Children of Alcoholics

Many people are aware of the dynamics of an alcoholic family; some from first hand experience. The terms "scapegoat," "mascot," "lost child," "hero," and "enabler" are quite familiar in the intervention and recovery programs. For those who may be new to the world of the alcoholic family, these terms are foreign. Although educational efforts have enlightened the public in general about the harmful effects of alcohol and drugs, alcoholics continue to find ways to hide their condition and many families continue to follow the typical dynamics of the alcoholic family.

While the alcoholic affects the family members in profound ways; it becomes a two-way street. As the family members experience the world of the alcoholic, they begin to affect, and at times perpetuate the alcoholic's behavior and ability to recover. It can be a vicious cycle and one that is often difficult for outsiders to understand.

A person's "wholeness" can be looked at as a circle or pie separated into six equally important segments: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social, and volitional. Each segment continually interacts with the other segments. When each segment is developed in a healthy way, the person feels whole and has strong feelings of self-worth. When one or more of these potentials (segments) get damaged, healthy interactions with others have obstacles, individuals put up defenses and their self-worth is damaged. In alcoholics and eventually their family members, these become more and more damaged and self-worth becomes almost none existent.

Rules in Alcoholic Families

Families have rules, most unwritten, that members abide. Healthy families have, for the most part, healthy rules; in the alcoholic family the family rules tend to be unhealthy. There are four functions of rules:

  1. They establish attitudes, expectations, values, and goals;
  2. They regulate the use of authority;
  3. They deal with change; and
  4. They set up communication patterns.

When rules are healthy they are human, regulation of authority is flexible, change is encouraged and communication is open. Unhealthy family rules are inhuman, rigid, enforced and closed. Rules are intimately bound with the self-worth of the family members. Alcoholics tend to be governed by the following rules:

  • The alcoholic's use of alcohol is the most important thing in the family's life. An example is the family members plan their day around the alcoholic's drinking hours. The alcoholic's use of alcohol is the main concern of the family around which everything else revolves.
  • Alcohol is not the cause of the family's problems.
  • Someone or something else caused the alcoholic's dependency, he or she is not responsible.
  • Status quo must be maintained at any cost.
  • Everyone in the family must be an "enabler." While one member is the "chief enabler," the other family members also must do their part to "protect" the alcoholic.
  • No one is allowed to discuss what is going on in the family, with each other or outsiders.
  • No one is allowed to express feelings honestly.

Roles Children of Alcoholics Play in the Family Drama

Members of the alcoholic family often feel trapped and the only way to survive is to adjust to the situation. They choose the same defense as the alcoholic by hiding their true feelings behind artificial behavior patterns. They take on supporting roles in the family drama. The roles are patterns of behavior and grow from the individual's own personal pain, have their own symptoms and payoffs, and ultimately extract their own price. Every alcoholic family, regardless of size has each of these roles; large families will have more than one member playing a specific role while smaller families have members who take on more than one role.

The alcoholic of course has the starring role in the family. The motivating feeling for the alcoholic is shame; the identifying symptom is chemical use; the payoff is relief of pain, but for the family there is no payoff; and the possible price is addiction.

The Role of the Enabler

The Enabler is the role that protects the alcoholic by deflecting any blame or responsibility of the alcoholic's behavior. Just about everyone who has a relationship with the alcoholic enables at some point. However, there is always one who is the Chief Enabler, generally the person who is emotionally closest to the alcoholic. Even when the Enabler realizes the alcoholic has become unreliable to the point that family tasks must be taken over by the Enabler, the Enabler continues to protect the alcoholic.

The motivating feeling of the Enabler is anger; the identifying symptom is helplessness; the payoff for the Enabler is importance and self-righteousness, while the payoff for the family is responsibility; and the ultimate potential price is illness or martyrdom.

The Role of the Hero

The Hero is usually not present at the beginning of the drama, but enters soon afterwards. It is the only role that is most often determined by birth order; the oldest child is usually the Hero. The Hero is usually helpful inside the family and successful outside the family. The Hero tries to keep the family in balance and make up for its weaknesses. The adult child of an alcoholic who was in the Hero role rarely seeks help unless the whole family is engaged in treatment.

In later life, it is most often only physical ailments that bring the Hero in for treatment. The motivating feeling for the Hero is inadequacy or guilt; the identifying symptom is overachievement; the payoff for the Hero is positive attention while for the family the payoff is self-worth; the potential price is a compulsive drive.

The Role of the Scapegoat

The Scapegoat comes into the family and sees that the Hero role is already taken; it seems no matter what good thing the Scapegoat does, it is ignored, yet praise and attention is given to the Hero's efforts. The Scapegoat begins to withdraw from the family. This child in the alcoholic family looks to other behaviors to gain attention. It is not unusual for this child to become involved in substance use or abuse.

While the Hero works hard and brings honor to self and family, the Scapegoat behaves badly and brings disgrace. The motivating feeling of the Scapegoat is hurt; the identifying symptom is delinquency; the payoff for the Scapegoat is negative attention and for the family, focus away from the alcoholic; the ultimate price the Scapegoat may pay is self-destruction and addiction.

The Role of the Lost Child

The Lost Child enters the family and like the Scapegoat feels like an outsider, but instead of trying to force entry into the drama or use attention seeking tactics, the Lost Child simply retreats to the sidelines. The Lost Child stays out of the way and fends for self which the family welcomes. The Lost Child is the most out of touch in the family and because this child is often out of sight, both the child and his or her needs are unintentionally ignored.

This child has little experience interacting with others which can cause errors in judgment when in social environments. The Lost Child motivating feeling is loneliness; the identifying symptoms are solitariness and shyness; the payoff for the Lost Child is escape, for the family, relief; the potential price is social isolation.

The Role of the Mascot

The last role that is played out in the alcoholic family is the role of the Mascot. The Mascot joins the drama late; is often the youngest child in the family. Because the Mascot is the often the youngest, the family tends to protect this child from all the family secrets. As the family withholds information from the child, the child's fear increases because there is a sense that something is wrong and yet trusted people are saying everything is fine. To release the pent up anxiety and fear, the child acts out in toddler behavior that makes the other family members laugh and give positive attention. The Mascot brings good feelings of fun for the family, for a moment they can forget the problems of the family.

As the Mascot entertains the family, control of the family scene belongs to the Mascot and the child feels secure. The motivating feeling for the Lost Child is fear; the identifying symptoms are clowning and hyperactivity; the payoff for the Lost Child is amused attention and fun for the family; the ultimate price is potentially immaturity and emotional illness.

Adult Children of Alcoholics and the Codependent

It was not until the 1970s attention was focused on the needs of children of alcoholics and adult children of alcoholics. Children of alcoholics often grow up to be dysfunctional adult children of alcoholics. While adults from any seriously dysfunctional family identifies with many of the following issues; adult children of alcoholics usually identify with the majority of the following:

  • Guessing at what is normal
  • Difficulty following through on a project from beginning to end
  • Lying when the truth is just as easy
  • Judging self without mercy
  • Difficulty having fun
  • Taking self too seriously
  • Difficulty engaging in intimate relationships
  • Overreacting to changes they can not control
  • Feeling different from others
  • Constantly seeking approval and affirmation
  • Being super responsible or super irresponsible
  • Being extremely loyal even if evidence proves it is unwarranted
  • Looking for immediate gratification and unable to tolerate delayed gratification
  • Locking into course of action without thorough thought
  • Seeking tension and crisis then complaining about results
  • Avoiding or aggravating conflict
  • Fearing abandonment and rejection yet rejecting of others
  • Sabotaging success and feeling like a failure
  • Fearing criticism and judgment but criticizing and judging others
  • Difficulty managing time and setting priorities

Co-dependents are characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependency on another person, group, idea, activity or substance. They tend to develop a "stuck" lifestyle in their dependency on something outside of self for validation and identity. Eventually the lifestyle becomes pathological, affecting the co-dependent's physical health, social and occupational functioning, and all other aspects of his or her life. Spouses and children of alcoholics and other chemically dependent people are most vulnerable to co-dependency. However, any family preoccupied with secret keeping, a trauma or other such concerns can foster co-dependents. Co-dependency usually manifests in symptoms of denial or self-delusion, compulsive behavior and repression. When painful emotions are not met, they often bring low self-worth and physical ailments.

With the increased awareness of children and adult children of alcoholics, organizations such as Alanon began having an increase in attendance at meetings. In today's climate, many people are required to complete rehabilitation and there are a multitude of programs that help with the recovery of the alcoholic and many of the programs involve the entire alcoholic family. Awareness has aided some of today's children and adult children of alcoholics in getting the help they need.


Wegscheider Cruse, Sharon, Another Chance Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc., 1989.

The copyright of the article "Children and Adult Children of Alcoholics" is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.