I grew up in a dysfunctional family, but I never realised that I, along with my siblings, had taken on dysfunctional family roles.

There are many kinds of dysfunctional families. Parents can be addicted to drugs or alcohol, or they can suffer from a personality disorder such as narcissism or OCD. The problem with growing up in this kind of unhealthy environment is that children have to adopt roles in order to survive. These roles are called dysfunctional family roles.

In my family, my mother abused my half-sisters, ignored me and lavished attention onto my baby brother. Consequently, we all took on various dysfunctional family roles. Some of these persist, even to this day.

There are 6 main dysfunctional family roles:


The caretaker in my family was my older sister. Even though she is only five years older than me, I feel like she’s the mother I never had.

Caretakers are exactly what their name suggests – they take care of the children in place of the parents. Despite the fact they are children themselves, they are forced to grow up quickly because of the unhealthy environment. They are emotionally mature for their age and have learned to act like an adult in order to survive.

The other siblings will naturally gravitate to the caretaker for safety. The caretaker will feel responsible for the children and quite often take the blame for a situation where younger children might be punished.

CARETAKER – dysfunctional family roles in later life

When they become adults themselves, caretakers find it very difficult to stop looking after their loved ones. Because they were often in charge and stepped in as the parent figure, they had no validation themselves from an adult figure. This means they’re constantly looking for the approval they didn’t receive when they were children.

Caretakers lost their own childhood as they were parenting their siblings. Therefore, they may lack the ability to let go and have fun in a childlike way. They always feel that they have to be the responsible adult.


I think my baby brother may have taken on the dysfunctional family role of the hero as he would always protest that nothing was wrong in our house. Even today, if I question him about our mother’s behaviour, he insists that nothing happened. My brother was the one person in our family that went to university, got good grades and has a pretty good job.

Typically, the hero of a dysfunctional family pretends that everything is fine and normal in the family. They want to project a good image to the outside world. However, because they are lying to others and, more importantly, themselves, they cannot afford to let anyone get too close. This affects their personal relationships.

For instance, my brother has never had a proper relationship with a woman or a guy. Heroes are usually the oldest member in the family. I wouldn’t normally call my younger brother the hero, but the descriptors do fit him.

HERO – dysfunctional family roles in later life

Those that wear a mask to the outside world do not want others to see their true persona. They hide the traits they don’t want others to see.

Narcissists do this as, subconsciously, they are ashamed of what they really are and where they came from. Putting on a grandiose display to divert people’s attention from the horror of reality can also lead to denial in other areas which the hero can’t accept.


The opposite of the hero is the scapegoat. The scapegoat of the family does not go along with the hero and pretend that everything is alright. They’ll do the exact opposite.

My middle sister was the scapegoat in our family. Not only was she blamed for nearly every bad thing that happened at home, she received the worst punishments. My sister refused to play along and rebelled against my mother. This made my mother even madder. She would dole out harsher and harsher punishments to try and ‘break’ my sister. But my sister refused to let her see any kind of emotion.

The scapegoat of a family will leave as soon as they can, which is true of my sister. Scapegoats are usually middle children. This is also true of my sister. Scapegoats are pretty emotionally stable, along with the caretaker.

SCAPEGOAT – dysfunctional family roles in later life

Scapegoats can have problems with other authority figures. They might associate themselves with rebellious groups for the sake of it. They may alter their bodies in order to shock society or their family. Expect piercings, tattoos, teenage pregnancies and worse if the abuse was particularly severe.

Scapegoats are not good with emotional problems, but they are brilliant when it comes to coming up with practical solutions.


This is me. Out of all the dysfunctional family roles, this is the one I can identify with the most. I have always used humour in my life. Whether it’s to make friends, diffuse an emotional trauma, or just get attention. Most of the reason I use humour is to get attention. My mother ignored me growing up, so obviously, I didn’t get the attention and validation I needed from her. Getting a laugh from someone gives me that attention.

Clowns use humour to break up an increasingly volatile situation. As adults, they retain this method as they’ve learned it can work to shift attention from what is going on. As clowns are not great with responsibility, making someone laugh allows them to avoid serious tasks or duties. They won’t be expected to contribute. Clowns are usually the younger members of the family.

CLOWN – dysfunctional family roles in later life

Clowns who hide behind humour typically hide depressive thoughts. You only have to look at famous comedians such as Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Bill Hicks, Ellen DeGeneres, Owen Wilson, Sarah Silverman and David Walliams. Famous for making us laugh, they all suffered from debilitating depression. Some also suffered from suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, a few acted on them.


The lost child is the sibling you don’t notice. They’ll fade into the background for safety. The lost child is a loner who never rocks the boat and doesn’t cause a fuss. They’ll never rebel. Instead, they blend in with the wallpaper and hope that people forget they are there.

The lost child won’t have an opinion of their own and they won’t back one parent or another. You cannot rely on them to help you as they’ll plead ignorance. They just want a quiet life with no dramas.

Although it’s pretty obvious there are dramas in their family, if they pretend it’s not going on, they don’t have to worry about it. The lost child believes that if you don’t talk about it, then you won’t feel anything.

As an adult, the lost child will have problems when they start a relationship. Problems that occur won’t be acknowledged by the lost child. They’ll think that by simply ignoring them, they will go away.

LOST CHILD – dysfunctional family roles in later life

The lost child will spend a lot of time on their own. They’ll live alone, and they’ll prefer solitary pursuits. For example, they will enjoy surfing the internet, playing video games, and other activities where you don’t need to go out.

Living this reclusive life it is possible that they will lose touch with other family members. Or they may have a ‘love/hate’ relationship with certain family members.


The manipulator takes their experience of their hostile environment and uses it to their advantage. They capitalise on the family situation and play family members against each other. This individual will quickly become adept at recognising what the actual problem the parent suffers from. They’ll understand which one is the enabler, and which one is co-dependent.

Manipulators exercise this knowledge to control and influence family members. They’ll do it covertly, not directly. They never want to get caught. Gradually, they’ll learn what triggers the parents and their siblings and they will take shots at all of them.

There’s a possibility that the manipulator will grow up into a sociopath or psychopath. They will at least possess anti-social tendencies.

MANIPULATOR – dysfunctional family roles in later life

Manipulators can turn into bullies, those who harass people and get a kick out of it. They are unable to form healthy relationships. If they are in one, they will be controlling with a partner who has low self-esteem.

They will only think of themselves and what they can get out of others. They feel that the world owes them for their lousy childhood and will go about getting it by any means.

Can you relate to any of our dysfunctional family roles? If so, please get in touch.


  1. https://psychcentral.com
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org

Copyright © 2012-2024 Learning Mind. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, contact us.

power of misfits book banner desktop

Like what you are reading? Subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss new thought-provoking articles!

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Leslie53

    One thing that was missing is that sometimes these categories overlap (I see myself in 3 of these points: Lost Child, Caretaker and Clown) and also that the parent switches up the game where a child can be a hero one time and a scapegoat at another. There should also be another category: the Listening Post/Counsellor to mother or that the Caretaker role includes this aspect. The best category defining me is Lost Child but that was because my only redeemable role was to be the listener. I’d use the term Invisible/Ghost instead. Unlike the description of Lost Child, I was keenly aware of what was going on as I’m a HSP and empath. Also there is a reason why the Lost Child sinks into the background – It is not that they don’t want to rebel but because if they ever rebel even a little against mother, or simply disagree, there will be hell to pay – that is when she went into personality assassination.

    1. Tammy

      What you say about rebelling is so true, at least in my case. I would never think of rebelling, for I was certain there would be a price, worse than death, to pay. There was punishment without reason, I wouldn’t dare purposely give reason.

      1. Janey D.

        I was the rebel in our family Tammy. To this day I will use shock tactics to get attention.

    2. Janey D.

      I agree Leslie53 that these categories can have some overlap. And I like your idea of another category,

    3. Tia

      I totally agree with you 💯 talking from experience I see myself as the caretaker ,the scapegoat but I never leave home .the clown and to some extent the lost child I personally love personal space and being alone hell no I don’t take side with my parents with their dysfunctional behavior had to forgive them and let go I also act as the manipulator not to serve for any selfish reason just didn’t let any one run over me in life today I’m able to see through and experience how dysfunctional family play out teach me many lessons so no users and abusive could be apart of my life thanks to Jehovah God I change my mindset was able to endure the terrible ordeal beside I was lil bit of the hero but oh please I never live in denial I spoke up against the mess

  2. Tammy

    I too fit more into the lost child than any of the others. I grew up with an abusive mother and felt as though I was always walking on eggshells. All I wanted to do was crawl into a hole and not be noticed. I am now in my late 40s and after raising my kids as a single parent, am a solitary creature.I prefer to be alone than in the company of others who I feel will judge me, or whom I will anger or upset. I am an INTP who has had relationships that always become ones of co-dependency and never last. Now I am enjoying my solitude, getting to know myself, and giving myself the unconditional love, respect, and understanding I have longed for all my life. This site is helping me along this journey. Thank you all who contribute.

  3. Anonymous

    This article really hit me hard. I now know what roles I play in the dysfunctional family. I am the manipulator and the scapegoat. I analyzed each of my family members weaknesses and use them against them to protect myself from being treated as the scapegoat. As the scapegoat, they projected their problems onto me and blamed me for most things that went wrong. So, to cope, I used manipulation tactics as stated above. It was really unhealthy and I am ashamed of my past behavior and the behavior of my family.

  4. Lina

    I think I fit in every writen rol. So over the years the rols changed for me. So I could fit in the situations too make the best out of it. It began with the scapegoat. Next the Caretaker, the clown, the Hero and then the manipulatior.
    That is quite a lot rol changing for one Person. Im glad that I actually play the rol of the lost child. Nobody cares about me and that is a good thing. Im finally free to spend my time as I want. No stupid or annoying questions and I don’t have to do what others want.

  5. Jennifer

    God bless you. I was the scapegoat. Thank you for giving us the voice we didn’t have as children. Any of you who have been manipulated into believing yourselves unworthy still have that lonely Oliver Twist inside. You were thrust into a world of darkness.
    I’ve been punished to lower my self-esteem too. The only way to overcome this hurdle is to continue self-honesty every day of my life and forgive myself when I fail. It’s the hardest part. Forgiving myself for being used. My mother never looked me in the eye when saying, “you’re bad” or “you’re stupid.” She was the daughter of an alcoholic whose idea of control was damaged.
    Those words we heard from the past seemed directed at us. We were children. Let’s imagine them playing on swings, daydreaming about flying as birds do. Children are beautiful souls. You have to pity anyone who can’t see a child petting a bunny and not adore them.
    That child still lives within us all. I’d wipe away all your tears after seeing a parent vent their self-loathe to your faces. Those were deluded words best forgotten. They leave an impression on the memory. That doesn’t mean they were true. I once saw a mother yelling at her child for examining a caterpillar pupa. She said, “Get real! You’ve always got your head in the clouds.” I told the mother, “Your daughter’s natural curiosity is cute.” She told me to mind my “own damn business.” I don’t regret it. That’s the way it is. I could feel the little girl’s pain dealing with a mother too damaged to appreciate that sweet little girl. From a distance, that little kid was all of us.

  6. Zip

    My wife of two years has been the Scapegoat in her immediate family for more than 50 years. She’s cut off contact with them several times, only to go back in because of her feelings for her aged mom (who is now basically the Lost Child). Last week, my wife’s older brother—one of two Manipulators—died in a drunken fall (he was an alcoholic shut-in). His daughters and ex-wife banned my wife from the the funeral because of a text-message battle between them last year (orchestrated by Manipulator 2, my wife’s younger sister). My wife’s name was eliminated from her brother’s obituary, apparently by her other brother—the Hero—who was tasked with writing it (though others were likely involved). Now, a bunch of them are claiming they “didn’t know,” and are also saying, “You can’t take this out on your mother!” My wife believes right now that she has to cut all ties, even with her mom (whom I like, but call “the gateway drug”), and I support her. But we’re at the very beginning of this process and would be very grateful for suggestions regarding how to cope.

  7. Nichole Nix

    How do we get better, please. I fit the scapegoat role, but have recycled between, hero, clown, and ghost. Married not one, but TWO abusive manipulators/psychopaths. In process of second divorce for reasons of pure safety. Grew out of the addiction phase, but am now back living with my original caretakers and caretaking for them now. Also just…clowning around at this point in my life because my memories are too traumatic and depressing. The regression to me is insane, as I now like to lock myself in my room and rotate between dancing to modern day hip hop music and reading internet articles for hours. Get stressed doing normal things functioning adults in society do every day. Like, grocery shopping for my original caretakers or going to a post office/public library. Have fantasies of being nomadic in a new town far away where nobody knows my name. Also have high empathy, poor emotional regulation, and psychopaths literally flock to me. My entire life and I’ve mostly blamed myself, but I think hey it’s better than blaming others. But sometimes I DO, and the fleeting bitterness is not a enjoyable feeling. Go to mental help “professionals” who have labeled me with bipolar or borderline, ptsd, etc. most recently
    it was simply generalized depression. The antidepressants in the past barely cover up symptoms and comes with side effects. I can’t hold down a regular job for extended periods of time. I feel judged and misunderstood often. People I try to confine in have have resorted to victim blaming, annoyance, and “grow up, get over your stupid childhood, everybody has a bad childhood!” Everbody has a bad childhood? Wow. Ok. Really sometimes, what is the point? Truly though, I just want to get better at this point. How do we seal up the core inner wound? I just want to live, not survive…


    Nicole please go an get help. A good psychologist will listen. Talk therapy with added meds will help. Trust me. It’s a little wierd getting to at first. But then things start to click. I never got completely cured but I can see the light now.

  9. UserAnon1

    After reading this, I definitely identify with the Lost Child role the most and have been for the past 7 years.

    It kicked off after my parents got annoyed at me for doing my coursework instead of cleaning my room. They made me apologize for it and shamed me, using my poor GCSE performance as an excuse. Since that day, I have barely spoken to them, and their bullshit has only gotten worse.

    Meanwhile, my younger siblings do ANYTHING wrong, they get little more than the equivalent to a slap on the wrist.

    If I have anything legitimate to complain about or I do not agree with their every word, they will not even give me the time of day, as I committed the dangerous crime of having a different opinion/not blindly agreeing with their crap no matter how dumb they are being.

    If it’s not that, they find the smallest thing to get annoyed at me on and blow it out of proportion. Nowadays, I do not talk to anyone in my house for I feel that if I so much as breathe within their general area, I am committing high treason. I usually get on with other stuff such as surfing the net, video games, etc. Unless I REALLY need to tell them something important (where I am going etc.) I do not say a word to anyone in the household.

  10. DIANE

    One thing for sure I have an adult child who gaslights the whole family taking more like her Aunt on her Father’s side who thinks she is perfect and everyone takes advantage of her. I get tired of the blame game. I have put up with this adult child tearing the family apart. She encouraged me to learn about gaslighting when I already know who is trying to control the whole family. I’ve seen this perfect child, as she thinks, robbing everyone in the family, borrowing money and never paying it back. Always borrowing then taking advantage of that person saying I paid their cell phone bill or something like that and that same cell phone bill was cut off by me, finally sooner rather than later. I will die without her but who cares at this rate. I just need to sell all of my jewelry, my house, and other things before I pass in order not to leave her anything. She needs no memories of us since she always controlled our family, the youngest, making our lives miserable. We are all emotionally drained because of her and we are ready to be done. She’s always pointing her fingers at someone else.

  11. Nicholas Ridley

    In my opinion you have the lost child wrong. The lost child has an opinion of their own. usually they have very definite opinions. They dont back a parent because they see the narcissistic parent as the problem. They seek to disengage and become autonomous. “You cannot rely on them to help you as they’ll plead ignorance” Lost children are actually eager to help others and are usually self sacrificing their needs for the needs of others. “You cannot rely on them to help you” if its playing the role. the disengage. They see roles early and see through it. You can play the game all you want, they refuse. Lost children don’t like drama because they see it as unnecessary and corrosive. Many lost children are truth seekers. They’ll say their piece but they wont repeat it over and over.

    “…if they pretend it’s not going on, they don’t have to worry about it”. No, they are acutely aware of it going on, and that is the problem. They do more than worry about it. It agonizes them and often causes them physical pain,. “The lost child believes that if you don’t talk about it, then you won’t feel anything” No, the lost child feels that they wont feed the drama and the pain. Lost children will talk about it but they wont dwell on it. If you’re not listening you might miss it, especially if your tied up into your own role within the drama. The lost child disengages.
    Many lost children are smart, and very aware. Some become truth seekers. Truth seekers look for answers and rational thought, Many become heretics. They wont play along. They little tolerance for BS. When they become adults they allow dramatic relationships or entanglements to simply fade away or die from starvation. They wont feed the narcissistic supply, Adult lost children often become estranged from their family, and have few friends. They do struggle with loneliness. Some have very long intimate relationships spanning decades, even a lifetime

Leave a Reply