Thursday, January 11, 2007

Roles In Dysfunctional Families


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.


Anonymous said...

I can relate to the part that said- "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."

benjamin said...

I'm interested in the children who loathe the family situation but cannot leave it or cut themselves off from it. They stay in the dysfunctional situation out of fear and terror of the outside world. As bad as it is inside the circle, at least its a known quantity.

Anonymous said...

There is a good book about the roles, and much more. Together We Heal: A Real-Life Portrait of Recovery. Szifra Birke, an ACOA therapist, wrote it with a former client, an ACOA who was in Birke's group.

Anonymous said...

Instead of fearing being hurt, which I do somewhat, I tend to be needy and I hate it. Just wondered if anyone else feels this way?

Anonymous said...

The roles help us understand ourselves, and, with that understanding we can move on into healing. We accept that our role helped us survive, and now it serves only to hinder. Role switching takes time and patience with self. This wasn't modeled at home so tremendous growth needs to occur all at once and it can overwhelm. Here, we need support, and to rely on, as the 12 Steps affirm, God. This is how I am becoming more free, daily. I now love life. The role no longer has me in "its" grip. The process was long and painful, about 10 years. I've let go of my role as the lost, invisible victim. I love my new role. I'm a balanced person who is not afraid of people! There is hope.

Anonymous said...

Ditto, This is my 9th year in Al-anon & having read over 50 books on recovery, relationships, psychological, borderline, narcissism. .. I am finally feeling better, balanced & safe.
My family still has lots of crazymakin but I am free of it all.
My 94 yr old mother has the best recovery. My 2 sisters & brother are still baffled and actors in the drama. Not my problem or my business.
I am glad to say, I am a recovered Scapegoat!

Rose Maria said...

My mother is an alcoholic And i Want to help her to get rid of from that... what should I do ????
books on codependency

Anonymous said...

Dear Rose Maria, I am only a member of Al-Anon and ACA. I am relaying what is said at meetings: the 3 C's. We cannot cure it, we cannot control it and we did NOT cause it. I can truely appreciate that you want your mother to get help. My suggestion is to find healthy meetings for yourself where the focus is on yourself and working the 12 steps for yourself. ACA's 4th is different than the one in Al-Anon. But Al-Anon introduces the idea of loving detachment. This is for you. Anothere suggestion is to go open AA meetings to hear their side. I pray the very best for you.

Tricia said...

The first step for me was accepting I had problems. I hated to think, let alone say out loud my parents were alcoholics. I loved them. But I took on many roles in my family and lost my true self. I am in recovery for four years now. My siblings do not seek any help, one died because of alcoholism. One died after finding recovery but murdered by a sick man. Those losses are part of my recovery. My other siblings don't like the new me I am becoming. They say they want the old me back. The old me tried to commit suicide 25 years ago. The today me has to work very hard but baby steps, one day at a time and sometimes one moment at a time. I have stepped away from my family. It is very difficult and I suffer tremendous guilt but I no good for them if I cannot be good for myself. Recovery I am learning sometimes has a little selfishness involved but it's for the right reasons. God bless. One day at a time ☮️

wildrose7 said...

I think the role of scapegoat should be rewritten. As a scapegoat in a shaming abusive family, it was forbidden for us to talk about it or be severely shamed. My mother on alcohol and in her way of showing her hurt, targeted us as children with severe emotional abuse and passive aggression and shaming verbal abuse. I saw this and hated it, spoke up with such force and repressed anger that I'm sure my sis and brother were scared and then I was made an example of with severe severe shaming. This is when I think my brother and sister's minds split in two. Mine did not. Scapegoats are very tortured real souls. I did not inflict scapegoating on my children. I did act out or express the truth of the abuse and suffered greatly and later in adult life was shamed and further abused and ostracized by them when I decided the role was toxic to play. I never lost reality but they never regained their full minds and realized they kept this going by their verbal abuse and paper tiger projection of moms abuse onto me. It's been a lifetime of them no longer seeing or hearing me. I want them back but it seems to be impossible. I'm setting boundaries this holiday season that they cannot see me until they see the scapegoat role but I think the scapegoat role description does not do the role justice. I have been a true Joan of ark brave soul seeking social justice throughout my life but I also just want to chill and relax.