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.


Codependency: Which is Me and Which is You?

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Photo by Heather Mount

The word codependency has been somewhat of a buzz word since the late 80’s. Generally, we’re referring to someone who is extremely clingy with her partner. However, codependency is much deeper than that. A codependent relationship becomes so enmeshed that each partner forgets which is me and which is you.

The lines between where you end and the other person starts are blurred.

A person who is codependent will plan their entire life around pleasing the other person, or the enabler.

In its simplest terms, a codependent relationship is when one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed. This circular relationship is the basis of what experts refer to when they describe the “cycle” of codependency.

Photo by Eric Ward

What Creates a Codependent Person?

Codependency evolved from the term co-addict. The co-addict was the person living with the addict. This person became sick through living with the distorted thinking  and behaviors that surround addiction. (Emotional Sobriety, Tian Dayton, PhD), (

Today, newer research has recognized codependency as a trait resulting from any dysfunctional family.

Dysfunctional Family Characteristics

So, you ask, what is a dysfunctional family? Realistically, every family has some level of dysfunction because we’re human. Think of it as a continuum. About half of families fall in the middle of the continuum.

The others are in the unhealthy range.

A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame.  Sadly, it is ignored or denied. Therefore, these families are unpredictable, chaotic, and often unsafe for the children. The core problems include any of the following:

  • A family member’s addiction to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
  • The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • A family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness

There are consistently three rules within these families. They are never verbally expressed, but each family member knows and abides by the rules. Each begins with don’t:

  • talk
  • trust
  • feel

The addiction, abuse, or illness sits like an elephant in the middle of the home.  The problem is never openly acknowledged. As a result, other family members learn that it isn’t ok to talk about it to others. They also learn that their own needs are not important.

Photo by Munga Thigani

They become survivors.

In doing so, family members develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. Therefore, they become numb to their genuine feelings. In addition, the identity and emotional development of the children are often inhibited.

How Do You Know if You’re Codependent?

Codependents spend a lot of time managing the world around them so that they can feel less anxious. One way they do this is to try to anticipate danger and head it off at the pass. (Dayton, Emotional Sobriety)

At a young age, we learned  to be hyper-focused, scanning our caregivers for emotional signals. (The Body Keeps the Score, Van der Kolk), (

There are several characteristics of codependent people. Codependents Anonymous has broken their list down into common attitudes and behavior patterns.  It’s useful, especially if this is first time you have considered it for yourself.

Admittedly, I was appalled when a therapist suggested I was codependent. The term, itself, seemed to imply weakness. Nevertheless, I recognized myself in many of the characteristics!

Moreover, working with therapists has taught me a lot about the damage done to children raised in the home of an addict. (My parent was traumatized by an alcoholic father). Working in the field of therapy taught me more.

Characteristics if Codependents

Photo by Alex Green

If you recognize yourself in anything written so far, I invite you to check out the links I have provided both above and below. Following is a list of characteristics:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to always do more than their share
  • Become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship to avoid being alone, (even if it’s unhealthy.)
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Poor communications
  • Difficulty making decisions

Help and Hope For The Codependent

Next week we’re going to look more at what codependency looks like in adult relationships. In addition, we’ll look at steps to healing. For now, I want to close with help and hope.

First, I want to point you to Melody Beattie’s seminal book that put codependency on the map, so to speak. The book is, Codependent No More, published in 1986. (

Alcoholics Anonymous has been helping codependent spouses since the ’30’s, but Beatties’s book lit a spark in the culture. Consequently, her work revealed the far-reaching effects of the behavior.

Created For Relationship

In Genesis 2:18, God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”

Since the beginning, God knew we humans functioned much better in relationships. Relationships are ideally a nurturing thing. They give us a sense of belonging. Supposedly, relationships are our safe place.

Yet, relationships can be painful, even destructive.

Unfortunately, they can all have a measure of pain. We can learn from some pain. However, relationships should never be destructive.

We must realize our identity doesn’t depend on our performance or our ability to please someone else.

For codependents, the drive to perform and gain approval is deep seated. Nevertheless, it is an empty pursuit. It leaves you damaged every time. (Untangling Relationships – A Christian’s Perspective on Codependency, Pat Springle), (

The Bible – A Place to Begin

The Bible has another solution. For example, one place is in Ephesians. There are key points in Chapter 1. Paul instructs us to find our identity in Christ, and no one else.

Ephesians 1:3-8, 13-14:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insightIn him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…

When we are in relationship with God, we are:

  • chosen
  • adopted
  • forgiven
  • sealed; it’s forever

If you aren’t in relationship with Him, He wants you to be.


Self-test for co-dependency

CoDa 12 Steps