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8 Common Dysfunctional Family Roles

Through self-awareness, we can work to change patterns we took into adulthood.

Key points

  • Experiences with caregivers shape our view of the world and our position within it.
  • Black sheep, hero, and enabler are some of the most commonly known roles, each working together to continue the dysfunctional cycle.
  • While most people can immediately identify what role they might take, some roles change over time or may be difficult to identify.

We are born with a completely blank slate. As we grow and develop, we continue to look to our caregivers, and our families as examples of how to interact with the world around us, as well as our role and position in our environment.

The ways our caregivers interact with us and each other shape our view of the world and our position within it. If those caregivers behave in dysfunctional or unhealthy ways, chances are high that children will mimic those unhealthy behaviors, even unintentionally. Traumatic experiences with caregivers root themselves in our established understanding of how to socialize, affecting three fundamental structures: our sense of self, the way we communicate, and how we form relationships and relate to others around us.

We adopt certain personality characteristics based on our position, or the "role" we have within the family unit. If our family was dysfunctional, our role morphs out of the unhealthy patterns and exists to maintain the ongoing dysfunction.

Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay
Source: Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay

Common Roles in Dysfunctional Families

While not an exhaustive list of family roles, these are some of the most common roles in dysfunctional families and are the main ones I see in my practice of working with survivors of family trauma:

1. The golden child: the one who can do no wrong. In adulthood, this role often manifests as perfectionism and a low sense of self. It is common for these people to become obsessively attached to others, as they learned to get their value and worth from external sources.

2. The hero: the one who “proves” to the rest of the world the family is all right. They hold onto an idea like, “If little Jimmy is a football star, then our family can’t be that bad.” In adulthood, they are drawn to achievement and success and are prone to perfectionism and being overworked.

3. The mascot: the one who diffuses conflict in the family. Skilled with humor and other methods of deflection, they are able to draw attention toward themselves and away from where it could turn volatile. Many well-known comedians and actors are self-proclaimed “mascots.”

4. The identified patient: the person who is frequently the family’s “reason” for having problems or perhaps their reason for coming to therapy: “We're here because Bobby has a substance abuse problem,” is often heard in the therapeutic setting. As therapists, we often call this person the “identified patient” of the family, because, while the family thinks this person is the reason for them coming to therapy, clinicians know that the true issues run much deeper than one person. When the person is a child, caregivers often excuse problematic behavior as immature, still able to be “fixed,” but, by adulthood, if they haven’t already, this person often becomes the family’s "black sheep."

5. The scapegoat (a.k.a. the black sheep): the person who is the outlier—the one who is different. They are the opposite of the hero and are often the focus of the family's problems. What one family considers “normal” might make them the black sheep in another. In my experience, the black sheep is often the most honest of the family members—the one who “broke away.” But being the honest one does not always come with perks. The rest of the family, often too uncomfortable with their honesty, will try to distance themselves from them, especially if they are unhealed and still in the denial phase.

6. The lost child: the one just trying to survive unnoticed, because getting noticed means getting in trouble or being in the limelight. In adulthood, this person will maintain that feeling of being lost and unseen, often having low self-esteem or self-worth. They will struggle to make decisions and constantly have feelings of invisibility or not being “seen.”

7. The enabler or caretaker: the person who maintains the look or appearance of normalcy within the family. They support and affirm the unhealthy behavior of other family members who might have a substance use disorder or untreated mental illness or personality disorder. I sometimes see this role merged with the "golden child," but not always. In adulthood, this role often manifests into more of the same. They continue trying to “fix” others and have an overall strong sense of responsibility and ownership over the problems of others.

8. The parentified child: the one who will take on the role of the other spouse in an absence of a healthy caretaker relationship. Sometimes this role is also the caretaker, but not always. In adulthood, this person is frequently drawn to relationships with a lot of dysfunction and emotionally unavailable partners. They struggle with boundaries and base their self-worth on their partner’s (or others’) approval.

If you find yourself in any of the above-listed roles or using any of their typical excuses to deny your traumatic history, know that this is normal. It is something you were programmed to do to survive your experiences. Our roles can change and merge over time. One person can inhabit more than one role in their lifetime, and families can have different roles at certain times. Through self-awareness and self-reflection, we can work to change any dysfunctional patterns we took with us into adulthood.

More from Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS
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