Roles In Dysfunctional Families
by Robert Burney M.A.
"We have come to understand that both the passive and the aggressive behavioral defense systems are reactions to the same kinds of childhood trauma, to the same kinds of emotional wounds. The Family Systems Dynamics research shows that within the family system, children adopt certain roles according to their family dynamics. Some of these roles are more passive, some are more aggressive, because in the competition for attention and validation within a family system the children must adopt different types of behaviors in order to feel like an individual."
The emotional dynamics of dysfunctional families are basic - and like emotional dynamics for all human beings are pretty predictable. The outside details may look quite different due to a variety of factors, but the dynamics of the human emotional process are the same for all human beings everywhere.
The basic roles which I list below apply to American culture specifically, and Western Civilization generally - but with a few changes in details could be made to fit most any culture.
There are four basic roles that children adopt in order to survive growing up in emotionally dishonest, shame-based, dysfunctional family systems. Some children maintain one role into adulthood while others switch from one role to another as the family dynamic changes (i.e. when the oldest leaves home, etc.) An only child may play all of the roles at one time or another.
"Responsible Child" - "Family Hero"
This is the child who is "9 going on 40." This child takes over the parent role at a very young age, becoming very responsible and self-sufficient. They give the family self-worth because they look good on the outside. They are the good students, the sports stars, the prom queens. The parents look to this child to prove that they are good parents and good people.
As an adult the Family Hero is rigid, controlling, and extremely judgmental (although perhaps very subtle about it) - of others and secretly of themselves. They achieve "success" on the outside and get lots of positive attention but are cut off from their inner emotional life, from their True Self. They are compulsive and driven as adults because deep inside they feel inadequate and insecure.
The family hero, because of their "success" in conforming to dysfunctional cultural definitions of what constitutes doing life "right", is often the child in the family who as an adult has the hardest time even admitting that there is anything within themselves that needs to be healed.
"Acting out child" - "Scapegoat"
This is the child that the family feels ashamed of - and the most emotionally honest child in the family. He/she acts out the tension and anger the family ignores. This child provides distraction from the real issues in the family. The scapegoat usually has trouble in school because they get attention the only way they know how - which is negatively. They often become pregnant or addicted as teenagers.
These children are usually the most sensitive and caring which is why they feel such tremendous hurt. They are romantics who become very cynical and distrustful. They have a lot of self-hatred and can be very self-destructive. This often results in this child becoming the first person in the family to get into some kind of recovery.
"Placater" - "Mascot" - "Caretaker"
This child takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family. They become the families 'social director' and/or clown, diverting the family's attention from the pain and anger.
This child becomes an adult who is valued for their kind heart, generosity, and ability to listen to others. Their whole self-definition is centered on others and they don't know how to get their own needs met. They become adults who cannot receive love, only give it. They often have case loads rather than friendships - and get involved in abusive relationships in an attempt to "save" the other person. They go into the helping professions and become nurses, and social workers, and therapists. They have very low self-worth and feel a lot of guilt that they work very hard to overcome by being really "nice" (i.e. people pleasing, classically codependent) people.
"Adjuster" - "Lost Child"
This child escapes by attempting to be invisible. They daydream, fantasize, read a lot of books or watch a lot of TV. They deal with reality by withdrawing from it. They deny that they have any feelings and "don't bother getting upset."
These children grow up to be adults who find themselves unable to feel and suffer very low self-esteem. They are terrified of intimacy and often have relationship phobia. They are very withdrawn and shy and become socially isolated because that is the only way they know to be safe from being hurt. A lot of actors and writers are 'lost children' who have found a way to express emotions while hiding behind their characters.
It is important to note that we adapt the roles that are best suited to our personalities. We are, of course, born with a certain personality. What happens with the roles we adapt in our family dynamic is that we get a twisted, distorted view of who we are as a result of our personality melding with the roles. This is dysfunctional because it causes us to not be able to see ourselves clearly. As long as we are still reacting to our childhood wounding and old tapes then we cannot get in touch clearly with who we really are.
The false self that we develop to survive is never totally false - there is always some Truth in it. For example, people who go into the helping professions do truly care and are not doing what they do simply out of Codependence. Nothing is black and white - everything in life involves various shades of gray.
Recovery is about getting honest with ourselves and finding some balance in our life. Recovery is about seeing ourselves more clearly and honestly so that we can start being True to who we really are instead of to who are parents wanted us to be. (Reacting to the other extreme by rebelling against who they wanted us to be is still living life in reaction to our childhoods. It is still giving power over how we live our life to the past instead of seeing clearly so that we can own our choices today.) The clearer we can see our self the easier it becomes to find some balance in our life - to find some happiness, fulfillment, and serenity.