Family Roles

Does it seem like you step into a time warp and become a different person when you’re around your parents and your siblings? Does your significant other ever accuse you of becoming someone they never knew when you’re with your family? Maybe you’re reverting to an old and familiar role…

In most families, we each play a role. In dysfunctional homes, where there is violence, addiction, or physical or mental illness, those roles become more pronounced as a reaction to or a protection from the dysfunction. But even in the healthiest families, we tend to each taken on certain patterns within the family.

I was watching Growing Pains on TV the other night (remember Robin Thicke and Joanna Kerns played the hapless parents and Kirk Cameron (Mike), Tracey Gold (Carol), Jeremy Miller (Ben), and Ashley Johnson (Crissy) played the savvy children?) and decided I’d use that family to explain those roles.

The Enabler is usally the spouse but it could be a parent or a child, depending on who has the disease. The Seaver household did not have a dysfunctional issue (except that the kids were smarter than the parents; I’ll save that for another blog) so there was no Enabler in that household. The Enabler’s job is to hold the family together. By doing so, they enable the dysfunction to continue. At first, the enabler seems to be making the reasonable response to the problem. Your spouse isn’t sober enough to drive the children to soccer practice so you take them. When your child is arrested, you bail them out…again…and again. If money becomes tight due to legal fees or replacing another wrecked car, you may go get a second job. Pretty soon, the enabler is caught in a vicious cycle of being “helpful” without realizing the help only helps the problem.

The Hero is usually the first-born, but in the Seaver household, daughter Carol is the hero. The Hero’s role is to bring self-worth to the family. Carol was a straight-A student, never in trouble, took on leadership roles in school and at home. Often as an adult, the Hero becomes the Enabler in their own family.

The Scapegoat usually follows behind the Hero in birth order but in the Seaver family, Mike is the Scapegoat. Always getting into trouble, the Scapegoat’s job in a dysfunctional home is to draw the negative attention away from the problem. In dysfunctional families, the Scapegoat often identifies with the dysfunctional individual and, in the case of addictions, may become addicted too.

The Lost Child is usally a middle child. The Lost Child is often the quiet, unobtrusive child, easily overlooked. The Lost Child provides relief by staying out of the way and staying out of trouble. This child is the one who spends time alone in their room, especially when trouble is brewing, or with their friends. Overlooked by and avoiding family, the Lost Child often depends on peer relationships for support.

The Mascot is usually the youngest child. This child brings comic relief to the family by being charming, funny, and/or helpless. Young Ben filled this role for a while but then when baby Crissy arrived, Ben likely shifted to the Lost Child position.

I had a client who was the youngest of five boys and was the family mascot. Growing up in an alcoholic household, he was the butt of many “good-natured” jokes and often made jokes to stop arguments between his parents. Once he realized he was still making jokes about himself as a way of breaking tension and diffusing situations, he came to see it was not gaining him the respect he wanted or deserved at work or with his in-laws. In therapy, he was able to recognize the pattern and realized those funny jokes weren’t so funny and often hurt. He also realized he used humor to avoid confronting important issues. In just a few sessions, he was able to start turning things around and he stopped making himself a target of jokes and became more assertive to stop others from joking about him. He soon felt more confident and relaxed and was able to assert himself more. He also noticed others were listening to him and sought his opinion. He is now in a management training program at work and looking forward to advancement.

Whether you grew up in a dysfunctional home or not, you may recognize yourself in one (or more) of these roles. You may also want to reflect on how those behaviors show up in your personal life today, and whether they still serve you or get in your way.  As my client will attest, you can change your actions to better help you live a healthier, happier life.

Would love to hear your comments about the roles you played in your family and how they effect you as an adult today.