It’s All In The Family!

It’s All In the Family.

By Ken P.

Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.
George Burns

Childhood roles in addicted families.

We will begin at the beginning and flesh out the disease processes of addiction, alcoholism, and codependency as they relate to childhood with some concepts long accepted now among program people about the roles typically played by children in dysfunctional homes. (see for reference Sharon Wegscheider’s work, Another Chance. Sharon first wrote about these roles in 1981). This article is to describe predictable roles of children in addictive homes, and we include it here with the certainty that many readers will have that “…been there, done that” experience!

In brief, the classic childhood roles are as follows:

The class clown draws attention away from the pain and dysfunction at home by entertaining others. This child is “cute.” He or she is always truly immature, but plays up the immaturity to draw attention away from the big people who are the dangerous dysfunctional addicts. Inside this child is filled mostly with insecurity.

The disappearing child adopts other families and stays away from the fray at home, or disappears into his or her room and does solitary activities such as building models. This child is an extreme introvert. He or she is quiet and withdrawn, always avoiding social interaction. One favorite escape for this child is withdrawal into a fantasy world.
The scapegoat child acts out, gets into trouble, and gains attention while deflecting attention away from the addicted parents. This child is constantly in trouble. There is open defiance of authority, with anger the favorite escape. This child is most likely to sport an outrageous personal appearance utilizing whatever is currently “in,” At the beginning of the 21st century this typically includes various body piercing, tattoos, the so-called “gothic” look, or maybe brightly colored spiked hair.
The hero child is the child who fantasizes that if he or she accomplishes enough, then the whole family will be “OK.” This child is overly conscientious, conforms to all rules from authority, and constantly strives for approval. In spite of being a high achiever, the hero child always feels inadequate.

Here are some of my thoughts on the hero child.

I have played all of these roles at one time or another in my lifetime, but the most convenient for me as a child was that of “hero child.” Here is the kind of bargaining that I did in my mind. Everything will be OK if I just:

…be “all everything” at school
…get good grades
…keep my little sister in line
…make first chair
…keep the yard clean
…literally “perform” for visitors to our home
…be the responsible one when with the other kids on the block

But even if you follow all of these “rules,” you as the hero child are doomed to perpetual disappointment. Here is what really happens;

…no matter how high the levels of achievement, it is never quite “good enough.” After years of struggling to be the good child, the other members of the family take your good performance for granted.
… Parents reward the “bad” scapegoat kid with their attention.
…little brothers and sisters still misbehave.
…the parents are still sick with various forms of addiction
…other kids isolate the hero child with ridicule, labeling him the “goody two shoes”

Here is how it goes; “Oh, we never have to worry about John. John will be alright no matter what he does or where he goes.” “Now Sammy, we have to watch him….”

Here are the unspoken rules in a dysfunctional household:

…People always love with strings attached.
…Reward comes only from performance. You are not a human being, you are a human doing.
…There is always emotional instability. That is reality.
…Never show your true feelings. That can result in punishment, ridicule, or abandonment.
…Always take on more responsibility than you can handle. This is heroic.
…Using evasion and half truths to cover up the truth about the way your family lives is not only necessary, it is noble.
…Conformity is rewarded.

The one cardinal rule in all of these dysfunctional roles is the rule that nobody ever criticizes any alcoholic in the family. No child wants or has the authority to view his parents, uncles, aunts, or grandparents as “bad” or inadequate. This sets up a system based on denial and lies. The unpredictability of the emotional states of the alcoholic adults around him creates a constant level of low level anxiety in the child. There are no absolute truths. What was true three minutes ago is not true now.
In this irrational system, the hero child just tries harder to achieve perfection. Since there are no real truths, it is only by consistently performing well that the hero child can at least prove to himself that there is somebody who is trustworthy…himself.

What are some of the losses in this unhealthy system?

By being the “little mister perfect,” the hero child is always sacrificing. He is encouraged through praise and punishment to sacrifice himself first for anybody else. How can this child spend quality time with a loving caring family being nurtured, when the adults around him are in constant need of care? How can this child be unique or special, when there is all of this careful conforming that must be done just to keep “everything OK?” Any sign of true uniqueness in a hero child is squelched early because the basic message in a boat that is tipping is “DON’T ROCK!”

The Disappearing Child, expanded.
Another of the roles typically played by children in addicted households is that of the disappearing child. To avoid the pain of the chaos and conflict in the living room, which seems to be where most of the drama occurs, the disappearing child finds predictable ways of escaping.
One way is to adopt another family altogether. This is often another family on the same block where the child has formed a trusting friendship with a playmate and that playmate’s family has created a welcoming safe home. Throughout childhood this home is where the disappearing child heads right after school after checking in with Mom, Dad, or an older sibling. Here is where the disappearing child “hangs out,” where snack food, TV, easy banter, and acceptance are always available in endless supply. The disadvantage (and advantage) of this escape are the loss of closeness with others in the nuclear family. The advantage, besides avoiding dysfunction, may be life-long friendships formed and maintained with these really special neighbors, unless of course the process is interrupted by a family crisis or another geographical cure.
Another escape is to retreat to his or her room. Here solitary hobbies like building models or playing dolls are favorites. Modern kids plant themselves in front of the computer playing video games, or escape with TV. Another solitary favorite is reading. Reading as an escape mechanism is often demonstrated by either or both parents, and, of course, the school system routinely rewards students with the uppermost reading abilities, so there is reinforcement for reading throughout childhood. Both my wife and one alcoholic uncle used reading as an escape. The uncle’s nickname among other family members was “books.”
One disadvantage for reading, along with the other solitary activities, is weight gain. Every generation before this one assumed that childhood would include thousands of hours spent out of doors engaging in sports and games that were active. Inactivity juxtaposed with constant snacking on convenience foods results in obesity. We needn’t belabor the magnitude of the obesity problem among our children, but, looking deeper into the stone, current all-time high rates of addiction among parents cannot help but contribute to this national crisis.
Finally, there is the ultimate disappearing act…the one that happens deep inside the imagination. Here children retreat to whatever world they can conger, often complete with imaginary playmates. Taken to extreme this can lead to psychosis. One aside here; the electronic media with which we all must react if we are living in one of the developed countries during the twenty-first century encourages both inactivity and isolation. Drive through neighborhoods throughout America after school and count the number of children out-of-doors playing with other children. Chances are there are significantly fewer than what most of us experienced in our own childhood.

How the child becomes the codependent man.

Let’s leave the childhood roles now and focus on how they translate into an adult who is perfectly positioned to become the super-enabler as a spouse, parent, professional, or employer.
The role most likely to become the super enabler as an adult is that of the hero child. This is natural because the hero child, who, incidentally, is more often than not the first child born into the family, was schooled from birth to fix an unhealthy relationship. As the first-born child, this child was always treated as special by everybody in the family because, well he or she was the first on the scene among many adults. Only one can be the first, and that one routinely receives more attention, praise, handling, instruction, and just plain love than children born later. He or she is also usually perceived as “ahead” of the younger children, simply because that is the truth…he is! This child is also more likely to assume a helping parent role with subsequent children, and is probably well ensconced into this role by the time later children are born. Later children simply come onto the scene, see that they cannot possibly compete with this older, physically larger sibling, and fall into other roles that are not taken.
Typically the second child becomes the scapegoat, but in time, especially if a third child is born, the disappearing child role (“the one in the middle”) is commonly assumed. The youngest child in larger families finds the mascot or class clown role a natural because he or she is little, cute, and enjoys the cute little muffin status conferred y not only the parents but the older siblings.
So it is no accident that first-born children most often adopt the hero child role, and this is even evidenced in their selection of professions. For example, the helping professions are disproportionately represented among these people. Hero children fit well as ministers, physicians, nurses, teachers, social workers, police officers, and especially as therapists!
If you relate to these roles, please seek help It is readily available right in your community in the form of weekly Al-Anon meetings. Just call 1-888-4AL-ANON or visit their web site at