The family is a system, and like other systems each part is assigned a job to keep the system in balance. In a dysfunctional family such as families with alcohol-dependent members, the roles and rules often become detrimental.
In alcoholic families, unspoken rules are developed that help keep the family in check. Children quickly learn "don't trust, don't talk, don't feel." Basic trust is not established because the parents are not able to meet the fundamental physical and emotional needs. The children's lives are filled with inconsistency and broken promises. Denial becomes a strong coping mechanism in the hopes that "if we ignore the problem it will go away." Those children who do try to rock the boat are often punished through neglect, humiliation or physical means. The feelings of these children are not validated because the parents either do not respond at all to the child's fear, anger, and sadness or the feelings are discounted (e.g., "Big boys/girls don't cry"). In the short run, the rules assure safety because they avoid upsetting the alcoholic parent. In the long run, they cause significant pain and perpetuate problems.
Children often take on the following roles in families where alcohol has chronically caused crisis and chaos:
- The Hero, the responsible one or the family caretaker learns to ignore his/her own feelings and to care for others. These "superkids" are often high achievers and little adults who look very good on the outside. Inside they are often stuffing painful feelings and compulsivity.
- The Scapegoat is often the acting out child who takes center stage to take the heat off the alcohol-dependent adult. The parent's drinking problem is often blamed on this "problem child."
- The Lost Child may become invisible to the rest of the family. An overly compliant household chameleon, this child removes him/herself by becoming lost in day dreams.
- The Mascot or family clown brings comic relief to the tense family situation. This child's charming personality entertains others and gives off the impression that stress is not a problem while in reality the child feels frightened and alone.