Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dysfunctional Family Roles (Illustrated!)

Ideally, a family unit is a strongly connected group of individuals who provide mutual support, encouragement and feedback. Ideally, a family is a safe environment in which children (and adults) can have their needs met regularly and predictably. In order for a family to fulfill these kinds of functions, the individual members—and particularly the adults in the family—must be fairly stable and able to meet their own emotional needs.

But some families do not have this kind of stability. Some families are organized around conflict, mental illness, or addictions. We often call these kinds of families “dysfunctional.” Children will often seek stability and safety, and when children are raised in dysfunctional families, they begin to seek ways to normalize their experience. The may start to act in ways that bring structure, consistency and safety into an otherwise chaotic environment. Many of these roles are predictable, and were first identified by Virginia Satir.

Understanding what kinds of roles we play in our families is important in our understanding of ourselves. The roles we play in our families set up our behavior for our adulthood. Of course the way that these roles manifest in a real family will be complex, but for the sake of this article, I have briefly described five common dysfunctional family roles. I have also illustrated them with an example from popular television, just because. 

Family Hero
The One We're Proud Of.

“If I don't do it, no one will.”
“If I don't continue to achieve, bad things will happen.”

Lisa Simpson, the Hero of the Simpsons.
Her achievements distract from the
reality of the family dysfunction.   
The family hero is the one who strives for perfection. This person gets attention through accomplishments and achievements, whether they are academic, social, athletic or in some other area. The narrative that drives this role is “Our family can't be so bad if we produced this star athlete/talented musician/straight-A student.” The Hero will usually make the case that s/he is merely driven, and seeks accomplishments and achievements for their own sake. Ultimately, the Hero knows that s/he enjoys the attention and power that come from this role.

The family's definition of functionality depends on this person's achievement, and this is a very difficult burden to shoulder. Heroes are often workaholics, perfectionists and controlling. They may have difficulty with relationships with others. Heroes almost always have extreme difficulty tolerating failure. They avoid shame and other negative emotions at all costs.

The Troubled One.

“You have to take what you want in life. No one will give you anything.”
“This family is messed up, and I'm the only one who admits it.”
Tyrion Lannister, who is blamed
for much of the family dysfunction,
is the Scapegoat of his family. He also
shows that "Scapegoat" is not
the same thing as "underachiever."  

The Scapegoat is the inverse of the Hero in some ways. Instead of seeking attention through positive accomplishments, the Scapegoat gets attention through negative actions. The Scapegoat may feel that s/he “never fit in” to the family. The Scapegoat brings the family together by being a “problem,” and needing attention and intervention.

The Scapegoat's behavior can become a habit, figuratively or literally. Frequently, Scapegoats have problem with addictions, get into trouble with the law, or have difficulty holding down a job. Internally, Scapegoats can begin to feel hurt, rejection or shame. The Scapegoat may begin to believe that s/he is “bad,” and this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is important to note that the Scapegoat's behavior does not have to be illegal to be considered "troubled" in the family. The Scapegoat acts outsides of the family norms and rules, even if the behavior itself is not condemned by society at large. 

The One We Turn To.

“People will like me if I'm nice.”
“I'll take care of you—and then you won't leave me.”
Michael, from Arrested Development,
is the one his family turns to when
things need fixing. 

The Pleaser is the member of the family who picks up the pieces after a catastrophe. This person is usually caring and empathetic, and s/he usually gives good advice. After something goes wrong, the family can and does turn to the Pleaser to “make it better.”

The Pleaser often gets validation from being needed, but often does not learn to take care of her/himself. S/he may also develop a high tolerance for inappropriate behaviors, and may have difficulty setting boundaries with others. In adult relationships, s/he may confuse love for pity, and fall in love with people s/he can rescue and fix. The Pleaser is often anxious, and may have feelings of guilt that are not centered in a specific situation.

Lost Child
The One We Don't Think About

“If I don't get involved, I won't get hurt.”
“It's best not to draw attention to yourself.”
Jan Brady was the Lost Child in her
family. But unlike most lost children,
she expresses her feelings of
being overlooked. 

The Lost Child disappears from the family chaos—physically, emotionally, or both. The Lost Child might become lost in books, video games or other distractions. Or, s/he might literally leave the family by becoming involved in activities away from home. Sometimes, the Lost Child runs away from home.

The Lost Child may find that s/he has difficulty being in touch with emotions, and may not know how to begin to express them to others. S/he may feel powerless in relationships. S/he may feel lonely, ignored, or unimportant. The Lost Child may have difficulty feeling loved and needed in relationships.

The Clown

“You can't laugh and be in pain at the same time.”
“If you just smile, everything will be fine.”

Roseanne meets every situation, no matter
how challenging, with a joke. Her character
showed that humor is both a source of strength
and a way to avoid dealing with difficult situations. 
The Mascot copes with the family chaos by bringing laughter to the family. This distracts the family, and helps the family avoid resolving the underlying difficulties. The Mascot usually enjoys being funny, and enjoys being able to “cheer people up.”

The Mascot may not learn coping mechanisms other than humor. S/he may hide real feelings with humor and jokes; s/he may feel inadequate and frightened in the face of difficult or painful emotions. The Mascot may struggle with achieving maturity in life, career, and relationships because the family is dependent on the Mascot never to grow up.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is great! My family has five children, and we have ALL of these roles, in the same order as displayed. Amazing! We were raised in a dysfunctional family marked by religious fundamentalism and sex addiction rather than alcoholism as a cause.