How Addiction Changes a Child’s Role in the Family – Scapegoat, Hero, Super Enabler, or Disappearing Act

We are thrilled to have a guest post from Ken Powers, co-author of We Codependent Men We Mute Coyotes.  Below is an excerpt from his book as it pertains to childhood roles that persist when addiction is present.

Post by: Ken Powers

We will begin at the beginning and flesh out the codependent disease process as it relates to childhood with some concepts long accepted among program people about the roles typically played by children in dysfunctional homes. What follows will answer the question most often asked of professionals when they work with the families of addicted loved-ones. “But how did this happen to our family?” We, like all writers on the subject, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sharon Wegscheider; whose work Another Chance first described these roles in 1981. There have been many courageous writers, who led all three of us to our insights, but by far the most influential has been Melody Beattie, whose works are not just present in our home libraries; they are worn, torn, dog-eared and annotated after years of re-reading. The following section is provided as a brief summation of our understanding to describe predictable roles of children from addictive homes.

The Class/Family 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 following quote from the work From Survival to Recovery describes this child beautifully.

“To diffuse the battles that often raged around us, or to divert our parents from their attacks on one another or other members of the family, some of us learned to entertain. We tried to blunt family crises with jokes, stories, musical performances, or even comedy revues. We became quite talented and popular with our classmates. Society rewarded us with the laughter, applause, and attention, but in time we found that even when we desperately wanted to shed it the mask would not come off. We felt driven to perform and talk compulsively even when we were exhausted or needed comfort ourselves. Intimacy was difficult for us to achieve, because tender or passionate moments prompted us to joke or wisecrack.” (Survival, P.15)

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 time in social circles. 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.  This child will also at any cost defy the family to the point to where schooling is affected and may even become suspended, expelled, or drop out all together.  The ultimate goal of this child is to do the direct opposite of any authority figure.

The Hero Child is the child who fantasizes that if he or she accomplishes enough, then the whole family will be ‘Ok’ and look ‘normal’ to the outside world. This child is overly conscientious, conforms to all rules from authority, and constantly strives for approval and acceptance from everyone, especially adults. In spite of being a high achiever, the hero child always feels inadequate.  This child will also be the members of the family who will try to make sure harmony is present within the family at the cost of his/her own emotional needs.

The Super Enabler is the child often closest to the addict emotionally. This child is the family ‘workhorse’.  Typically if a daughter, this child assumes the household chores left undone by both the addict and the codependent parent. If a son, this child is constantly trying to protect his mother if the addict is his father. Either way, inside he or she typically has low self-esteem, and there is much unexpressed anger. The favorite fantasy and role is that of the martyr, and this child is the one most likely to be presented to members of the medical profession because another favorite attention-getting device for the super enabler is hypochondria.

The Disappearing Child is typically played by children in addicted households. 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 foods, and meals, TV, easy banter, and acceptance are always available in endless supply. The disadvantage, or possible advantage, of this escape is 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 constant moves by the nuclear family. This phenomenon of constantly relocating, or “the geographical cure” will be explored more fully in another chapter.

Another escape for the disappearing child 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. Therefore, this becomes the easiest escape or behavior of the disappearing child.

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. This is seen most evidently in 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.  This is where the disappearing child literally removes him or herself away from any outside human contact ever becoming more isolated from reality.  This is due in part to the fact that the true reality in which this child lives is extreme and often unbearable.

Read more in Ken’s book, We Codependent Men We Mute Coyotes, available here.

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