Despite regularly being bombarded by rosy media images, family dysfunction is the norm, not the exception.
As a result, researchers have loads of data to analyze.
Over the decades, they’ve developed a framework into which many dysfunctional families fit, and that’s what we’re exploring today.
We’ll look at what it means to fulfill the family hero role, the characteristics of the family scapegoat, and other archetypical dynamics.
What Is a Dysfunctional Family?
Perhaps Leo Tolstoy best summarized dysfunctional family dynamics when he theorized: All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The long-quoted literary gem is jam-packed with truth.
Because every drama, trauma, and crisis has its own contours, motivations, and side effects.
So while the diversity of dysfunction prevents us from mapping out strict parameters for what constitutes unhealthy family dynamics, common patterns arise.
- Pathological: Family dynamics that cause members to self-medicate or develop mental health disorders are, by definition, dysfunctional. Granted, not every personality and behavioral difference results from family turmoil. Still, people forced to navigate toxic waters as a child have a better than average chance of developing a condition.
- Unaddressed: Another common aspect of dysfunctional families is an unwillingness to acknowledge the problem. Some of the affected children may know it, but the parents refuse to admit it.
- Abusive: Sadly, many dysfunctional families are plagued with an abusive element, either physical or emotional.
- Shallow: Though disparate in their troubles, dysfunctional families are often captained by shallow parents who are either narcissistic or have an unhealthy obsession with keeping up appearances.
What Are Family Roles?
In 1956, the godfather of social psychology, Erving Goffman, published his seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he used a dramaturgical analysis to describe the motivations behind interpersonal relations.
Goffman used theater imagery to explain his theory; it’s now standard to refer to interpersonal archetypes as “roles.”
And it’s a fitting moniker because we all slide into various slots throughout our lives. In truth, most folks switch between several on an average day.
Nowadays, social media bios delineate the roles we identify with: mother, father, CEO, wife, husband, son, daughter, friend, activist, investor, intellect…the list goes on.
But the roles people play in their families rank among the most impactful.
Folks lucky enough to have healthy, supportive, problem-free families gain a lot of strength and confidence from their kinship dynamics. For everyone else, navigating the archetypes of dysfunction is both challenging and illuminating.
7 Common Dysfunctional Family Roles
What are the roles in dysfunctional families?
Psychologists use several different frameworks. Some cite 12 distinct types; others feature only six.
Below, we’re looking at the seven most common.
1. The Golden Child
Also known as the hero or super kid, the golden child is the obedient, high achiever who the parents revere and brag about. In the eyes of a problematic parent, the golden child is proof that they’re a wonderful person.
After all, such a successful, impressive person could only result from a healthy, supportive environment.
In truth, family heroes usually choose the role as an escape path. Their success shields them from abuse and criticism and eventually allows them to build a life away from the chaos.
Despite their flawless exteriors, golden children are often racked with anxiety and depression. Many suffer severe nervous breakdowns at least once, and many develop eating disorders because of their control quotient.
2. The Problem Child / Truth Teller / Rebel
Problem children and truth tellers “act out” in response to dysfunction. They’re defiant, and some crave attention. In many situations, they’re saviors for weaker family members and will attract ire to protect more vulnerable parties.
People in this role refuse to follow the dysfunctional parent’s script and are often punished for their rebellion. Problem children and truth tellers also see through crap, which narcissists find threatening.
Individuals who fill these roles typically leave home as soon as possible, but many carry loads of guilt for leaving “weaker” siblings behind.
Outside the family, problem children may develop a savior complex that can impede healthy relationship development.
They may also have difficulty seeing their partners as equals. Rebels who never seek therapy to address their childhood trauma may find themselves walking dark paths in adulthood.
3. The Scapegoat
The scapegoat family role ranks among the most frustrating for the designated person. They’re similar to problem children, the main difference being that scapegoats are routinely and unfairly blamed for the family’s problems.
Problem children and rebels may act out in ways that cause more issues. Scapegoats don’t. In fact, they’re often the most emotionally stable person in the family.
Scapegoats are often different from everyone else in various ways. Sometimes it could be as superficial as being a blonde in a family of brunets to something as significant as having a completely different worldview than the rest of the gang.
Most scapegoats are intelligent but shut themselves off emotionally. As such, many become socially awkward. However, a subset of the category will go out of their way to be accepted and become shells of themselves.
4. The Caretaker / Enabler / Martyr
The hero’s counterparts, the caretaker and enabler, are constantly on a quest to improve the family’s well-being, often to the detriment of their own physical and emotional health.
It’s common for them to assume a parental role, and most caretakers are hypervigilant.
Caretakers have difficulty relaxing, and they’re notorious people pleasers. You’ll never catch them chilling on the couch. Instead, they’ll be folding laundry, reading, knitting, and cooking — you name it.
Why? Because enablers, caretakers, and martyrs don’t know what to do if they’re not tending to others.
But don’t confuse a caretaker’s nurturing for humility. Most folks who fall into this category crave accolades.
They crave being praised for their selflessness. When they don’t get the acknowledgment they want at home, they often use social media to fish for compliments.
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5. The Lost Child
Inconspicuous and introverted, lost children’s needs are routinely ignored. They’re the “invisible” child. Sometimes, it’s by choice; other times, it’s a punishment.
Interestingly, lost children often fall in the middle of the pack age-wise, and they’re neglected physically and emotionally.
Notably, though, they usually don’t demand much attention either. Their goal is to stay under the radar until they can escape.
Lost children are filled with incredible amounts of shame about their families, so they don’t want to be seen. Furthermore, they’ve learned that showing weakness results in negative attention and sometimes abuse.
They become very untrusting and frequently have challenges forming and maintaining relationships.
Even though lost children are often creative and intelligent, they frequently suffer from low self-esteem.
6. The Mascot / Clown
The family mascot or clown is the comic of the clan — the family member who uses comedy to cope. In most cases, everyone loves the mascot because they defuse situations and stay on everyone’s good side.
They always appear jovial-to-neutral, but underneath, they’re often aching.
Out of all the family role archetypes, the clown’s internal experience is often the most downtrodden.
Their commitment to evasion and lightheartedness may sound helpful, but it usually leads to brushing issues under the carpet, which only intensifies problems and the toxic environment.
Also, individuals who assume the role often need help addressing serious topics as adults.
7. The Mastermind
Arguably the most sinister of the dysfunctional family roles, the mastermind leverages others’ faults to get what they want. Interestingly, they’re the objects of parental appeasement, as they’re often fearful of what will happen if they don’t.
Masterminds are brilliant and subtly use their intelligence to manipulate everyone around them. They constantly take mental notes of people’s triggers and insecurities, then play them like a fiddle to orchestrate the situation to their benefit.
Masterminds frequently become narcissists later in life; some even fall into the sociopath category since they power down their emotions to survive.
What Is the Family Roles Psychology?
People adopt roles in dysfunctional families to cope with toxic environments. Think of the roles as costumes we don to shield ourselves from emotional stress. In a way, they’re defense mechanisms.
We uphold dysfunctional family roles in an attempt to:
- Maintain control in an unpredictable and chaotic environment
- Protect ourselves from emotional and physical harm
- Give us space to focus on things that provide a situational escape
- Survive in the toxic atmosphere until we can leave
Frustratingly, these roles can become immovably ingrained over time and, therefore, difficult to change, even when an individual leaves the dysfunctional setting.
Family Roles Chart
Below is a chart outlining dysfunctional family roles. It’s meant as a quick reference guide, so we included more archetypes to make it more comprehensive.
|Dysfunctional Role||How They Feel||How They Act|
|Golden Child||Focused, anxious, circumspect||They behave impeccably and never rock the boat; overachievers; perfectionists|
|Caretaker / Enabler||Overlooked, impatient, unworthy||They go out of their way to take care of everyone but themself|
|Mascot||Depressed, worried, fearful of change||They behave like the class clown, always joking and teasing to diffuse the situation|
|Lost Child||Unworthy, incapable, invisible, unimportant||They stay to themselves; their goal is to steer clear of confrontation|
|Scapegoat||Frustrated, depressed, emotionally vacant||It varies; some become people pleasers; others rebel|
|Problem Child / Rebel / Truth Teller||Confident, annoyed, depressed||They confront the dysfunction head-on and often act out in response|
|Addict||Insecure, anxious, depressed, hopeless||They bury their sorrows in substance abuse and other damaging vices|
|Narcissist||Superior but insecure, slighted, hyper-competitive, anxious||They’re usually the vortex of the dysfunction|
|Waif||Scared, insecure, victimized, desperately lonely||Need constant care and affirmation|
|Peacemaker||Worried, even-keeled, resigned||They try to find solutions that keep everyone calm|
|Mastermind||Confident, unfeeling, self-motivated, wanting||They manipulate situations to get what they want and come out on top|
Navigating dysfunctional family dynamics is challenging. For some, it’s an emotional nightmare.
But it needn’t define you for the rest of your life. In fact, growing up in a dysfunctional family can give you invaluable insight into life, your place in it, and human behavior.
Many people who experience difficult upbringings can channel what they learn into something positive and productive.
So if you’re dealing with a challenging family situation, focus on gaining marketable skills and learning to love yourself. Enthusiastically embracing those two tasks can break you free from the toxic cycle and live your best life.