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Family Roles in a Dysfunctional Families –

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Adult Children of Alcoholics

Family Roles in a Dysfunctional Families –

Family under umbrella with one child our in the rain, Adobe

Family Roles in a Dysfunctional Families –

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Family roles are established early, and negative conditioning can last a lifetime. There is a lot of information regarding dysfunctional families and the unhealthy roles that are played in this kind of family system. Addiction or abuse is often the cause of dysfunction. The motivation that launches dysfunction is often noble, or caring. It can be the desire to protect the family or family member from negative consequences like getting arrested or losing a job, or being acknowledged as a drinker, abuser, gambler. The desire to protect begins with pretending that everything is all right, and later becomes a system that hurts everyone. In the name of loyalty, dysfunctional families require that everyone play a role in maintaining a destructive status quo.

Dysfunctional Families Struggle With The Following Issues

  • Denial of the problems
  • Secrecy about what's happening
  • Addiction to drugs or alcohol, food, or behaviors such as gambling
  • Codependency or taking care of person/s to the point of feeling angry and overwhelmed by their illness/es.
  • Enabling  a person stay in their addiction such as buying alcohol for the alcoholic to keep him/her/they happy

In unhealthy families, we find a number of roles that are problematic and which keep the family sick. Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse is one of the experts in the addiction and codependency fields and who led the field in examining family dysfunction in an addictive system. including common roles. Here we examine 6 types of roles in the family. As you read, see if you fit any of these roles.

Six Common Family Roles

The Problem Person/s 

The person/s with substance use disorder, food disorder, behavior use disorder (gambling, exercise, sex) alcohol use disorder. This person/s uses substances or behaviors to try to feel better and in doing so, often demands acceptance of the addiction. This person also struggles with accepting responsibility for his life and the impact he is having on his family and others (such as friends, extended family, work, etc). The disorder can progress from just using substances, to misusing substances, and to becoming physically and emotionally dependent on the substance or behavior. This person's life focuses on whatever behavior has become and addiction. The behavior becomes the best friend, the lover, the coping tool, and the comfort for all other issues.

Enabler/codependent

The enabler is usually the partner or other family member who tries to keep the family together by attempting to keep peace. It can be mom, dad, grandma, grandpa. The codependent will often:

  • Deny the problems of the problem person.
  • Step to fix things in every time there's a crisis
  • Pay for debts, drugs, traffic tickets, telephone, rent
  • Purchase the substances or other things the problem person needs
  • Keep the secrets of the problem person and the family
  • Be overwhelmed from by role as she/he no longer has time for anything else
  • Pacifies the problem person to make the family look good

Hero

The hero is often the oldest child (including an adult child), although any child can be an overachiever. His role is to keep himself together and be the best he can be. The family embraces his role as he makes the family look good. Unfortunately, he is often serious, perfectionist, and rigid, and is unwilling to look at how this role is negatively affecting him and those around him.

Mascot

The mascot tends to be the second child and his role is to keep everyone laughing, being the source of humor, or even getting into trouble for his pranks. This often is his way to cope with the family problems and he takes everyone’s mind off the addiction and dysfunction by being the court jester. However, he is typically immature and cannot reach his own feelings.

Scapegoat

This role is for the child who is acts out with their behavior in order to try to get attention. As children grow, they learn that negative attention is better than no attention, so the scapegoat gets in trouble at home, at school, in the community, at work, and other places. The acting out is a direct cry for help but this behavior becomes a way to detract the family from the addictive problems as they focus on the problem child. This is a way for the parents to blame a child as the “identified problem,” therefore, not examining the other problems.

Lost child

The lost child typically can be the third or later child. Here, she seeks to be invisible at home, at school, and/or work. The family pays her little attention as she demands little attention. Hiding out is a safety factor for her. She struggles with interactions with others, has low self esteem, and trouble making decisions.

Family Roles Are Fluid As Families Become More Dysfunctional Over Time

While these roles are common, they also vary in different family systems. Sometimes roles may be combined such as the mascot and the scapegoat. Also, the roles in the family can change such as the hero oldest daughter gets into drugs and another child steps up to be the hero.

To cope with this dysfunction, check out AA, NA, Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous or other self-help programs. If this is an emergency, call a local or national hotline such as Families Anonymous – 800-736-9805. And finally, continue to read articles on this site, other sites, and/or read Wegscheider-Cruse’s books such as Another Chance, Codependency, and Coupleship.

If you need help you can also check out Recovery Guidance for a free resource to find addiction and mental health professionals near you.

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Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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