Family Roles in Addiction Recovery, Part III: The Lost Child

A lost stuffed animal, bunny sits outside one a bench.The final alcoholic family role I’d like to discuss in the context of recovery is the lost child. This is the child who stays under the radar, invisible, quietly decamping to his/her room, disappearing behind a stack of empty booze bottles or cloud of marijuana smoke. To paraphrase D.W. Winnicott, for a child it is normal to hide, but a tragedy not to be found.

What happens when a lost child gets clean and sober? To understand this, we have to look at what happened to make this child “lost” to begin with. This child, in a way, becomes, almost literally, a skeleton in the family’s closet. The child’s disappearance serves the dysfunction of the family in that this child will never divulge the family’s skeletons. There are many “elephants in the room” in such families; sometimes untreated addiction, other times abuse or neglect. The family’s collective shame must be hidden; the lost child serves as a kind of metaphor for what is repressed. When a child like this stays lost, he learns that his needs don’t matter, and so the adaptive hiding strategy becomes a way of life, later to be soothed and narcotized by the powder, needle, or bottle (as well as a series of codependent relationships).

The ambivalence this child struggles with in new-found sobriety arises from the advantages and disadvantages of the lost role. On the one hand, this person has protected his/herself from the vortex or volatility of the chaotic family dynamic. He/She has not had to enter into the fray and risk attack, injury, or humiliation. Invisibility becomes the best form of defense.

On the other hand, he/she lives with a kind of emotional anorexia and is a prime target for a host of destructive behaviors: self-harm (cutting, burning), eating disorders, sexual compulsivity, codependence, addiction, and so forth. This child wants to be heard, needs to be heard—but is terrified of being heard. Being heard means facing the feelings beneath the cloak of invisibility, and risking the judgment and/or abandonment of the family members who rely on him/her to stay quiet. Such a person carries heavy feelings of shame, guilt, rage, isolation, and a longing for (and terror of) human connection.

The question of whether the family can be helpful or destructive, as the child gets sober, hinges, not so much on the degree of the family’s past dysfunction, but on their current willingness to get honest and authentic. This family support, of course, is preferable to the lost child, more so than accusations of the child being bad by forcing them to look at long-hidden family secrets.

The family may consciously yearn for his/her sobriety while unconsciously defending against their own shame and guilt. I once knew the father of a l0st daughter, newly sober (my client); he was often enraged at her for a variety of puzzling reasons, until I discovered that he himself was an alcoholic who was terrified of having to face his own problems. His words said “get healthy” but his behavior said “let’s keep things as they were.”

It only takes one relatively balanced member of the immediate family who is willing to align with this newly sober lost person, and live in honesty rather than deceit, to bolster the addict’s support system. Having just one family member on board who loves and accepts the addict, who is not overly threatened by his/her recovery, can bolster a sense of hope. This actual relationship can shed light on the addict’s (usually futile) attempts—prior to sobriety—to find surrogates for lost family members.

Of course, the addict’s partner or family members often cannot or will not accept their loved one’s condition and desire to change, and are threatened by the prospect of recovery. They may defend this terror by insisting on seeing addiction as a moral failing or weakness. Still, the addict has a chance of success, as always, though the recovery work proves more formidable: this is a case that requires immediate support-building, as the lost person begins speaking the truth and breaking the bonds of repression. Like all addicts, he/she will require the support of a sober community, therapy, and intensive recovery work. Being rewarded with love, acceptance and higher self-esteem is often strong inspiration.

It is still amazing to me how threatened alcoholic family members become as their loved one becomes healthier; as order is threatening to chaos, health is threatening to the ideology of sickness, which casts a black pall over everything and fosters a sense of futility. Thankfully, recovery can lift the black veil of these (mis)perceptions, when the addict is truly ready to surrender and begin the slow, sometimes grueling, but always worthy, path towards wellness. This can happen without the aid and support of loved ones, but recovery comes easier when family, too, is willing to change.

© Copyright 2010 by By Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment

    March 9th, 2010 at 7:36 PM

    As if the things like addiction and self-percieved ‘protection’ behing the ‘invisibility’ cloak were not enough factors to deter against change and recovery,the pressure and wrong behavior of a family memeber against the change can only be damaging.It is no good if a person is opposed in his/her road to recover by a family member.I just think that instaead of individual counseling,counseling for the entire family would be better.

  • Georgia

    March 10th, 2010 at 5:41 AM

    This narrative could have been written about my family. My dad was an alcoholic and my brother was the one who always tried to fly under the radar so as not to enrage the wrath that was so much a part of my drunken father. Most of the time it worked but then my brother just kind of got lost in the shuffle. The rest of us were so busy arguing and raging that Dan was left alone and sadly pretty much forgotten about. We all had other issues we were trying to deal with and comforting a scared younger brother was not one that I wanted to deal with myself. And my mom was always so enamored with my dad, enabling him to the very end, that other family needs went ignored. As a result my brother battles even today his own addictions and I feel very much to blame, for he is still lost.

  • DONNA M.

    March 10th, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    When one member of a family is looking at deaddiction,the battle is not just his/hers,it is the entire family’s.
    Also,the battle is not just against the addiction,it is also to change that person’s perception in the family and towards a major change in family dynamics.

  • Sharon

    April 14th, 2015 at 2:34 PM

    I am the youngest of 6 children and my dad who was an alcoholic died of this disease when I was 12yrs old. After that all my siblings left home to get married, go to college or go into the service. I was left at home with my Mother who was grieving the loss of her beloved husband. I did not blame my sisters & brothers for leaving they were just living their lives. As a result I ended up an alcoholic & drug addict to deal with the loss of my Dad. I now have been clean & sober for 25 yrs. I have gone to AA, Alnon and ACOA meeting where I learned I was and still am the Lost Child. I remain under the radar, disappear and feel like my ideas & thoughts don’t matter therefore I don’t matter. I have a diffucult time in social situations and in intimate relationships. Anyway I still struggle with these things. This article was helpful. Thanks for reading this. I do appreciate that I have someway to share my experience.

  • Darren Haber

    April 15th, 2015 at 9:32 PM

    You’re welcome, and thank you Sharon for your honesty. Sounds like you’ve really made a lot of effort in healing and growing. Congratulations on your sobriety, though I’m sorry you went through such difficult times. I appreciate your comments.

  • Sandy

    July 24th, 2015 at 8:54 AM

    I too am a lost child and grew up with two alcoholic parents. Later, my two older brothers also became alcoholics and then it was like having two sets of alcoholic parents. I stayed quiet and invisible during that time and can’t remember much about it. I too have difficulties with relationships and social situations. I even find it hard to talk in Al-Anon meetings….I just feel that nobody wants to hear what I have to say. I’m in my 60’s now and have problems with food. I used to drink when I was in my 20’s but got scared that I would become like them to I quit. It is so hard to keep pressing forward in recovery but I’m trying to do what I can. My child and my ex-husband both have mental illness so I’m enjoying being alone and not taking care of anyone except myself which has been difficult to learn.

  • Susan

    January 11th, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    I also am a lost child and have a similar way oh handling things. I am most comfortable alone. I am divorced with with 4 adult children but I go for stretches not seeing most of them.

  • Jenny

    December 22nd, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    I was and/or am the loss child in my family. I went into recovery and my oldest brother was aligned with me, he was a real person and not in a role, because of his own recovery. He lost his daughter in addiction, I maintained my recovery but felt like my best friend. I stayed sober and in recovery, but it now felt like white knuckling and now I felt so codependent as he withdrew. I understood his pain, I had no where to go with mine, it got repressed again. I really fell apart, he picked me up, he was there..but then he got sicked passed about a year ago. Every old behavior and feeling has returned, particularly with my family. Although, I’m more in control of my emotions and not acting out and remaining in recovery. I can’t begin to tell describe the loss I feel, not only my brother, but all of it. I want to self blame, I want to hide, I want blame, I want to fix. I just want to know, I will be o’k, and this too shall pass. I feel invisible around my family. I feel jealous that they have each other. I feel manipulated by them, but I do not know why, I feel that way. I watch the dysfunction pass down in there families as they laugh. I can’t laugh with them anymore, it’s not funny. It is so sad, but I miss being a part of, but I can’t pay the price to laugh along. But being invisible sure does hurt a lot too. I believe I can and will feel differently in time as long as I am committed to recovery and determined not to pass this onto my children. It does really hurt this holiday season..

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