If you grew up in a dysfunctional family you probably have a good idea what I mean when I write about the roles family members play. Every family has them. It’s just that in a dysfunctional family, they call the shots and determine the outcome of the player’s lives in a way that doesn’t happen in a “normal” family. Dysfunctional families evolve because one or more of the significant members are dishonest in how they express themselves. They lack effective communication skills and usually lack effective coping mechanisms. The family unit evolves in such a way as to “protect” those people from having to learn how to express themselves honestly.

This can be expressed by not allowing the father to cry or express other “unmanly” feelings such as fear or sadness. A man who is denied his right to do so will channel those feelings in other ways and pass those things off to his children. In essence, the family enters into a “code of silence” to keep the man “safe” from having to learn a different, more effective and healthy way of expressing his feelings. This dynamic spills out into the entire family and everyone learns their place so as not to upset the applecart. The whole family becomes emotionally dishonest with each other.

Children learn everything from their parents: how to express themselves, their self-esteem, how to deal with anger and sadness. A family that is emotionally dishonest can not create whole, happy human beings because children will model after their parents whether that example is positive or negative. Children will take on the various roles assigned to them by their parents because that is the only way to survive in the family unit.

The dysfunctional family has four primary roles. They are as follows:

The Hero

The hero is usually the father figure. He is controlling, rigid and unyielding. He often uses shame-based techniques to coerce his children into submission. Outside of the family unit, this individual is often a high achiever and garners a great deal of success in his career. He gets a lot of positive strokes in his work environment because of his successes. He usually will not take no for an answers and his word is law at home. There is no room for discussion after he has made a pronouncement on how things are going to be.

The Scapegoat

The family feels ashamed of this member for some reason. This person is usually the one who is the most honest emotionally honest, the one who will not be silenced or cowed into submission. The scapegoat usually acts out all the tensions in the family, calls attention to the issues that no one else wants to talk about and, in general, is a pain in the neck to the rest of the family members who just want them to be quiet. This person is the one who gives the rest of the family distraction from the real problems through their behavior.

Responsible Child, otherwise known as the “Family Hero”

This person is a child who is wise beyond their years, often talked about as being 10 going on 40. This child often assumes the role of parent to younger siblings and will take on a caregiving role to the other parent when needed. They become extremely good at taking care of everyone around them when they are very young. They grow up being hyper responsible and everyone outside the family unit loves them. They are the ones who bolster up the family because they help the family have a good appearance to the outside world. They are usually very good students and never get into any trouble at school or with the law. Their sole mission in life is to help their family look good. When they grow up they are extremely invested in being “good parents” and “good people”.

The Lost Child

This child who has assumed this role survives the family by trying his or her best to be invisible at all time. They engage in a lot of daydreaming and fantasizing. They probably watch a lot of television or read a lot of books because the way they deal with the reality of their life is to withdraw from it. They spend a lot of time pushing their feelings down so they don’t have to feel them. They do a lot of work to avoid “getting upset”. They grow into adults who are unable to feel their feelings and usually have extremely low self-esteem. They are very afraid of intimate relationships with others because they do not know how to relate to other people on any kind of intimate level. They tend to be withdrawn and can become isolated socially. They choose this isolation because that is the only way they can protect themselves from being hurt by others. Many “lost children” grow up to become actors because the career allows to hid behind their characters.

The Caretaker

This is the person who assumes the responsibility for the family’s emotional well-being. They turn themselves into the family social director and often assume a role as family “clown” in order to divert the family’s attention from its pain and otherwise overwhelming anger. They tend to grow into adults who are known for their kindness and generosity, they are good listeners and focus their attention on others at their own expense. Because they have poor boundaries they are unable to meet their own needs. They often are incapable of receiving love, they only know how to give it away to others. These people tend to have few real, reciprocal friendships but will instead take people on as “projects” in an effort to help them. These are the people who tend to find themselves in abusive relationships because they want to “help” or “save” their partner. Many go into the helping professions and find work as a nurse, therapist or social worker. They tend to have poor self-esteem and feel a lot of guilt. They will work very diligently at being “nice” to everyone they encounter, true “people pleasers” in the real sense of the word.

The Martyr

Although this person is not generally included in most analyses about family roles and dynamics, I think this person is very important. She is usually the mother and is the one who “suffers” and expresses the family’s suffering. She is usually highly submissive to the Hero and will bend over backwards to accommodate everyone else in the family so as not to upset everyone else. She is quiet and does not voice her suffering — to anyone within or without the family unit. She is the one who carries the emotional ball when everyone else has dropped it.