Families with alcoholism or drug addiction don’t function the same way a healthy family functions. And though any drug makes a family unhealthy, I’m going to refer to alcoholism just to keep this easier to read. A healthy family has the adults in loving leadership roles while the children are given an emotionally safe environment. An alcoholic family creates roles that balance the addiction but create deep emotional pain for everyone.
The role I’m describing today is the “hero child”. It is usually taken on by the oldest child in the family. The purpose of the hero child is to bring honor back to the family’s image and identity. It’s disgraced by the presence of addiction. The hero child’s public presentation saves face for the family both to themselves and to the others.
The hero child is likely an overachiever, throws themselves into their school activities, gets high grades, and so on. They rarely get into trouble and have a longing for approval. The public good name of their family rides on their shoulders. Their desperate hope is that if they are just good enough, smart enough, responsible enough, and accomplish enough, they can drag their unhealthy family out of the pit and all will be well.
It is just a distraction, of course. The alcoholic will still be alcoholic no matter what the hero child accomplishes and no matter how clean their room is. And they are unlikely to get that approval they so desperately want. Eventually, the stress and strain of giving so much of themselves for the sake of the family – and for what?
This can sometimes be internalized as anxiety or depression. And once they realize they could never do enough, the hero child can become very resentful towards the family. The alcoholism creates a black hole that sucks the life and love away from the family, leaving a lot of pain behind.
Keep in mind that roles are not shackles. Some kids react to addiction in ways that don’t quite fit the mold. Or, a younger sibling who acts more like the hero may take on the role instead of the oldest. The point is that someone often fills the void of bringing honor and good face, and they get sucked dry by doing it.
Sometime soon I’ll review another role of a family with alcoholism. As always, please add your comments and experiences below this post. I’m glad to have your participation with my blog.