of addiction is what triggers these behaviors in the vast majority of cases, as the brain changes in both structure and function for the worse. 

Does Your Family Need Help?

Addiction is a family disease, no matter which way you cut it. If there is someone in your family who is actively addicted to drugs or alcohol, reach out to us now. We can advise you on which steps may be most helpful for you and your family to take at this time. Depending on your needs and the needs of your loved ones, we can provide the care needed to overcome active addiction and its stronghold on your family.

Do not wait any longer. Call us right now. We can help.


  • My name is Matthew and I was a resident here at CBH from 6/22/2020 through 7/23/2020.. I just Graduated the program in 32 days and I am writing this because I am truly Thankful to them All.. I would like to Give CBH 7 Stars but it will only like me give 5 .. CBH is a fantastic place to get your Body Mind and Sprit back into shape. ALL the Safe here are fantastic and attentive to what you are going through. All the Therapist here are Truly top notch and take the time to truly help you and get to know you , your needs and get down to that Nitty Gritty of what your blocking out of your life with what your doing or using. If you are looking for help do not hesitate to call them and ask for help it will be the Best start to your new You. So if you are looking for help Like I was and want to put in the work to get the Help .. DO IT… Remember ( YOU GET WHAT YOU PUT IN ).

    Matthew N.
  • I came to California Behavioral Health when I was finally at the point where I thought life was no longer worth living. Once I got to CBH my whole life changed as I have never met more caring people in my whole life. I completed treatment after going through detox and residential treatment for thirty days. Making that phone call was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been clean and sober since! I owe my life to this program!

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