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:
1. THE CARETAKER
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.
2. THE HERO
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.
3. THE SCAPEGOAT
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.
4. THE CLOWN
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.
5. THE LOST CHILD
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.
6. THE MANIPULATOR
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.
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.