With the current emphasis in the field of addiction on ACoA, Adult Children of Alcoholics (or Addicts), issues and codependency, it is helpful to know the basis of the popularized Survival Roles of Hero, Scapegoat, Lost Child, and Mascot. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse (1981) identiﬁed and described these roles as typical of what children do in alcoholic homes. These roles are said to surface in any seriously dysfunctional home, and people in various Twelve-Step groups describe how they adopted these roles within their family of origin.
The chaos, confusion, and pain are so severe in an alcoholic family that children must develop some way to survive. Everyone in the family feels many negative emotions, especially fear, hurt, and anger, as well as insecurity, shame, confusion, rejection, and loneliness. Because there are unspoken rules that prohibit the expression of these feelings, each family member develops defenses to survive.
Dependent, Chief Enabler
Typically you have one adult who is the Dependent (alcoholic father-husband, for example) and a Chief Enabler (wife-mother). All activity focuses on this duo and their unsuccessful attempts to deal with, usually by denial, an increasingly chaotic situation as alcoholism progresses.
This child is often the oldest son or daughter. Their dominant feelings are inadequacy and guilt at ﬁnding themselves in such an impossible situation. So Heroes behave in a way that makes them look very successful, giving some worth to the family. Good grades and leadership qualities are examples of ways Heroes achieve, if these characteristics are valued by the family. Sports might be an alternative route.
This role is fulﬁlled by a child who cannot possibly live up to the Hero’s standards. They deal with their frustrations by acting out, causing trouble, and going outside the family to ﬁnd satisfaction. The characteristic feeling they experience is hurt, but they appear angry, rebellious, and sullen. They might get in trouble with drugs and alcohol, and may be the ﬁrst to be openly identiﬁed as having a problem.
When this child comes onto the scene, things are so chaotic that this child essentially gets lost. Their characteristic feeling is loneliness and they become withdrawn, shy, and overlooked. They seem to accept their lot in life, and have difﬁculty bonding with others and enjoying human relationships. There are Lost Children who ﬁnd solace in food and become obese, which exacerbates their social problems.
This child is born into an already chaotic family with lots of secrets and delusions. Fear is the characteristic emotion of mascots; they sense something is wrong that nobody talks about. They learn early that they can obtain some relief by clowning and getting attention. Mascots’ anxiety may also be manifested by hyperactivity, so the attention is not always positive.
More often than not, these children carry these behaviors into adulthood with them. They should seek counseling for any problems involving relationships, codependency, or even for primary addictive disease, including alcoholism, drugs, food, or other addiction.
This model is an oversimpliﬁcation of a model that originally was helpful but still inadequate to explain the experience of most children of dysfunctional families. Few addiction families have only one addict. Many children changed or combined these roles, or do not ﬁt well in any of them. We suggest you use what you can and learn more about survival roles if you ﬁnd that they ﬁt you or your family.
Survival roles, see also: Abuse, Adolescents, Behavior, Children of addicts, Codependency, Control, Defenses, Detachment, Emotional aspects, Enabling, Family, Family of origin, Forgiveness, Humor & fun, Incest, Integrity & values, Intimacy, Mental aspects, Power, Prevention of addiction, Relationships, Resentments, Sabotage of recovery, Self-image, Step Four, Surrender.
Updated 1 Oct 2015
Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.