Updated: Jun 10
There are 3 rules and 5 roles that make up the results of an archetypal dysfunctional family.
These rules and roles are the key drivers of any dysfunctional family.
We look at the rules that are the engine of a dysfunctional family and how they negatively impact on the children. Then we look at the roles that children take up in order to survive the dysfunctional family.
What Are The Dysfunctional Family Archetypal Rules?
1. Don’t feel
2. Don’t talk
3. Don’t trust
These 3 rules smash the very thing we need to thrive and grow: our spirit.
For those of us raised in a dysfunctional family, the ‘don’t feel’ rule meant that it was too scary to share how we felt what was going on at home. If we did we may have been accused of being dramatic, over sensitive or stupid. This often left us feeling ashamed which resulted in us shutting down our feelings. As adults, we often don’t know how we feel and end up being numb.
The ‘don’t talk’ rule was often the result of being told to shut up. We learnt at a young age that it wasn’t okay to express our views. Some of us were completely ignored and our point of view was of no interest to anybody else. This rule also denoted that we were not allowed to let anybody outside of the family know what was going on.
The ‘don’t trust’ rule was born out of the other two. We learned that our feelings hurt too much and we had to crush them. We also learned that it wasn’t worth us expressing how we felt - or thought - so we learned to shut up. As a result we couldn’t trust other people and we couldn’t trust ourselves.
What Impact Do These The Dysfunctional Family Rules Have On The Children?
We, as children, developed our own rules that were built on fear, shame and guilt.
These rules went something like this:
If I stop feeling my feelings, I won’t have any pain
If I don’t ask for anything, I won’t get rejected
If I don’t talk, I will be left alone
If I don’t tell anyone how I feel, I won’t get hurt
If I make myself invisible, I’ll be safe
Dysfunctional parents are unpredictable, arbitrary and inconsistent. We tried to make sense of the chaos around us. However, as children do, we thought that it was our fault. It was inconceivable that there was anything wrong with our parents so we had to think that there was something wrong with us.
The parent child relationship is sacred. As children we were completely dependent upon them to keep us alive. We needed our parents to feed us, keep us safe from harm, keep us warm and give us shelter.
But when the very people who we needed the most hurt us the most, we concluded that there must be something terribly wrong with us.
Something’s wrong with me
I can’t do anything right
I’m not enough
I’m too naughty
I get it all wrong
How Did We Survive After The Love Was Gone?
We needed love; complete love, fuzzy, warm, unconditional love.
This meant love without any limitations or conditions. That no matter what we did or said, we knew we were still loved.
Love should have been there as our safety net for us to make mistakes, fall over and get back up. We needed this to learn how to be good people with a foundation of self love and worth. We needed to feel we had a valuable place in the world.
However, it didn’t work out that way. Because there was no real and unconditional love within our dysfunctional family, we believed we were unlovable. Along with believing we were unlovable, we had to believe that we didn’t need or want love.
If we’d truly believed we wanted or needed love, we wouldn’t have survived our upbringing because the emotional pain of not being loved would have been too traumatic.
In order to deal with the suffering and resentment of not being unconditionally loved, we became brilliant at staying in control, lying, pretending or hiding as a means of protection.
As a result there was a distinct blurring of boundaries because we never knew what was right or what was wrong. Our outlook on life was shadowed by confusion.
Love became confused with people pleasing, taking care of other people’s needs but needing others so badly we smothered them. We felt irrational and reactive. Our feelings, behavior and thoughts were blurred because we couldn’t see ourselves as separate and autonomous.
Our parents told us that the reason things were wrong was because of us. They told us we were selfish so we stopped asking for help. They said we were greedy when we asked for something so we stopped asking for what we needed. They shouted at us when we were playing loudly so we repressed ourselves. We were told that how we saw life was wrong so we doubted ourselves.
Why Did We Need To Feel In Control?
All children think they are at the centre of their universe. They assimilate these parental suggestions and believe they are the cause of the parent’s problems.
By that very nature, children feel all too powerful and think they had the influence to control or cure the situation. This slant is at the centre of all dysfunctional relationships and causes many problems in adulthood, as the need for control becomes a driving force.
Needing to control others in relationships creates an obsessive need to hyper vigilantly watch our thoughts and how other people react to us. We do this in order to feel safe because if we can anticipate another person’s reaction to us, we can change ourselves to feel more in control.
David explains an example of this:
“I sometimes scan a face to watch how someone reacts to something I’ve said. If it looks as if I caused offence; I quickly back down and apologize. Reacting this way makes me feel safer than if I was being my relaxed, authentic self. However the downside for me is that I am in a constant state of turmoil and people pleasing. My relationships suck!”
How Do Children Adjust To The Dysfunctional Family Archetypal Rules?
They Adapt Into 5 Roles.
The 3 rules ‘Don’t talk; Don’t trust; Don’t feel’ caused us to adopt archetypal roles, especially when we were under stress. They offered us protection in several ways:
Disarming our parents because we felt unsafe
Acted out by being exceptionally naughty as a way of diffusing our rage and hurt
Trying to be a favorite in order to dodge abuse
Trying to stay invisible so we couldn’t be seen.
Each child either identified a role or is assigned a role. This is to fit in to the dysfunctional family dynamics.
Here are the five roles. Of course, some people identify with more than one role:
2. Problem Child
4. Lost Child
5. The Rescuer/Caretaker
These roles served 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.
1. The Hero
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.
2. 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.’
3. The Mascot/Clown
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.
4. 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”.
5. The Rescuer/Caretaker
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 parent’s 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.
We can overlap the roles
What usually happens is that we take on a main role but we 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.
Children can go through these roles sequentially and sometimes exchange rules with other siblings. Only children will often assume all of these different roles at some point. Sometimes when the oldest child, the hero, leaves home then another sibling relinquishes their role and takes up being the hero.
How Do We Continue The Dysfunctional Family Archetypes Once We Are Adults?
Just because we’re adults and we’ve moved away from the family, what we learned in our families can’t be erased. The lessons we learned stay with us in adulthood.
We may have started a family of our own. We expect only the best with an anticipation that it’s going to be a happier, more loving, intimate, calmer and more trusting than anything we experienced as children.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen because we experience what we experienced as a child. Our reflexes create anxiety and worry and we try to control people and situations as if we were still in our original family environment.
Our current perceptions are contaminated by what we learned in our past. Our past taught us to be very suspicious of trust, freedom, choice, warmth, love, negotiation and caring. Even though these things may be on offer, we can’t always reach them. It’s no surprise that we continue to starve, emotionally.
Relationships become troublesome. One after another, long-term, intimate relationships come to an end. Without relationships as an anchor, we often feel empty and abandoned. Conversely, while we are in relationships we often can’t trust or we become obsessed. It becomes a no-win situation.
On the outside we look fantastic. Because we learnt to take responsibility at a young age, control other people and put up a good front whenever a situation requires it, we seem to be professionally successful.
Because we learned to be vigilant and read people at a very young age, those skills can be beneficial to enhancing our careers. However, these same skills can keep us feeling lonely and miserable inside and very uncomfortable in intimate relationships.
We never learnt how to let go of responsibility and control. We seem to want to have total control as much as possible. Even though we marry and have families, we still find we don’t share ourselves very easily and this makes us feel isolated and empty. There may not even be a reason to not trust the other person but we still get tripped up with guilt, mistrust and anxiety.
Often we marry other people who were raised in dysfunctional families so now there are two people living together who don’t talk, trust or feel. They also may not know why they feel empty and unhappy although on the outside they may seem successful.
How These Dysfunctional Family Archetypal Rules & Roles Manifest Into Adult Traits
Living with a dysfunctional family as a child wires the brain to respond to family stress in unhealthy ways. As an adult there’s a lot to overcome. The negativity of a dysfunctional family as a child infects the way we respond to the world as an adult.
There’s an array of lingering effects of dysfunction, such as:
High level of self-criticism
Fear of some normal situations others think of as ordinary
Unhealthy parenting style
Poor communication skills
Fear of being alone
Mental health issues
How To Recover From The Dysfunctional Family Archetypal Rules And Roles?
Recovering from a family dysfunction is a long journey, but it's the only way home. To think this can be done by attending a few counseling sessions is naïve. It takes dedication and a long term approach to follow a tried and tested path to recover from years of childhood abuse and/or neglect.
You have to:
Unearth old messages
Rationally assess their implication
And potential damage
Reverse the effects
Put in place new values and behaviors
Learn to live in the present
Once we’re on the road to recovery, miracles. The vague sense that something’s not right becomes understandable and gives us hope. The energy for change starts to appear and we let go of feeling trapped.