Posted by: RealisticRecovery | July 23, 2009

Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Family Roles

Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Family Roles

Posted by fredjoiners at

One model that is helpful in identifying child behaviors is that of Sharon Wegscheider (1981). In this model children adopt various coping and enabling roles.

Little caretaker

The little caretaker role is often a carbon copy of the partner of the alcoholic. They take care of the alcoholic; getting drinks, cleaning up after the alcoholic and soothing over stressful situations and events. They are validated by approval for taking responsibility for the alcoholic and their Behaviour. This little person often goes on to become a partner of an alcoholic or other dysfunctional person if they do not get treatment.

Family hero

The family hero role brings pride to the family by being successful at school or work. At home, the hero assumes the responsibilities that the enabling parent abdicates. By being overly involved in work or school, they can avoid dealing with the real problem at home and patterns of workaholism can develop. Although portraying the image of self-confidence and success, the hero may feel inadequate and experience the same stress-related symptoms as the enabler.


The scapegoat role diverts attention away from the chemically dependent person’s behavior by acting out their anger. Because other family members sublimate their anger, the scapegoat has no role model for healthy expression of this normal feeling. They become at high risk for self-destructive behaviors and may be hospitalized with a variety of traumatic injuries. Although all the children are genetically vulnerable to alcoholism, this child is often considered the highest risk because of their association with risk-taking activities and peers. Although tough and defiant, the scapegoat is also in pain.

Lost child

The lost child role withdraws from family and social activities to escape the problem. Family members feel that they do not need to worry about them because they are quiet and appear content. They leave the family without departing physically by being involved with television, video games, or reading. These children do not bring attention to themselves, but also do not learn to interact with peers. Many clinicians have noted that bulimia is common in chemically dependent families and feel this child is prone to satisfy their pain through eating.

Family clown

The family clown role brings comic relief to the family. Often the youngest child, they try to get attention by being cute or funny. With family reinforcement, their behavior continues to be immature and they may have difficulty learning in school.

See also: The Dynamics of an alcoholic Family




  1. Yo Mike…

    Holy shit did I meet the person you describe above! She had many of the characteristics your post describes.

    I experienced what I feel is about the sickest person I have met in a long time.

    It was a totally enlightening experience to reflect back on myself and who I had become a child of an alcoholic family.

    Here is some context…

    My wife’s only sister gave birth to a wonderful new baby recently. This sister has a female friend 9super-friend) who is abnormally…. and I would say inordinately… not just a friend… but a downright fan or groupie of my wife’s sister.

    So naturally, when the baby was born, the super-friend was there to help…. well care-take really. No, further yet… she appeared to be there to care-take-over. It was so odd… it was creepy.

    Recognizing that the new parents have a solid and happy marriage and sufficient means and family support for the new addition. So it is not a deeply needy situation. But super-friend is in like a dirty shirt.

    Let me go back a little further. My wife’s sister and super-friend go back to childhood. Sister is slender, attractive, and popular. Married an eligible guy who has proven to be a great husband.

    Super-Friend has always struggled with dating relationships and has never married to date. Currently late 30’s. Very successful in career. Popular enough but not the centre of social attention like my wife’s sister.

    My wife for the longest time worried that super-friend had lesbian crush on sister… which still may be the case in some measure… but I learned of other factors for her fixation this weekend.

    So here it is….I just find out yesterday that super-friend comes from a family of scorching alcoholics who also have widespread (no pun intended) obesity issues. Super-friend is pretty heavy herself and struggles constantly with weight.

    In observing Super-friend at the visit with our new niece yesterday, it all came together. Super-friend appears to be living vicariously through sister whose life perhaps she would prefer.

    She appears to be the caretaker, hero, and scapegoat… if not of her own family… but of others. She seems to cling to the connection she has with her balanced friend so tightly, that she all but pushes my wife (the bio-sister) away. Super-friend actually at different times during the visit acted as if SHE was the mother.

    As I say, it is so extreme, it is creepy. Almost like on the 1990’s movie, Single White Female with Briget Fonda where the dweebie roommate ends up trying to become the more attractive and successful Briget.

    The amazing thing was that my wife did not know to make the connection. She just thought super-friend was a supressed lesbian busy-body all these years.

    But instead…. we could see that she is an extremely sick codependent ACOA.

    A trusted person in my program of receovery once told me, “You may get to a point where you as the alcoholic are no longer the sickest one in the room”. Meaning the codependents in our lives can be just as sick or sicker and as we recover and they don’t, the gap becomes aparent.

    Anyway… whew! That was a long reply. Just wanted to share the real life example.



    • The more I read about this stuff, the more relieved I am to know I’m not crazy and not the only one.
      In this list, I can definitely relate to the “Lost Child” and “Family Clown” descriptions. I wish it weren’t true, but there I am in black’n’white.

      Can’t say I’ve met anyone like the super-friend at ACOA meetings just yet.
      Some of the stories people share at ACOA really break my heart, and it is a wonder they survived their families.
      But one thing they have in common is that they are strong resilient sane people from very insane dysfunctional families.

      As for the super-friend, she’s the dysfunctional one here (possibly your sister-in-law too for enabling her behavior), and it will be your niece that will become the future candidate for ACOA maybe. Something to be mindful of for sure.

      “You may get to a point where you as the alcoholic are no longer the sickest one in the room”

      When I started getting better and had some recovery under my belt, I noticed that was when me and my ex-wife started drifting apart.
      She wanted me to remain dysfunctional with her, my healthy improvements were a threat to our co-dependent dysfunctional relationship.
      I think this is what led her to wander outside the marriage for some comfortable dysfunctional fun. Afterall, this is what she was used to.

      Thanks for some great comments and observations again Chaz.

      Keep a healthy eye on the super-friend/niece situation. Sounds very strange.
      (I will rent Single White Female)


  2. Well, there I am, caretaker and scapegoat. Those roles can be dangerous to get out of. When you stop taking care they don’t stop taking. And the scapegoat thing. How do you make that stop? I leave town and they go for my adult kids and grandchildren. Whoa toxic.

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