8 Dysfunctional family roles to know about

How individuals handle family stress can have a profound impact on personality

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There are systems everywhere in nature. A system has parts that do their work to sustain the system and make it work. If one part of a system changes or breaks down, it can change or break down the whole system.

A family can be seen as a system. Each family member is a ‘part’ that makes the family system the way it is. Just like your digestive system performs the same activities repeatedly, a family system also has repeating patterns. 1Johnson, B. E., & Ray, W. A. (2016). Family systems theoryEncyclopedia of family studies, 1-5.

These repeating patterns can provide insights into the parts or roles that each family member performs.

Functional family

A functional or healthy family is one where the family members feel close to each other. They have an interdependent, harmonious relationship with one another where they can express themselves freely and openly. The needs of each family member are considered. 

In a functional family system, the boundaries are clearly defined yet flexible. 2Moisă, V. B. (2022). Functional vs dysfunctional in the family system. New Trends in Psychology4(2).

When a stressful event occurs, the family deals with it and returns to normal because the family has to continue to work and sustain itself. Just as your body returns to homeostasis after you heal from a sickness.

Dysfunctional family

Sometimes, a family is unable to cope with ongoing and/or severe stressors. In such cases, the family must find new ways to sustain itself. These short-term fixes or coping mechanisms tend to be unhealthy and make the family dysfunctional.

Note that it’s better for survival and reproduction that a family stays together, even if it’s dysfunctional, than if it breaks down. 

So, stressful events or patterns in a family create these roles within the family that keep the family together. 3Jenkins, S. J., Fisher, G. L., & Harrison, T. C. (1993). Adult children of dysfunctional families: Childhood rolesJournal of Mental Health Counseling. The dysfunctional family doesn’t return to normal because the stressors it deals with are significant. Dysfunction becomes the new normal.

Examples of stressors that create dysfunctional families:

These stressors make the family environment unsafe for children, leading to mental health challenges.

Dysfunctional family roles

Let’s examine the rigid roles that various stressors push family members into in a dysfunctional family. A family member is likely to have one primary role and a secondary role. The roles may also shift over time.

1. The golden child

This is the child who gets favored the most. They’re given high praise and special treatment because they behave according to their parent’s wishes and desires. They’re overvalued because they share their parents’ values. By being a good child who does as told, they keep the family in denial of their dysfunction. 

The golden child may grow up to become overly reliant on external validation. They largely define themselves by how others perceive them. They may develop strong, unhealthy attachments to people, impatience, showiness, and impulsivity.

2. The scapegoat

This one sees the family for what it is—dysfunctional. They adopt the ‘fight response’ to family stress. They might call out the unhealthy behaviors of other family members. Since a dysfunctional family tries to maintain its dysfunction, these rebels are punished and blamed for the family’s problems. This way, the family distracts itself from the real issues.

The scapegoats may end up cutting themselves off emotionally from the family because they’re too different. They’re at risk of getting ostracized so that the family dysfunction remains unchallenged. They may develop the ‘I am bad’ core belief and engage in addictions to cope.

3. The parentified child

Parentification is part of an enmeshed family dynamic with a role reversal in the parent-child dynamic. That is, the child has to care for the parent instead of vice versa. If the child is the eldest sibling, they may also have to parent the younger siblings.

The parentified child takes on too much responsibility for their age, which leads to a feeling that they were robbed of their childhood. That leads to resentment toward the parent, which may spill over to resenting people in general who expect too much from them.

4. The mascot

This person distracts the family from real issues with humor and being entertaining. They’re that person who can’t help but joke all the time and are likely to become a comedian. If they heal later in life, they lose their sense of humor. The ‘role’ is no longer needed, so their mind drops it.

5. The lost child

They’re the opposite of the scapegoat and adopt the ‘flight response’ to family stress. They withdraw themselves from family conflicts and problems. They think they can get out of the problem’s way if they go unnoticed. They may grow up to become highly independent but may struggle with identity and trust issues.

6. The hero

This child has one goal: To prove to everyone that their dysfunctional family is functional. They achieve this goal by being ambitious and highly driven. They may pursue success relentlessly so they can say:

“Hey, I turned out good. Maybe my family wasn’t so dysfunctional after all.”

You’ll see them defend the family’s values, opinions, and behaviors. They overfocus on the positive aspects of their family. They’re likely to have some core wound—an insecurity or shame—that they’re trying to overcompensate for. No matter how much they achieve, they don’t feel enough.

Related article: Fearful vs Dismissive avoidant

7. The peacemaker

This child does what they can to maintain peace and harmony in the family, sometimes at their own expense. They may become highly diplomatic and good at resolving conflicts. They also risk getting easily sucked into other people’s drama because this is how they get to re-create their family dynamic.

8. The enabler

This person enables or supports the unhealthy behavior, usually narcissism and/or addiction, of another family member. They can come up with all kinds of excuses and rationalizations for such behaviors. As in the case of the hero, the goal is to make the family look good and deny dysfunction. 

How to heal: An example

Andy was raised in a family that had unreasonably high expectations of him. They expected, sometimes demanded, achievement from him. He gained his parents’ love, approval, and attention when he succeeded in something. When he failed, they withdrew their love.

As a result of this conditioning, he learned at a young age that he had to become a super-achiever to win his parents’ love. He became addicted to achievement. He became the hero of the family. If anyone questioned the way his parents treated him, they could point to his achievements and say, “He turned out well, didn’t he?”

Andy eventually got tired of pushing himself so hard and never feeling enough. It was like something was holding him back, minimizing his every accomplishment. He’d work himself to death without rest, reducing his overall productivity. He had fleeting moments where he questioned his motives but ignored them because he subconsciously didn’t want to disappoint his parents. All was going fine in his life until he hit a low point.

During a crisis when he had to face failure, he realized that a big part of his motivation to succeed was to please his parents. He regretted not living a more balanced life and knew that he had been over-identifying with his achievements. 

After some serious therapy and self-reflection, he re-evaluated his goals and values. He acknowledged that the way his parents treated him was not ideal. It was like a weight off of his shoulders. He decided to pursue the things that he wanted to pursue. He continued pursuing success, but not in an unbalanced way. His overall productivity increased, and he went on to achieve more than ever before.

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