Dysfunctional families are, according to the acclaimed author Robert Burney, "… the product of an emotionally dishonest, shame based, patriarchal society based upon beliefs that do not support Loving self or Loving neighbor."
It’s a widely held view that children who are raised in dysfunctional families adopt particular roles in order to survive their childhood and manage the resulting discomfort and pain.
When we talk about dysfunctional families we mean families with parents who have very poor parenting skills that have often evolved because of mental health issues.
The sort of ‘dysfunction’ we’re talking about is when some of the following are present:
neglect, violence, shame, conditional love, lack of consistency in parenting, no clear boundaries, gender prejudice, sexuality intolerance, denial of feelings etc.
Of course, I’ve actually yet to meet a family that isn’t dysfunctional. And perhaps anyone can identify with one or more of the childhood family roles but of course it’s all in the scale. By scale I mean the proportion of dysfunction.
I’ve spent time with some families that seem extremely dysfunctional but, at the end of the day, all the family members feel loved, respected and supported in spite of all that's happened to them!
So the extent to which you might identify with any of these roles can range from light to extreme.
Light is when even though you understand the sentiment, you chuckle at the absurdity of scoping out the whole species into five childhood roles.
Extreme is where you know that fulfilling these roles was the thing that kept you from your mental health being demolished.
"There's no such thing as fun for the whole family". Jerry Seinfeld
What happens is that there’s a blend of each child identifying a role and/or being assigned a role in order to fit into the dysfunctional family dynamics.
These roles serve the child, the parents and the siblings as a way of keeping all the balls in the air whilst trying to grow up in a challenging environment.
Some people identify with more than one role. Which one do you identify with?
The heroes tend to be firstborn. They are high achievers, responsible and perfectionist. By becoming academically successful, or excelling at sports, this helps them to feel in control and help to make their families look good.
Although they take responsibility for their family’s problems, they are, at the same time people-pleasers who seek others’ approval.
Being a hero masks their feelings of loneliness, loss, anger and resentment at not being listened to, not being heard and having to be too grown up to soon.
The family view of the child is ‘Ahh, look at Thomas, he’s just such a good, hardworking boy; why can’t the others be like him? He makes my life so easy, does what he’s told and just gets on with it’.
Teachers generally view a hero child as the model pupil but, this success traps the hero child in a vicious cycle of trying to be the best – hiding feelings of loneliness and not ever feeling good enough – feeling angry about the pressure but not able to express it – feeling depressed as a result – working harder to cover it up.
The Problem Child
The ‘problem’ child is chaotic, expressing his grief, anger and unhappiness by acting out the feelings instead of expressing them and becoming the bad boy or girl of the family.
The problem child appears to be the big challenge in the family and this can deflect attention from the other family problems because everyone can focus on his outrageous behavior.
It’s a paradox because when the problem child acts out and shocks the family, the repercussions for that child can be miserable and he is continually blamed for all the family’s problems. This cycle of behavior and negative feedback can cause a deep depression because the very core of a child’s self-worth is at stake.
It is so difficult for the parents of a problem child to know what to do because although the child wants to be accepted as a whole person – and that comes with a lot of pain and anger, the parents also have to set tight boundaries on the behavior to ensure he doesn't become out of control.
The problem child may also become the scapegoat outside the home and may indulge in a vicious circle of acting out problem behavior then becoming scapegoated as he gets blamed for everything.
The family view of the child is ‘Oh look at Thomas. How are we ever going to be happy whilst he’s such a problem.’
Mascot children cope by hiding their inner feelings of pain, frustration, anger and hurt by becoming jokers or by acting as if they are happy. They are celebrated for their humor, wit and cynicism, the mascot’s charmingly buffoonish behavior deflects attention away from the family and on to the mascot.
They are the cheerleader of the family and their whole sense of identity hides the ugliness of the family. But, there is a lot of insecurity and fear in this child because what happens if no one thinks they are funny? Who are they then? When things get tense in the family, that their cue to act funny.
Often the mascot is the class clown in school; the other children laugh but the teachers don’t. Yet at home the family positively values the mascot, ‘what would we do without Thomas? He keeps us all going!’ They encourage the same behavior that the mascot gets punished for at school.
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The Lost Child
Lost children cope by withdrawing or isolating themselves from their families, denying their hurt and trying to convince themselves that their problems don’t exist, to the point that they try not to exist by becoming invisible. The lost child may also become the invisible child in the corner or at the back of the room.
This child identifies with the other family members pain and tries to help them but because they can’t (because they are children not adults) they usually remove them selves from the situation and become hidden.
Because their coping strategy involves removing themselves from situations they can’t handle, lost children are generally perceived as shy, sensitive loners.
This detachment can help the lost child to gain control and protect himself but it does cost him by losing closeness with other members of the family and friends. This child provides relief for a family "At least someone in our family doesn’t cause us any problems”.
The rescuer is the child who tends to take on the role of managing the familial problems. Essentially, he is (unknowingly) trying to fix the family, particularly the parents, so that they will eventually be able to take care of him.
These children become very sensitive to others’ needs and take on a lot of the emotional issues, trying to solve everyone else’s problems.
As a result, they become bossy and controlling, particularly towards the problem child and the parents. In turn they are highly critical of others and particularly the parents choices.
They are particularly helpful and supportive but the downside is they ignore their own well-being.
How we continue to act out the roles in adulthood
As the hero we may end up becoming very successful in our careers but not necessarily fulfilled. We may seek to bury ourselves in work rather than face our feelings of inadequacy and failure.
As the problem child we may well get ourselves into plenty of trouble, legally and otherwise. We are angry at the world and, once we left home, we found a way of expressing it that may not be to our best interest. We may have struggled with relationships and feel very lonely but not be able to see why.
As the mascot/clown we feel compelled to be in the centre stage and consider it our duty to entertain our friends and come across as the life and soul of the party.
As the lost child, we don’t like to be seen and get panicky about having to do anything that might expose us.
As the rescuer/caretaker we may suffer within close relationships as we try to fix others and put their needs before our own. They tend to be excessively focused on other people and feel they need to make the other person happy.
From the outside it may look like the rescuer/caretaker is a guardian angel but as the other person becomes the centre of their world, their own life is crushed. They often tolerate abuse, misbelieving that it’s somehow their fault.
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We also overlap the roles
What usually happens is that we take on a main role but can slip into other roles from time to time.
My role was generally the ‘problem’ child but there were times when I became the ‘mascot’ and found a niche in entertaining everyone and feeling some sense of belonging and being accepted. Still do.
In my early adult life I naturally shifted into these roles when was particularly stressed or depressed and I wanted to keep other people at a distance. Now, however, if I feel myself slipping into these roles I know that I need to be more honest with myself, and those close to me, about how I’m feeling and what it is I’m trying to avoid.