roles

Roles in Dysfunctional Families

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In a previous article, we discussed the effect of unspoken family rules on your present-day view of the world and of yourself.  Those family rules set up or reinforced relational dynamics in your family that placed each member in a different type of role.  If your family subscribed to the “don’t talk” and “don’t feel” rules, these roles provide distraction and denial from problems the family is facing. 

These roles aren’t necessarily dysfunctional within themselves: they are natural and common to family systems.  There is nothing wrong with drifting toward one of the roles, so long as they are flexible.  But just like the unspoken family rules, dysfunction occurs when they are rigid and unchangeable.  You’ll notice this when shift from the role you typically play in your family and it seems like things start falling apart.

When you’ve become accustomed to playing one of these roles in your family-of-origin, you’re likely to either repeat the same patterns in your adult relationships or carry out the drastic opposite of the role you played.  Take a look at the roles listed below and identify which roles you played, as well as those of your other family members.  Often this will shed light on current family dynamics or strong, negative reactions to your significant other or friends. 

Common Family Roles

Golden Child/Hero/Saint

This child is the favorite, the one who can do no wrong, the perfect child.  All other children in the family exist in comparison with this child.  The golden child allows the family to ignore any problems beneath the surface because of his or her accomplishments and success. This child is proof that they’ve done something right, even when there’s been dysfunction present.

The saint takes the positive aspects of the golden child and adds a spiritual twist, as this family member may be the most devoted Christian.  This particularly comes into light when there are siblings who have “fallen” and are no longer of the same faith background as the parents.

As an adult, the golden child often doesn’t feel as if he or she can make mistakes or mess up, because the whole family would come crashing down if they do. They may also become accustomed to being in the spotlight and feeling special.  The saint may have their identity or value associated with religious behaviors and church service.

Troublemaker/Scapegoat/Black Sheep

In opposition to the golden child, this is the child upon whom all the blame falls for the family problems.  It may take the form of acting out behaviors or disobedience, or it could simply be the effect of illness, mental health issues, or other “abnormal” features that draw attention.  It may be that the black sheep has no problematic behaviors, but is simply different from the rest of the family members and therefore is ostracized.  Their behaviors are seen as the source of any problems in the family, such that more major problems can be denied or ignored.

Lost Child

The lost child naturally coincides with the golden child or troublemaker.  When the attention of the family is taken up by the larger presence of one of these two roles, the lost child receives less attention and feels left behind.  Sometimes this is a natural consequence of having a sibling who is physically or mentally ill, or even the byproduct of being in a large family.  They may live by the unspoken rule of “children are meant to be seen and not heard.”

The lost child wrestles with strong feelings of loneliness and cravings for love and attention which may extend into adulthood.  They learn to take care of themselves, not to need or want anything, and may have trouble later in life asking for or receiving support or care from others.

Peacemaker/Mediator

The peacemaker is often found in the middle of arguments.  As a child, he or she may be pulled into taking sides between opposing parents, as is the case in contentious divorces.  It could also occur as the mediator seeks to keep peace between a troublemaker sibling and parents.  Similar to the lost child, this role requires the peacemaker not to have personal needs or become confrontational themselves, but instead to always be “reading the room” to identify how others are feeling and adjust or adapt accordingly.

Mascot/Clown

The mascot is the family member who lightens the mod when things are getting tense or family problems are rising to the surface.  They’re the funny one who makes jokes that facilitate denial or minimization of the real problems.  This is another role, like the peacemaker, that requires reading the room and gauging levels of tension.  In adult years, the mascot may have difficulty connecting with negative emotions or conflict, instead deflecting with humor.

Caretaker/Enabler

A caretaker is someone who takes on the responsibilities of others in the family and tries to save them from the consequences they might face.  A common example of this in today’s world is the “helicopter parent” who wants to protect his or her child from harm.  Usually this desire is well intentioned, but it actually causes more harm, as the child does not have to face the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes.

When addiction is present in the family, the caretaker role shifts into one of an enabler.  This individual makes excuses for the addict, denies any problems despite their obvious effect on the family, or struggles with lack of boundaries with the addict. 

Doer

This member of the family takes action and gets things done.  Often this is the stereotypical mother who coordinates the schedules of her children, cooks meals, and handles household chores.  This can also happen with older daughters whose mothers have passed away or are not able to be emotionally present, as they take on the responsibilities of a parent.

As adults, doers struggle to rest and are constantly feeling exhausted.  Allowing themselves to just “be” instead of “do” is not an option for them.  They may become angry or resentful as they struggle to say no.

Martyr

Taking the doer role a step further, the martyr makes sure everyone knows how much he or she is sacrificing for the family.  This role often involves guilt-tripping others or sarcastic comments that leave family members feelings as though they owe the martyr something.  If you have a martyr in your family, you may notice vague feelings of guilt when someone helps you, reminiscent of how you would feel guilty for the same with a parent or sibling.

What do I do now?

Read through these roles and ask yourself: which roles have I played in my family?  What about my other family members?  Have they changed over time?  How are they still affecting me in the present day?

When you’ve identified these roles and how they’ve impacted your behaviors today, experiment with breaking the mold.  Ask for what you need.  Say no.  Speak up.  Recognize feelings of guilt for what they are: echoes of the past.  Step into whatever action opposes the dysfunctional role you played in the past.  Talk with others about how you’ve played these roles and seek accountability and help in changing the scripts.

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Do you feel stuck playing out the same patterns of relating that were present in your family growing up?  Do you struggle with vague feelings of guilt when you have to set a boundary or say no?  Are you feeling exhausted all the time by constantly achieving and striving and you just want to take a break?  I’d love to support you in letting go of past scripts that are no longer serving you and living a more wholehearted life.  I offer counseling sessions at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.