Family and The Roles We Play

A dysfunctional family is based on three main rules:

  • Don’t trust;
  • Don’t tell;
  • Don’t feel

Mom and Dad: We need either one or the other to be missing physically or emotionally. Usually, this unavailability is due to drugs, mental illness, gambling, or work-aholism. Take your pick; the behaviors and symptoms are basically the same.

Photo by Bastien Baillot

Families and Our Need For Balance

A week seldom passes that I don’t encounter or learn of someone who has family drama, trauma or pain. It can be as grave as an abusive spouse or a chronically ill child. For others, the situation involves a family member with a drug/alcohol addiction or explosive anger that keeps the family walking on egg shells. Family members are required to play roles to maintain a measure of balance any time one member of the family consistently requires more attention or care than every other member.

Because families require a stable equilibrium to feel safe.

For instance, picture a baby mobile hanging over a crib. Each arm hangs evenly balanced. If someone placed a weight on one arm, it would naturally put the mobile off balance. Similarly, in families, when one member requires all other members to accommodate their needs, the family system becomes out of balance.

Consequently, it’s the unconscious job of the other members to put things back into balance.

Unfortunately, in some cases, the imbalance cannot be avoided, such as in situations of critical or chronic illness. Sometimes, the situation can be used as a learning experience for other members of the family. In healthy families, children can learn what sacrificial love looks like.

Families are always seeking homeostasis or balance. When one or more family members are struggling to self-regulate in appropriate ways, regardless of the reason, other family members may unconsciously step into these dysfunctional family roles as an attempt to rebalance the family and to avoid self-reflecting on their own painful or stressful experiences and emotions. Know that no family is perfect, and there is always room to work towards healthier family dynamics.

Families and Roles

The study of family roles began with psychotherapist Virginia Satir, known as the mother of family therapy. It was later adapted by Claudia Black, Ph.D. and Sharon Wegscheider Cruse in their work with families of alcoholics.

Subsequent study has clearly shown that almost all families have role assignments in varying degrees. Typically, the parents have the greater influence over which role the children will be assigned.  These roles most often are imposed on children at an early age. Although they are formed subconsciously by the parents and children, there can be great rigidity. Children can also assume roles.  The more chaotic and disorganized the family, the more rigid the roles become.  More often than not, the children cooperate with the role assignments.  The underlying message to the children is the family needs them to play that role in order to function and manage stress.  In times of crisis, the roles become even more pronounced as the family members attempt to negotiate the crisis.

The Roles We Play – The Hero

It’s important to understand the roles assigned to us in childhood because, unfortunately, we often carry them into adulthood. So, let’s take a look.

Usually, but not always, the oldest child is assigned the role of hero.

Their goal in life is to achieve success, however that has been defined by the family. Consequently they must always be “brave and strong”. The Hero‘s compulsive drive to succeed may in turn lead to stress-related illness, and compulsive over-working. In addition, they learn at a young age to suffer the sadness of a parent and become a surrogate spouse or confidante.

Characteristics of the hero are:

  • successful
  • leader
  • self-disciplined
  • perfectionist
  • fear of failure
  • inability to play or relax
  • need to be in control

Sadly, this child often feels immense pressure to succeed in order to continue to make the family look good. Unfortunately, the long-term effect likely will rob the hero of the ability to experience emotional intimacy in future relationships.

The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the child most likely to show up in a counselor’s office as the identified patient. He/she is the opposite of the hero and is generally (and wrongfully) blamed for all the family’s problems.

The scapegoat cooperates with the assignment by acting out. He may do poorly in school and be a risk taker and pleasure seeker. In teen years, he may develop an addiction.

In fact, the scapegoat is the only one who is being honest about the problems within the family and is crying for help. Other characteristics are:

  • Creative
  • less denial, greater honesty
  • leader, but in wrong direction
  • self-destructive
  • irresponsible
  • underachiever
  • defiant/rebel
  • inappropriate expressions of anger

Moreover, those in this role often experience difficulty connecting with others on a genuine level and may self-sabotage.

The Lost Child

Look in the back of the room (or in her room) to find the lost child of the family. It’s likely this child has withdrawn there to feel safe from a conflict brewing. Additionally, she doesn’t want to take a chance of being the one to cause a conflict. She is a loner who may feel ignored or neglected, but doesn’t want to draw attention to herself.

Other characteristics:

  • independent
  • flexible
  • follows without questioning
  • quiet
  • easy going
  • unable to initiate
  • fearful of making decisions
  • lack of direction

photo by Austin Pacheco

The Mascot

Everyone loves a clown and the mascot is happy to provide the family with a laugh when tensions become high. They’re the funny one who makes jokes that facilitate denial or minimization of the real problems. However, internally, they are often anxious and fearful.

Although the mascot has great social skills and seems carefree, in reality, they are in a lot of pain.

Remember, some of the greatest comedians came from some of the most dysfunctional families. Constant joking is another form of self-medication to ease the pain. Instead of taking drugs to mask their suffering, mascots can keep the endorphins running high with smiles.

Other characteristics are:

  • sense of humor
  • flexible
  • attention seeker
  • immature
  • difficulty focusing
  • poor decision making
  • distracting
  • able to relieve stress and pain

Photo by Sarah Chai

The Enabler/Caretaker

We will find an enabler/caretaker within any dysfunctional family system. Furthermore, the enabler often appears to outsiders as a martyr. This role is typically fulfilled by a spouse (or parent). Unfortunately, children have also filled this role when a parent abdicates their parental responsibilities and the child is parentified.

You often see this role in a family where the functioning of (one of) the parent(s) is impaired in some way, i.e. mental illness, substance abuse or a medical disability.  This child will attempt to function as the surrogate parent. 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.

Therefore, the enabler falsely believes they must keep the family going at all costs. As a result, the caretaker has no concept of boundaries.

Oftentimes, this person will make excuses for their loved one’s behavior, lie to keep the person out of trouble, lend them money, and unknowingly enable their loved one’s addiction. This typically leads the enabler to lose their sense of self, neglect their own physical and mental wellbeing, as well as develop depression and anxiety due to the stress associated with codependency and enabling.

The caretaker may keep the family balanced, but it is in an unhealthy way. Moreover, it prevents the family from facing the truth and moving toward healing.

Keep in mind that the caretaker acts out of anxiety that the family will fall apart and they will subsequently be unsafe, alone, unlovable, rejected, etc.

Additional characteristics of the caretaker are:

  • compassionate
  • empathic
  • giver
  • inability to receive
  • denies personal needs
  • high tolerance for inappropriate behavior
  • fear of anger or conflict
  • anxious
  • highly fearful
  • hypervigilant
  • false guilt

Giving Up The Roles

Although none of us asked for the roles assigned to us in childhood, too many of us carried them into adulthood. Furthermore, the characteristics have likely effected past and current relationships. It’s never too late to seek help for laying down those false narratives and become a true version of yourself.

In addition, as I have mentioned before, know that you are fearfully and uniquely made by our God. Even the hairs of your head are numbered by the Lord of all! Therefore, we have no need of roles to play.

Our primary role is the one our Father designed for us – to live life fully and bring honor to His Name.


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