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.
Dysfunctional Family Roles
Dysfunctional family roles can be flexible, meaning that one person may predominantly encapsulate one role but can easily fill another if a shift happens and another role is vacant. Even if parents are well meaning, it is incredibly difficult not to perpetuate the experiences they went through within their family of origin and transfer those same unhealthy patterns and roles to their marital or nuclear family.
Within a dysfunctional family, the scapegoat is cast aside and blamed for problems that may very well have nothing to do with them. Children who are scapegoated are often very aware of their role in the family and may feel rejected, unlovable, and isolated. In families with a parent or parents with narcissistic traits, the child who is the scapegoat and the golden child are often pitted against each other. This is known as splitting; it is yet another way to distract from the family's primary issues. Examples of the scapegoat role:
- A child who is often sick, seen as weak, or has a chronic condition
- A defiant child who has been conditioned to understand that negative attention is better than no attention from their parent(s) or caregiver
- May get into trouble in school, both academically and socially
- May experience more and/or harsher abuse compared to other siblings or family members
In therapy, the scapegoat is typically the only one within the family who is able to be honest about the issues within the family that the other family members are denying or are unable to see. They may also be labeled as the identified patient and be sent to individual therapy, despite the core issue being family centered versus individually focused. Those in this role often experience difficulty connecting with others on a genuine level and may self-sabotage.
The caretaker, otherwise known as the enabler or martyr, attempts to keep everyone within the family happy, even if it means denying the real issues at hand. Both children and adults can play this role, which ultimately denies the experience of dealing with the central issue, as the caretaker continues to pick up the pieces in order to prevent a meltdown, breakdown, or rock bottom experience. While this keeps the family "balanced" in an unhealthy way, it actually prevents the family from healing and moving forward in a healthy manner. Examples of the caretaker:
- A parentified child stepping in when one or both parents are unable to due to addiction, mental health disorders, and/or chronic health conditions
- An adult acting in a co-dependent manner and attempting to manage the family's problem right away without allowing anyone else to deal with the negative consequences, even when at fault
Children who grow up in the caretaker role may be unconsciously drawn to partners who have issues with addiction, chronic conditions, and mental health disorders. They may struggle with self-esteem, anxiety, and depression as they continue to take on the issues of those around them. 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. By acting to keep the family together, they are denying the family, as well as themselves, the experience of dealing with these core issues.
The hero appears to be a high functioning, well-balanced individual who the family can point to as a solid example that backs up the family's facade of doing well. The hero allows the family to continue perpetuating the notion that everything is fine, despite there being some serious issues going on within individuals, as well as the entire family system. The hero:
- As a child may be parentified and take on the role of spouse when one of their parents is physically or emotionally unavailable
- May feel immense pressure to carry the family's appearance of success and achievement
- May insert themselves to help resolve familial issues
As an adult, the hero may be drawn to relationships where their partner is emotionally unavailable. They may also throw themselves into work and experience difficulty with real intimacy.
In the family, the mascot uses humor and goofiness to distract from serious issues. They may feel immense pressure to step in when situations become tense and volatile. When they diffuse the situation successfully, this reinforces the pressure on them to continue to distract the family from their issues. The mascot:
- Interrupts volatile situations with humor
- Acts from a place of anxiety and trauma
- May experience bouts of depression
As an adult, the mascot may feel drawn to intense and dysfunctional partnerships where they are able to step into their role to help diffuse conflict. They often continue their codependent role and are typically known to bend over backwards for others.
The Addict or IP
The addict, also known as the identified patient, represents the culmination of the family's issues. As the addiction intensifies, new family conflict arises that focuses mostly on the person with the addiction. This serves as a distraction from the family's other core issues. The identified patient, in therapy, becomes the family's new focus. Family members may rally to get help for this one individual and may not feel as if they have anything to do with their addiction, despite it developing within the dysfunctional familial environment. The identified patient or addict:
- May feel resistant to seeking treatment as their addiction protects the family and themselves from dealing with deeper, core issues and may also bring a family together that was once more disconnected
- May feel frustrated or angry that they are the only ones who "need" help within the family
Those who identify mostly with the addict family role, may find themselves continuing to relapse if previous issues haven't been resolved, or wanting to use in times of distress, especially if they are in an unhealthy romantic relationship that feels triggering.
The Lost Child
The lost child attempts to blend into the background as much as possible to keep themselves safe and to avoid rocking the (sinking) boat. They may feel ignored, neglected, and scared to draw attention to themselves, especially in abusive households. Parents may use them, like the hero role, to exemplify how great the family is doing, since they aren't causing any trouble. The lost child:
- May be described as a loner
- May have difficulty developing social skills and self-esteem
As an adult, the lost child may struggle with friendships and romantic relationships. They may prefer to be alone, as this can feel tied to their emotional and/or physical safety. In a therapy session, the lost child is often quiet, doesn't speak up unless asked to, and may feel scared or nervous to share their observations.
What Is Golden Child Syndrome?
The golden child syndrome is often seen within families who have a parent or parents with narcissistic personality disorder. The parent or caregiver with narcissistic traits often favors the golden child, who represents all that the parent loves within themselves. Because those with NPD have an incredibly unstable view of themselves, their relationship with the golden child can often be volatile with the transfer of parent to child love on a conditional (versus unconditional) level. Despite being the "favorite", the golden child:
- Has difficulty differentiating and becoming their own self
- May participate in the abuse of others within the household in order to protect themselves from their parent(s)
- May experience abuse by the parent framed as "love"
- May disobey as a child or adult in an attempt to individuate from their parent(s)
How Many Dysfunctional Family Roles Are There?
In general, there are six main family roles, although the golden child syndrome may be considered a seventh role by some. One person can take on more than one role, and roles can be swapped and filled by others if a shift in the familial homeostasis occurs.
What Are the Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family?
In general, dysfunctional families have difficulty with healthy communication, have low levels of empathy, have high levels of criticism, may be abusive/neglectful, and tend to have a pervasive history of unhealthy family dynamics.
How Do You Survive a Dysfunctional Family?
While you are still living with dysfunctional family members, it can feel really difficult to not feel overwhelmed with the circumstances. Know that understanding that your situation is dysfunctional is a great first step in being able to cultivate a healthier relationship with yourself and others outside of your family. Practice good self care, minimize your time with your family if possible, and notify a crisis line or the police if you fear for the physical and/or emotional wellbeing of yourself of others within the household.
Dysfunctional Family Roles in Adulthood
Depending on what role an individual most prominently experienced during childhood, they may also feel unconsciously drawn to adult relationships where they can re-enact this role. This familiarity, despite being unhealthy, can be easy to slip back into.
Dysfunctional Family Roles Chart
Examples of potential internal and external behavior may include, but isn't limited to:
| Family Roles || Internal Experience || External Behavior |
| Scapegoat || May feel frustrated, rejected, and unlovable || Getting into arguments and acting out as a way to get some parental attention |
| Caretaker || May feel overwhelmed, on edge, and anxious || Absorbing and attempting to resolve the family's issues |
| Hero || May feel overwhelmed, anxious, and pressure || May be a perfectionist, incredibly responsible, and an over-achiever |
| Mascot || May feel pressure, anxiety, and feel overwhelmed || Uses humor to distract from the family's core issues |
| Addict/IP || May feel unlovable and rejected by family || Uses as a means to cope and distract from family's core issues |
| Lost Child || May feel rejected, neglected, and experience depression || Blend in, don't make a scene |
What Are the Roles in a Family?
Family roles can be a huge influence on the conscious and unconscious choices that children within dysfunctional families grow up to make. While a particular family role can feel challenging to separate yourself from, it is possible to work towards a healthier relationship with yourself and others.