Common Roles in Dysfunctional Families

In dysfunctional families -such as those where addiction, abuse or neglect is prevalent- family members often develop personalities that provide them with a sense of purpose and enable them to cope with the on-going trauma. In one widely accepted theory, best known as dysfunctional family roles, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse defines specific identities that commonly emerge.

The enabler becomes the caretaker and martyr for the family. They try their best to hide the problem and protect all family members. Domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning and child-rearing are also assumed by this person. Usually a parent accepts this role but in some families it is a child who must step up to the plate.

The hero is often an over-achieving perfectionist. They are usually excellent students who involve themselves in sports or other extracurricular activities. On the outside these children may appear mature and well-adjusted but inside they are experiencing a compulsive drive to succeed and desperate desire for recognition. Despite great accomplishments these children are prone to feelings of failure and inadequacy.

The scapegoat acts out what can't be talked about. These kids are often defined as "problem children." They usually struggle in school and get in trouble with the law. Alcohol and drug experimentation, sexual promiscuity and aggressive outbursts are some of the behaviors common to scapegoats.

The lost child retreats from the family chaos and self-soothes with books, television or a rich fantasy life. They prefer to be alone and have difficulties forming meaningful relationships. They may appear independent, shy or aloof to the outside world. Lost children often find comfort in food, shopping, alcohol or other drugs as time goes by. However, their solitude may be conducive to more spiritual or creative, mental pursuits.

The mascot is often very social and entertaining. They may be hyper-active, cute or humorous. People often see the mascot as being fun-loving and happy but their laughter is actually a mask used to hide deeper issues and it prevents healing. These children have a hard time dealing with serious issues, identifying feelings and expressing a wide range of emotions.

Unlike those who take on dysfunctional family roles, healthy individuals are able to experience a wide range of feelings and behaviors appropriate to the situation. They may enjoy a good laugh with friends but don't shy away from quiet, alone time. They can pursue a new skill or task without feeling that their value as a person is wrapped up in doing a perfect job. Healthy people can reach out and offer help to others but don't feel it is their responsibility to fix or change the person.

Family roles aren't set in stone and people don't consciously choose to take on a role. It develops rather organically as part of their personality. Sometimes a family member has strong characteristics from various roles or their coping strategy changes over time. Usually children carry their roles into adulthood. Even people from so-called normal or healthy families can adopt one of these roles if faced with sudden trauma or stress.

I know that for myself growing up I fit into three of these roles very clearly at different stages. In early childhood I was the lost child -hidden in my room reading books or watching television. Since I spent so much time alone and enjoyed reading I became an excellent student and took on the role of the hero as classroom work progressed from art and music to book reports and final exams. Excelling in school gave me the attention and recognition I so desperately needed. By the time I graduated junior high I was the president of the student council and editor of the yearbook as well as a competitive gymnast and honor-roll student. This all changed when I entered high school. In hindsight I think it was the stress of seeing so many new faces and knowing that I could no longer out-shine everyone that made me crumble. My perfectionism told me that if I wasn't the best that it wasn't worth trying. In junior high there were only a few dozen classmates to compete with, but in high school there were hundreds of bright, accomplished students. My entire sense of self and identity collapsed.

Up to this time I had a few friends who came from fairly normal, stable families. The supper-on-the-table, devoted parents and nice homes were completely foreign to me. I was ashamed of my life. The normalcy of their lives emphasized the dysfunction of my own. At the same time as I was letting go of my over-achieving ways I also broke away from the friendships I had formed. In high school I started hanging out with people who came from similar backgrounds and spent a lot of time partying and doing drugs. I never got into any real trouble with the law and despite lower grades I still graduated but I certainly engaged in a lot of delinquent, risky behaviors and would probably be labeled a scapegoat by most standards.

Living the scapegoat lifestyle was familiar and comfortable. It was the only life I knew. I was no longer a fish-out-of-water trying to mingle with polite society. I was filled with feelings of rejection, abandonment and unresolved anger. These raw emotions were best shared during drunken dramas in basements with loud music and Pink Floyd posters. I connected with people who lived through things like me and we numbed the pain together. Of course, that isn't what we thought we were doing at the time. It was all about good music, good weed and parties. The crazier, the better. I have to admit I had some fun, wild nights but in the end I always woke up with that same empty feeling. The intimacy we shared over a case of beer seemed to disappear with the sobering sun of a new day.

Deep down I knew that although this lifestyle was much more comfortable it wasn't my authentic self. I longed for spiritual healing, meaningful relationships and honest living. I wanted to stop playing the same old tapes and find out who I really was. Just because it felt normal to be in an abusive relationship and to numb myself with chemicals didn't mean that it was my destiny. I started on a journey to overcome my self-destructiveness and develop my true self. It hasn't been easy traveling on unknown roads and I often find myself reverting to outdated maps but I spend less time at the old stomping grounds these days. Today, living this new sober life as a wife and mother is starting to feel normal.

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