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The quality of relationships we have with our family members has a lasting impact on our development and well-being throughout our lives. Understanding the influence of familial relationships and roles, specifically dysfunctional family roles, is critical in healing. When dysfunctional family roles are left unaddressed, all members are at risk of experiencing interpersonal conflict and low self-esteem, which can, in turn, inform substance abuse and the development of mental health disorders. Nevertheless, when seeking recovery from mental and behavioral distress, it is necessary to reflect on the quality of our familial relationships and identify and overcome any potential dysfunctional family roles to foster lasting healing and recovery for all family members. 

At CCM, we believe that treatment and recovery are family endeavors. This is because when one family member is affected by substance use disorder (SUD) or other mental health disorders, all family members are uniquely impacted as well. Moreover, when family members work together in treatment to address dysfunctional family roles, all family members can learn new and healthier ways of functioning to sustain lasting healing together as a family unit. Meanwhile, we at CCM are here to guide, support, and connect clients and families with treatment, intervention, and ancillary services to make this happen. 

Understanding Family Dynamics and Family Roles

To understand what dysfunctional family roles are and the harm they can bring to a family, it is first important to understand family dynamics and family roles in general. According to Family Dynamics by authors Jabbari & Rouster, family dynamics consist of the patterns of interactions among family members as well as the roles, relationships, and other factors that shape these interactions. As stated in the publication:

Interpersonal interactions among family members have lasting impacts and influence the development and well-being of an individual via psychosocial, behavioral, and physiological pathways. Thus, family dynamics and the quality of family relationships can have either a positive or negative impact on health.

Furthermore, the publication identifies several primary factors that contribute to healthy vs. unhealthy family dynamics. Healthy family dynamics are characterized by individuation, flexibility, stability, clear communication, mutuality, and role reciprocity. Unhealthy family dynamics, on the other hand, are characterized by isolation, rigidity, unclear communication, enmeshment, and role conflict. 

Meanwhile, family roles consist of the positions that family members take that otherwise determine their expected behavior. Family roles can develop out of family dynamics, yet family dynamics can also develop out of already established family roles. 

Functional Family Roles

As mentioned above, when healthy family dynamics exist, role reciprocity is present. Reciprocity involves mutual exchanges of action and influence and often requires role allocation, allowing each family member to understand their personal assignment of responsibility within the family unit. Examples of functional family roles in healthy family dynamics include both instrumental roles – such as the provision of physical resources, decision-making, and family management –  and affective roles – responsible for providing emotional support to family members. 

To establish and sustain functional family roles alongside healthy family dynamics, open and honest communication and self-awareness are necessary. Likewise, family members must be willing to adapt to ensure that the unique needs of the household (and each member) are appropriately and effectively met. Although it is common for many people to immediately know and understand the role they take in a family, some roles can be challenging to identify. Nevertheless, roles change over time, so it is important to address role confusion when it surfaces to avoid the development of dysfunctional family roles.

Dysfunctional Family Roles

To reiterate, role confusion often exists alongside dysfunctional family roles. These roles may develop from unhealthy patterns of functioning. Yet, when they are left unaddressed and unmanaged, they can perpetuate continued dysfunction within the family unit. In addiction recovery, two of the most common behaviors that develop from dysfunctional family roles include enabling and codependency. 

First, enabling consists of ongoing attempts to rescue, support, or protect a family member from experiencing the negative consequences of their maladaptive behaviors. Some family members may feel compelled to help their loved one financially by paying their bills or even socially by lying for them. Enabling behaviors are attached to dysfunctional roles of “the enabler,” “the rescuer,” or “the mascot,” affirming the unhealthy behaviors of family members in an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy within the family. 

Another concern of dysfunctional family roles is their tendency to inform codependent behaviors. Codependency describes imbalanced relationships where each person is emotionally or physically reliant on one another. To enable healthy family dynamics, family members should be interdependent, involving a balance of addressing the needs of others and the needs of oneself. 

The Impact of Dysfunctional Family Roles

According to the publication Family Dynamics mentioned earlier, there are many consequences of unhealthy family dynamics and associated dysfunctional family roles. For instance, unhealthy family dynamics can inform trauma, stress, and adverse childhood experiences (ACES), which are directly linked as risk factors for physical and mental health problems, as well as the use of alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. Yet, familial social support remains an essential element in reorienting family dynamics and informing healing and recovery, as the publication states that “those in supportive relationships have family members that encourage them to behave in healthier ways and assist them in medication compliance if applicable.”

Meanwhile, interventions and treatments such as family programs, family therapy, and more can bring together family members to address dysfunctional family roles and dynamics to ensure lasting healing and recovery for all involved. 

Recovery from substance addictions, behavioral addictions, mental health disorders, and other forms of crises is a family endeavor. Through interventions and treatment programs like family therapy, family members can come together to reflect on unhealthy family dynamics and dysfunctional family roles that may be perpetuating distress. Understanding what dysfunctional family roles are and how to establish healthier family roles is necessary to establish sobriety and sustain recovery together as a family unit. At CCM, we provide concierge services to individuals and families seeking healing. No matter where your family stands in the journey to recovery, we have the guidance and support that you need to sustain healing for a lifetime to come. Learn more by calling (855) 467-3226