View this post on Instagram
Family dynamics are so interesting.
Everyone has a title and function. For example, Dad is dependable and Mom is super smart. As for the siblings, the oldest is responsible, the middle gets away with everything, and the youngest is vivacious. The members of this family are pretty straightforward and considered relatively “normal” and functioning—although this is only one example of a normal, functional family.
If there are functioning families on one end of the spectrum, then there are also dysfunctional families on the opposing end. The dysfunctional family members have titles and functions as well. But these titles and functions aren’t so tidy, nor are they so obvious and fixed as the functional family.
Dysfunctional family dynamics are secured through generational and internalized shame, and are grounded through a multitude of occurrences—alcoholism, abuse, narcissism, codependency, enabling, gambling, unwanted pregnancy, drug abuse, forced marriage, and a plethora of other factors.
Not all dysfunctional families have all of the aforementioned qualities, but all have some.
Highlighted below are seven dysfunctional roles in families—and they can be taken on by any member. These roles are also interchangeable, and members can have multiple roles at any given time. Let’s learn about these seven roles and how they continue the shame cycle.
*Note that psychology deals with humans; therefore, outcomes are not set in stone, but rather are dependent on the experiences of the individual and their choices.
Caretaker: the enabler or martyr.
The caretaker’s ultimate goal is to care for everyone in the family, even if it means denying what’s truly going on. Those in this role are committed to balance at the cost of true healing and healthfully moving forward. They deny or silence wrongdoing in an attempt to “keep the peace.”
This role is like a “reaction formation.”
Reaction formation—a coping mechanism—is when your identity or who you believe you are is not validated by either yourself or others, and so you take on an opposing belief system as a way to distract people (and yourself) from who you truly are. This is done in an attempt squelch the cognitive dissonance and anxiety arising from the coexisting dichotomies.
The caretaker may facilitate harm instead harmony under the guise of, “It’s just who they are, get over it.” Or, “You only have one (mother, father, grandparent).” If the last statement seems innocuous, it’s not. If your parent (or whomever) is continually abusing you, them being your parent is not a strong argument for letting the abuse continue or go unchallenged.
In fact, we could easily reverse the sentiment to shut down the weak argument. The abuser only has one of you. Therefore, they should understand the importance of discontinuing their ill-treatment. But, the abuser isn’t navigating from a place of unconditional love and acceptance from within.
Accountability is the only way to begin to move beyond their discretions. And accountability is tough, even for the best of us, so it may never see the light of day for an individual who has never been held responsible for their words or actions, or those drawing from an empty well.
Caretakers, in their adult life, usually seek relationships with individuals who are reminiscent of the adults in their family. If your parent was an addict, as a “caretaker,” you will seek those same qualities in a mate, sustaining the generational shame.
Scapegoat: the vessel of blame.
The scapegoat is continually blamed, shamed, and put on blast as the reason for anything and everything. They are labeled incapable, crazy, stupid, and unlovable. They are a meatsuit of familial shame. Scapegoats are usually the outliers of the family unit and seek individuality and truth.
Scapegoats challenge the dysfunctional family unit, and therefore, are shunned, ridiculed, and attacked.
Scapegoats are usually cognizant of their role. They also experience progressively worse treatment as compared to the siblings or other family members who stay in character, so to speak.
The scapegoat suffers a seemingly endless supply of misguided hate and pain, and they suffer greatly. They are made to feel that they are the problem within the family dynamic. Scapegoats tend to get in trouble in school (acting out) and later in life struggle with depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, feeling unloved, and unworthiness.
Their internalized shame and eventual internalized rage is linked to the treatment, abuse, and gaslighting they were forced to endure as a child.
Scapegoats notoriously self-sabotage because they feel undeserving of true happiness.
Hero: high-functioning and keeps up the kosher illusion.
Everything is “A-Okay”—there’s nothing to see here. Many times, the hero is the child who takes on parental qualities (parentification) if their parent is emotionally distant or unavailable. The hero is also the super achiever who gets great grades, is a track star, and is ultra-prepared to save the day if any tensions come about.
Heroes tend seek out life partners who are emotionally unavailable or devoid of true intimacy, helping them to feel right at home. Heroes also tend to be workaholics; their profession fills the void from not having their needs met elsewhere. Many heroes suffer from depression, stress-induced illness, anxiety, and chronic fatigue.
Mascot: a silly, fun, distraction.
The mascot is there to distract with humor, fart noises, funny faces, and to put on a show. If there is trouble on the horizon, you can bet the mascot is revving up with their latest skit or comedy act to distract from the ensuing trauma.
The role of the mascot, however, is a catch-22.
While they are successful at diverting doom, they then feel overwhelming pressure to perform again the next time chaos comes along. Mascots suffer from depression and anxiety, are attracted to highly dysfunctional relationships, and go above and beyond for people in general—to the point of damaging their own wellness. They are altruistic to a fault.
Addict: the result of all the dysfunctional family’s issues all rolled up into one person.
The crushing devastation of carrying all of the problems of the family is exactly what leads to their addictions.
Whether it’s food, drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex, the addict internalizes all of the familial shame and tries to suffocate or kill the dysfunction through self-destructing habits.
An unusual quality of the addict is they may feel torn between sobriety and remaining the perpetual “patient”—because when they are truly struggling, the family comes together in unity to help the addict through their hard times. The addict subconsciously or consciously has made this connection and fears their health is what will prevent any moments of loving togetherness from ever existing.
*Note: There are many reasons for addiction, but this article focuses on addicts as a role within a dysfunctional family.
Another interesting occurrence is the family member who most closely identifies with the addict will also assume addictive qualities in response to the addict’s reoccurring troubles. They, too, will fall back on unhealthy habits and choices, like seeking out exes or binge-eating their way through family drama and trauma.
Lost child: the loner.
The lost child prefers to be off to the side, in the background, or peering in from a safe distance. They feel it is their job to stay away to prevent any possibility of causing more trouble—and then they may feel great loneliness and despair.
The lost child does not want to draw any attention to themselves whatsoever, as they feel doing so always ends in disaster.
Often, the caregivers apply the hero status to the lost child because they can be offered as a source of bragging rights, an example of how well the family is doing when others ask how everyone in the family is. Knowing this reinforces the lost child’s elusive existence.
The lost child struggles with relationships. They may lack friends or a life partner. Social situations are pure anguish for them. Their preference to be alone only amplifies their depressive tendencies, anxiety, and lack of social graces (they do not speak up for fear of being told to shut up).
This quiet soul may, in contrast, have extremely loud feelings, and they have trouble staying out of their own head. All they do is think, think, think.
Golden child: the favorite for all the wrong reasons.
The golden child is present if one or both caregivers has narcissistic personality disorder (the real deal, not the overused lingo of today). Although the golden child is favored, it’s not because of their stellar qualities.
The golden child represents the narcissist’s love for their self, not the love they have for child.
The golden child and the parent have a volatile relationship: very hot and very cold. The relationship status is dependent on how the parent is feeling and since those with NPD have haywire self-views, their connection to the golden child is one hell of a roller-coaster ride. And any “love” given is 100 percent conditional (strings included).
The golden child has a problem with being their true self. They also fear being the object of the parent’s wrath, so they may participate in familial abuse to avoid becoming a negative focal point. The golden child also endures abuse portrayed as love; therefore, their future relationships may be completely devoid of affection because they were taught that abuse equals love.
The dysfunctional family dynamic is intense, convoluted, and brimming with generational shame.
Escaping the turmoil is possible, as is healing. However, professional help is more than likely required. If you are in need of assistance, please seek out a trusted friend for safe harbor. Mental health professionals can also help you with advocation, guidance, healing, and ways to incorporate healthy coping mechanisms.
For more information or assistance, call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-NAMI. Or in a crisis, text “NAMI” to 741741.
Bradshaw, J. (2005). Healing the shame that binds you. Health Communications, Inc. Deerfield Beach, FL.
The works of: Alfred Adler; Kevin Leman; Frank Sulloway or Letty Cottin Pogrebin