In dysfunctional families, you often see the children adopting various roles to help the family function as a system. But these roles can cause serious problems in their future lives. Why are Family Roles important and why do we need to know about them?
The role you played in your family of origin (the family system in which you were raised) can play an important part in how you relate to other people as an adult. Your family role can define who you are, how you relate to people, how they relate to you and influence every aspect of your life. People who are able to identify the role they played in their family have a powerful tool for changing their lives and improving their relationships. What are some of these roles? I will describe a few of the more common ones here, but family roles can be as varied and as individual as families are. A family may have "the sick one", "the peacekeeper", "the athlete", "the gifted one", "the victim", "the genius" or any other role you can think of. We'll first look at five of the more common roles found in dysfunctional families with examples given from the imaginary "Thompson Family". Then we'll look at the characteristics of family roles in general.
The Thompsons are an average, middle class American family living in a small town in the East. Mr. Thompson owns his own business and is well known in town as a pillar of the community. He came from a very poor family who worked in the factories and worked very hard to raise himself to his present status. But he is very insecure in his new social position and fears people will remember his humble beginnings and hold it against him. He often feels like an imposter in social situations with the elite of the town. Mr. Thompson has a habit of drinking heavily in the evenings to calm himself and numb this discomfort. When intoxicated he can become verbally and emotionally abusive to his family, especially his wife. He has become physically abusive in the past and his children fear he will become so again every time he drinks too much. He is very aware of social status and standing and demands that his family conduct themselves appropriately in public in order that they not embarrass the family. His drinking is never discussed in the home and definitely not outside the home.
Mrs. Thompson is the oldest child of upper middle class parents. She rebelled against her family's wishes to marry someone in her social class and instead married Mr. Thompson. She often chides Mr. Thompson about this and tells him that she made a huge mistake in marrying him. This inevitably starts an argument. Mrs. Thompson has numerous health complaints which often keep her in bed and prevent her from functioning in her role as wife and mother. She is unable to stand up to Mr. Thompson and uses her illnesses as a way of escaping the family situation. The more she retreats to her bed, the more heavily Mr. Thompson drinks and leans on the children to fulfill their mother's duties.
Let's look at the five most common family roles and how they play out in the Thompson family.
1. The Hero, "The Good Child"
The Hero is usually the oldlest, but not always. This is the child who is "7 going on 70. Hyperresponsible and self-sufficient they are often perfectionistic and look very good - on the outside. The family holds this child up as their shining example of what a good family they are and what good parents they are. The Hero is often a straight A student and/or star athlete.
As an adult, the Hero can be rigid, controlling and extremely critical - of other and of themselves. Their goal in life is to achieve "success", however that has been defined by the family; making a lot of money, going far in school, mastering a particular profession, etc. They get lots of kudos for being successful and totally invested in attaining and maintaining that success, at all cost. They work to appease, help and take care of other family members. They must always be "brave and strong" and relinquish their own fear and vulnerability to be the Hero for the family. They are compulsive and driven, yet this drive comes from the feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that they harbor deep inside.
On some level they know they are covering up the dysfunction of the family, and of themselves. They realize this is a facade, that something is "rotten in Denmark". Their greatest fear is being exposed as the flawed person they feel themselves to be. Their primary defense mechanism is denial and they are totally cut off from their own emotions and feelings. The Hero will have the hardest time admitting anything is wrong within the family. They will be the last to seek therapy or relinquish their role as Hero. They often enter therapy only when the perfectionism and drive to succeed start to take their toll, on their relationships or their own mental health. This perfectionism may result in overwork and stress which can lead to health problems or substance abuse problems which may threaten the Hero's perfect image.
Aisha Thompson is her father's pride and joy. The oldest of five children she always excelled at school and sports and recently graduated from college with high marks. She is set to take over her father's business and the family has always looked to her with pride.
2. The Scapegoat, "The Screw Up", "The Problem Child"
The Scapegoat is the truth teller of the family. They are the most emotionally honest child and will often verbalize or act out the "problem" which the family is attempting to cover up or deny. The Scapegoat is needed by the family to draw fire away from the real issue, to reduce tension, to take blame or to distract from the real problem. Hyperactive or sick children may be targeted to be the Scapegoat, but the role is open to anyone who has the guts to say or do what everyone else will not. The Scapegoat is the most sensitive and caring member of the family for they sacrifice themselves for the family. Though the Hero is perceived to be the strongest, the Scapegoat is actually the strongest, for othey carry the "sins" for the entire family. Because they are so sensitive, they experience tremendous hurt which may result in self-hatred and self-destruction. The Scapegoat is often a romantic who has become very cynical and distrustful as a result of being the "target" for the families dysfunction.
As a child, the Scapegoat is the child who is most likely to be brought to counseling by the parents. The Scapegoat will be the "identified patient". Typically, the exasperated parents will bring in the Scapegoat, complaining to the therapist about the child's bad behaviors and wanting the therapist to "fix" the child. The astute therapist will realize this and know that the behaviors displayed by the child are indicative of the pathology within the family. If the family is willing to recognize the pathology within the system, therapy may be effective. If they continue to deny the dysfunction and refuse to accept their own part in what is going on then therapy will probably not be effective and the Scapegoat will eventually be driven out of the family. The family can then point at the Scapegoat, "over there", and say, "see how bad they are, but we are all fine". The Scapegoat will be the black sheep of the family, the one who carries the sins of the family for the whole family.
Scapegoats come in many different flavors, but two common ones are: 1) the picked, weak or sick child or 2) the angry, rebellious problem child who is constantly getting into conflicts. Bullies will target both versions. The first, because they are such an obvious target for abuse, just as they are in their families. The second, because they are so easy to set off. Scapegoats may also become bullies because of their penchant to "start something" and make themselves a target for conflict.
As an adult, the Scapegoat is the person most likely to seek counseling. Because of their emotional honesty they realize the dysfunction and face it. They may seek counseling for a drug or alcohol problelm, problems with violence or aggression, problems functioning at work or school, issues with authority or relationship problems. The Scapegoat usually has serious issues with authority figures, for obvious reasons. The hurt and rejection they experience from their family can be manifested as anger and distrust as an adult. They are often confrontational and argumentative. They carry a lot of anger and resentment because of all the blaming and shaming. They may be aware of the sacrifice they made and resent it. Scapegoats are frequently the underdog in relationships and situations.
The Scapegoat role is explore more in my article, "The Scapegoat" and understanding the legend from which the word "Scapegoat" is taken is helpful in understanding the part this role plays in the family. Or read all my articles on the Scapegoat Role.
Aisha's younger sister, Zahra, is the Scapegoat. She constantly confronts Mr. Thompson about his drinking and her mother about her lack of involvement in and responsibility for the family. Zahra has developed a serious drinking problem in her junior year of high school and has been in and out of treatment, but continues to drink and rebel. She gets good grades at school but also gets into numerous conflicts, both with teachers and students, a few of which have resulted in fights.
3. The Mascot
The Mascot is often the youngest in the family, but not always. This child feels powerless in the dynamics which are going on in the family and tries to interrupt tension, anger, conflict, violence or other unpleasant situations within the family by being the court jester. This child is the comedic relief and will often be the class clown in school. They provide laughter as an amusement and a diversion to diffuse volatile situations. They may also use humor to communicate and to confront the family dysfunction, rather than address it directly. They also use humor to communicate repressed emotions in the family such as anger, grief, hostility or fear.
Aisha's youngest brother, Kamal, is the family clown, always ready with a laugh or a joke to lighten things up.
4. The Caretaker
You often see this role in a family where the functioning of the parents is impaired in some way, i.e. mental illness, substance abuse or a medical disability. This child will function as the surrogate parent. They takek responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family and its members. They may use humor as a diversion or to divert attention away from pain and anger, but it is not their primary method. They worry and fret, nurture and support, listen and console. Their entire concept of their self is based on what they can provide for others.
As an adult, they are often in very one-sided relationships. They give love constantly, but are often in relationships in which love and caring is not returned. They are drawn to people who take, but do not give. The Caretaker does all the giving. This is true of all their relationships whether it be their spouse, their children, their friends, their bosses or their coworkers. Their caring comes from an innate sense that they are not good enough on their own, nor are they good enough to require equal attention and caring from other people. They try to overcome their low self esteem and feelings of guilt by pleasing everyone around them. Caretakers are those really "nice" people that love everyone and yet do not seem to have an identity of their own, other than what they can do to help you. They may be in relationships with abusers in their efforts to save the other person, especially if they came from an abusive family. Caretakers often grow up to be social workers, nurses, and yes, therapists.
Aisha's sister, Nailah, is the Caretaker. She often functions as surrogate mother for the children and her father. She often cooks dinner, listens to everyone's problem and shoulders all their tears and fears. She does the laundry and cleans the house to lighten the load on her mother and earn her father's praise for being "the little mother".
5. The Lost Child, the "Space Cadet"
The Lost Child is the invisible child. They try to escape the family situation by making themselves very small and quiet. They disappear into the woodwork or escape into their own minds. This child avoids interactions with other family members and is often found daydreaming, fantasizing, reading a lot of books or watching a lot of TV. They are withdrawn and aloof and prefer to be alone. They deny that they have any feelings about situations and deny getting upset. They will be the last child for which the parents attempt to get help because they go unnoticed.
As an adult, the Lost Child will attempt to deal with painful or uncomfortable emotions and situations by withdrawing from them. They are often unable to feel and suffer very low self esteem. They avoid intimacy and may avoid relationships all together. If they are in a relationship they will be notably absent emotionally. They are socially isolative.
Aisha's younger brother, Rudy, has been the Lost Child, wafting through life in a fog, getting mediocre grades and spending most of his time with his head buried in various science fiction books.
The Importance of Family Roles
Identifying the individual family roles is only half the battle. Understanding the dynamics which create and maintain them is equally important. Family roles exist and are perpetuated because they serve vital functions within the family. They deflect blame and dissipate tension. They protect the family "honor" from disgrace. But they also perpetuate dysfunction and pass it down to the next generation. Understanding the nature of family roles is important if you wish to change them.
Family Roles are Intergenerational
If your family of origin has a pattern of roles which it adopts, these roles are handed down from generation to generation. For example, every generation may have a Scapegoat. The family needs one member to be the "identified problem" so everyone else can look good by comparison. You can look back into your own family tree and see what kinds of roles have been handed down. This can best be done using a Genogram, which is merely a family tree with each member's special traits, roles, issues or characteristics identified. This exercise is best done with the practiced eye of a clinician who can more readily spot the pattenrs. But you can do it for yourself. Click on the Genogram link for more information on this exercise.
Mr. Thompson was the Hero in his own family, his brother was the Scapegoat. Having watched the target his brother became for the family Mr. Thompson works diligently to prove he is "better than that". This is the origin of his drive and determination, but it is also the source of his feelings of inferiority. No matter how hard he works, he feels he is not good enough and that his family is not good enough. He is very critical and demands perfection from everyone. He has now handed down this role to his daughter, Aisha, and perpetuated the Scapegoat role from his own family of origin to his daughter, Zahra.
Family Roles are Rigid
If you don't believe it, try to take someone else's role or refuse to play your own. Immediate, intense pressure will be brought to bear upon you by the system to get back into your role. Each role exists for a reason. If the family Scapegoat moves on or resigns their position, the system will desperately search for a replacement.
Family Roles are Dynamic
When the oldest child grows up and moves out of the family, their role will have to be adopted by someone else. If someone refuses to play their role any longer, the system will desperately search for a replacement. The easiest example to imagine is the Scapegoat. If the designated Scapegoat gets fed up and refuses to play the role, the family will start to look for another one. Understandably, this sends ripples of panic throughout the familial system as each member contemplates the possibility of becoming the new "target". Each member will fight to push the Scapegoat role onto someone else. But the Scapegoat role isn't the only job that is hard to resign from. It can be just hard to leave the Hero role.
The burden of being perfect all the time is starting to take its toll on Aisha. She has no life of her own and no significant relationships. She is constantly at her father's side mastering the family business and trying her best to doing everything perfectly. She secretly began drinking and taking Valium a few years ago and her use has continued to increase through the years. She has begun to appear intoxicated at the business and her work has become sloppy and sometimes does not get done at all.
As Aisha begins to come apart, the family panics. At the thought of having to become the Hero, the Scapegoat sinks deeper into drug use. Not only does she feel incapable of the perfection the Hero role requires, she loathes the hypocrisy of pretending that everything is all right. The Lost Child buries himself even more deeply in his books trying to become even more inconspicuous. The very idea of being that visible makes him shudder. And the Mascot tries to make jokes to distract the family from their distress hoping no one will take him seriously enough to consider him for the job. This is all done subconsciously, but is very, very powerful. All members of the family will home in on Aisha to resume her role. They will use praise, chastisement, guilt, threats, bribes, whatever they can muster to get her to maintain her role.
Family Roles are Subconscious
No one gets up one morning and decides to the Hero of the family. Nor do families consciously make one member the Scapegoat. The roles and patterns are passed down from generation to generation and most families are unaware that these roles even exist or that they are participating in creating and perpetuating them. The patterns are so deeply ingrained in the family that even when the family becomes aware of them and consciously try to stop them, they find it very difficult. Family Roles are Systemic
Family roles are not created or perpetuated by a single individual. The entire system has to participate and everyone plays their part. If an individual attempts to leave their role, the family will put an enormous amount of pressure on that person to return to their role. In our example, Zahra is the family scapegoat. If the family becomes aware of how they create this dynamic around Zahra and tries to stop it, they may subconsciously start scapegoating another member. Family dynamics can be changed, but it takes a lot of work, and everyone in the family has to work together.
Family Roles are Dysfunctional
Family roles prevent us from developing individual identities. Zahra is not Zahra, with a complexity of strengths and weakness, good characteristics and flaws. She is "the problem child". This defines her completely and she is not allowed to change it, unless the family agrees to change the entire system. The roles are not chosen or flexible, they are assigned and fixed. They have little to do with who the person is as an individual and do not allow people to grow or change.
Family Roles Drive our Lives
You will replicate your family role in every aspect of your life; work, school, family, social. If you were the Hero in your family you will be the Hero at work, in school, in your own family and with your friends. If you join a social group, you will be the Hero there. This is perhaps the most important concept and the place where the most work can be done. If you can identify the behavior in which you engage which replicates this role everywhere you go, you can change your own behavior and change the role you play in other systems whether you are able to change it in your family of origin or not. Even if you are not able to change the system itself in your family of origin, if you stop playing the part of your assigned role, it will fall to someone else.
Amir has always been the Scapegoat of his family. As a teen he began using drugs heavily and dropped out of school at the age of 16. He never held a job successfully and moved from place to place, living with different friends. He recently turned 25, got clean and sober, completed his GED and is now working toward attending college. He works full-time and has his own apartment. His family continues to attempt to put him in the role of the Scapegoat, but Amir doesn't buy into it. He continues to work toward establishing his own path. His family is in an uproar and clamours to find another Scapegoat. They have homed in on his younger brother, who has begun to use drugs and skip school.
Family Roles Drive our Relationships
You will replicate your family role in every relationships; employee, student, spouse, parent, friend.
Mirka was the Caretaker of her family. Her mother was addicted to prescription medications and her father was an alcoholic. As a result, Mirka, the oldest daughter, ended up taking care of the children and acting as the surrogate "mom". In her marriage and with her own children she continues to play this role. Mirka feels responsible for the well-being of every member of her family and often compromises her own health and peace of mind to try to keep everyone happy. She works full-time then comes home and cares for the house and the yard, working late into the night to make sure everyone has the clothes they want to wear, the food the want to eat and the house in the condition they are used to. Mirka does not assign chores to her children or ask for help from her husband because she wants them to be happy and not have to worry about such things. Mirka also works as a nurse and absorbs all the pain and misery of her patients, going above and beyond the call of duty to keep them comfortable. She brings her worries about her clients home and frets about them. She plays counselor to her fellow nurses, listening to their troubles and comforting them as well.
Changing Family Roles - With the Family
This is best done with the help of a family therapist who can help you objectively identify each role and how it is perpetuated. But you can do the work yourself. To stop the pattern within the family, every member has to be willing to change. They have to be willing to accept responsibility for the part they play in manufacturing and perpetuating these roles. They have to be willing to accept responsibility for their own behavior and carry their own problems rather than dump them on the Scapegoat or deny them. Every member has to be willing to show up, both physically and emotionally, and participate in making the change happen. In a family with young children, where the parents are highly motivated to stop this process from being handed down to their children, there is a good possibility that change will occur. In a family where the children are grown and the parents are in denial about the situation, change will be much more difficult and perhaps impossible.
Changing Family Roles - Within Yourself
If you are the grown child of a dysfunctional family with family roles, the odds of changing your entire family of origin are small. However, you can definitely change yourself and your own life. You may not be able to change your family's expectations that you maintain the role you play. As a result, your interactions with them may have to be limited. But it is very possible to reclaim your unique identity in your own life and in your own relationships. It is possible to step forever out of the role you inherited. How?
First, you have you recognize the role you are playing. Most people can readily do this by reading the descriptions above. If you have trouble figuring out what your role is or you can only narrow it down to one or two, ask your siblings. If your siblings aren't open to discussing this ask your friends, your partner, your ex-partners, your colleagues at work. You will reenact this role in every one of these relationships, so get feedback from these people.
Second, understand the pros and cons of the role. Examine the payoffs for maintaining this role and be aware of them. These are what you will have to give up when you relinquish the role. Make a list of what you will lose, good and bad, and what you will gain, good and bad, from giving up the role.
The Scapegoat can be a difficult role to bear, but the righteousness or the martyrdom which come with it can also be intoxicating. Righteousness is a powerful emotion and can be difficult to give up, especially if you have low self esteem.
The Hero role can be a tough act to maintain, but being the "good one" is equally intoxicating. If you have devoted your entire life to your job as a measure of your success as a person, stepping down from the Hero role might leave you with a huge empty void in your life. The successfully job is gone and you have no relationships or interests with which to fall back on.
If you are the Lost Child, giving up the role may mean have to experience emotions you never felt before. And some of them will be difficult, some will be painful. You will have to actually live in your life and be present for it.
If you are the Caretaker, you will have to learn to say "No". You will have to learn to stand up for yourself and care for yourself. You will also give up the role as the "nice one" who takes care of everyone. Again, if your self esteem is low and all your self worth comes from being "the nice one" this may be hard to take.
Why would you give up these things? To take back yourself, your own true identity. The Scapegoat can be a caring, peaceful, easy going person instead of the Rebel or the Troublemaker. The Hero can be an average person with strengths and flaws. They can cry and experience fear instead of having to keep a stiff upper lip and never show emotion. The Lost Child can actually experience their life and feel it. The Caretaker can actually shower themselves with some of that nurturing they have spent their life giving to others.
Most importantly, when you stand up for the real you - you gain respect. Respect from yourself for yourself. Respect from others. Your self esteem soars as you discard the false facade that you have been pretending to be and embrace who you really are. When you embrace who you truly are as being "O.K." and worthy of love and respect you are able to fully experience your life. You will also have healthier relationships. Imagine having a relationship with someone who is constantly fighting the status quo, or is perfect, or is never emotionally there. How can that be fulfilling for either party?
Now that you've identified the role you play and become aware of what you have to lose and what you have to gain from giving it up, the question becomes, "How do I actually step out of this role?" This is the hardest part of all, but the most important. This is where you begin to take charge of your own life for the first time.
You have to recognize and take responsibility for your own behaviors which recreate this role in your current relationships.
This is hard. It's easy to say, "Hey, I was put in this role by my family and it really messed me up". It's hard to realize that whatever is happening to you now is because of your choices and your behavior. But this is the only way to effect change and to take back your power. With responsibility comes power. And with power comes responsibility. You are in charge of your life now. And you are responsible for your behavior. But this gives you the power to change it. Figure out how you replicate the role and stop doing it. When you change your behavior, you change the outcome.
If you maintain the Scapegoat role at work by pointing out the flaws of your colleagues or constantly railing against management - stop it. Sit back and let it go. Focus on your own work and your own flaws and decide to let everyone else worry about theirs.
If you maintain the Hero role by taking on everyone else's work, refusing to delegate authority out of fear that it won't be done "properly" or by being a perfectionist about everything you do - stop it. Allow for imperfection. I once had a Hero client who decided to lay tile on her kitchen floor. When she got up she realized - with horror - that it was crooked. Her initial instinct was to quickly rip up the entire floor before anyone could see her mistake. But she caught herself. She walks around on that crooked floor now with pride. It stands as a symbol of her fight to eliminate her need to be perfect.
If you maintain the Lost Child role by isolating and immersing yourself in your own private world - stop it. Get out of the house, socialize, enter into relationships and try to be present. Tap into your emotions and sit with them as long as you can.
If you maintain the Caretaker role by never saying "No" to anyone, never taking time for yourself and absorbing everyone else's emotions - stop it. Plan time to do something for yourself and when others want to encroach upon it, say "No". Work on developing better boundaries. Work on taking care of yourself as well as you take care of others.
Another thing which may be helpful it to watch other people. The Scapegoat at work may sit back and watch how others handle things. I once worked with a coworker who never let work stressors get to her and always had a happy demeanor. A truly happy demeanor, not the plastered on smile covering up a simmering emotional volcano. We were given some odious assignment by management and I watched how she handled it. I also asked her what she thought about the assignment to see how she was interpreting it differently from me. Do this. Pick out someone who handles things they way you want to and ask them how they see the issue. What do they think about it? How do they feel about it? You can learn a lot about different ways of perceiving, thinking and feeling about things.
It may be hard to face that although this burden was placed upon you as a child, you are now doing it to yourself. It may hard to take responsibility for how your relationships are turning out. But with responsibility comes power. And with power comes responsibility. If the problem with your relationships, your work, your family is always everyone else you are helpless. You can't change other people. You are at their mercy because the only person you can change is yourself. But if your way of perceiving the situation, your way of handling the situation, your way of processing the situation is the problem that's great! You can change you. And if you can change you, you can change your life.