Dysfunctional Family Roles

What is a Dysfunctional Family?

Dysfunctional families are characterized by households in which one or both parents has a toxic or abusive parenting style, which fosters unhealthy family relationships. These behaviors may be a result of personality or mental health disorders, or a substance use disorder. Dysfunctional family roles can also create behavioral health issues for children as they mature into adulthood.

In some cases, it may just be that a parent is emotionally immature, and is consumed by other activities and interests. These, of which, often or always take precedence over their parental responsibilities and the well-being of their household.

Unfortunately, when individuals with these issues take on a parental role, this often results in the neglect of their child’s emotional and physical needs.

The Effects of Family Dysfunction On a Child

Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. It is perfectly normal to become overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a caregiver, or to have a bad mental day here and there.

It is when these behaviors become a constant pattern that they are a problem, which will likely result in the child’s own development of mental and behavioral issues in the future.

This is especially true in cases where children are punished for acknowledging problems that are occurring within the household. Facing rejection and retaliation for voicing their concerns can result in an inability to trust their own perceptions, and a low sense of self-worth.

This inability to honestly express their thoughts and emotions may extend past the household as well. It is fairly common for a dysfunctional parent to forbid their child from discussing their home life with other people, particularly counselors, teachers, or other authority figures.

Furthermore, these children may be scapegoated as being the problem themselves. Their parents may project them as a trouble-maker and prone to misbehave, both to the child and to others.

Unfortunately, this troubled upbringing often results in these children becoming equally troubled adults. They may not be able to form or maintain healthy relationships, either with themselves or others, and may end up creating their own dysfunctional families.

How Do I Know If I Have a Dysfunctional Family?

How Do I Know If I Have a Dysfunctional Family

Recognizing if you may be currently living or have grown up in a dysfunctional family can be hard to determine. This is especially true for individuals who have been taught that they can not trust their own perceptions of certain events and individuals.

Fortunately, there are several common indicators of a dysfunctional household environment a person can use to gauge their own situation, including:

 

  • Lack of Boundaries: The constant criticism and emotional manipulation that occurs within dysfunctional families can foster an inability to establish healthy boundaries. If asking a caretaker for privacy and permission to have basic freedoms often resulted in severe emotional or physical backlash, this strongly indicates dysfunctional parenting.

 

  • Heavy Conflict: This may present itself in two ways, with the first being a lack of interaction between family members, usually as a means of avoiding conflict. The second may manifest as constant arguing and confrontation between two or several members of the family, such as an adult and the other parent, or the parent(s) and child(ren).

 

  • Inequality: There is usually a heavy presence of favoritism within dysfunctional families, with one child being deemed superior to the others. These children may be shown more affection and positive attention, while their siblings are criticized and shunned. This role may also swap between children, creating a confusing and de-stabilizing environment.

 

  • Unhealthy Communication: This may manifest through conversations that focus solely or disproportionately on a specific member of the household (usually an unstable parent). This trait also often extends past immediate family members, with children commonly being forbidden to discuss household affairs with outside individuals.

 

  • Denial: This typically presents itself through an individual’s inability to recognize the toxicity of their living situation, as it has become normalized to them. Furthermore, any attempts to acknowledge the issues occurring within the household will be quickly and aggressively shut down or ignored.

 

Just as there are common characteristics of a dysfunctional family, so too are there common roles assigned to the members of these households. Learning how to recognize these roles can help individuals determine whether they or their family members fit into them.

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What are Common Dysfunctional Family Roles?

There are several roles that are typically found within a dysfunctional family model, each with its own traumas and concerns associated with them. These include:

  • The Golden Child
  • The Problem Child
  • The Lost Child
  • The Mediator
  • The Comedian
  • The Caretaker
  • The Doer
  • The Martyr

 

If you find yourself identifying with one or several of these roles, this may be a solid indicator to your own upbringing in a dysfunctional home.

The Golden Child

Also referred to as the “saint” or “hero” role, this position serves as that of the perfect or favorite child. These individuals are often viewed as being incapable of error, and have incredibly high expectations placed upon them.

These children serve as proof that their parents have done something right, and may be used to mask the other underlying problems occurring within the household.

The golden child will always represent the standard that their siblings are compared to, and straying from their image can have significant consequences. This, unfortunately, also places an incredible amount of pressure and often unhealthy expectations on these children.

They may often struggle with feeling like they are not allowed to make mistakes, and that, as the “good child,” the responsibility of making their family happy rests solely on their shoulders.

They may even end up taking on a parental role themselves, stepping in to fulfill the emotional or physical needs of their family when their parent(s) fail to do so; usually, unfortunately, at the expense of their own.

As an adult, the golden child may find themselves drawn to romantic partners who are emotionally unavailable. They may also prioritize work and success over personal connections, and struggle with intimacy in their relationships.

The Problem Child

With every golden child, there exists in opposition a problem child. Also known as the rebellious child, these individuals typically fill a scapegoat role, in which they are blamed for any and all of the problems that occur within their family.

If a child differs from the rest of their family members in any way, even if it is not necessarily a “negative” way, they will typically find themselves in this role.

These individuals may be more likely to act out or misbehave or may struggle with a physical or mental illness. Or, they may simply have different interests, beliefs, or ideals than their family members.

Regardless of what “bad” behavior or traits separate these individuals from the other members of their household, it is important to acknowledge that this role is not an accurate description of their personality.

Rather, it is simply a means for the dysfunctional caregiver(s) to assign external blame for and draw attention away from the problems occurring within their homes, subsequently allowing them to maintain their own toxic behaviors.

As adults, problem children are more likely to suffer from addiction, abusive relationships, and never feeling like they are “good enough.” They may be more likely to stay in toxic situations, as they have been conditioned to always feel responsible for their circumstances.

Furthermore, they may associate negative attention and unfair treatment as being healthy or normal, as this was the primary way in which they received attention as children.

The Lost Child

Existing in the shadows of the golden and problem children, the lost child is one who is often ignored or forgotten by the rest of the family. As most of their caregivers’ negative and positive attention is given to their siblings, the lost child is left with none.

This child is typically expected to be self-sufficient, and is taught not to rely on external sources of support, validation, or attention. As a result, the lost child feels unable to rely on or ask others for help or care in their adulthood, and may have poor social skills.

Furthermore, they may struggle with recognizing and honoring their own emotional and physical needs or wants. They are also more likely to develop codependent relationships, in which they sacrifice their own well-being for that of the other persons’.

The Mediator

Also referred to as the peacemaker, individuals who serve the role of the mediator usually find themselves in the middle of arguments. This may manifest through being forced to take sides within family disputes, including situations such as:

  • Having to choose between parents during an argument, most commonly seen in cases of divorcing dysfunctional caregivers.
  • Siding between a troublemaker sibling and a parent.
  • Taking sides between arguing siblings.

 

The role of the mediator shares several similarities with that of the lost child, as they both require the individual to ignore their own needs in order to cater to those of their family members.

A peacemaking child will often develop exceptional observational skills, in which they are able to identify and properly respond to other people’s moods; often, in fact, before these individuals are able to recognize their emotions themselves.

In order to be able to mediate the tension and conflict that often plagues dysfunctional households, a mediator is taught to place their own emotional well-being below those of their family members. A habit, of which, often extends past their home life.

Like the lost child, a mediator in their adulthood may find themselves stuck in codependent adult relationships and struggle to recognize their own emotional and physical needs.

Furthermore, they may feel incapable of establishing a solid identity for themselves, as their main role in childhood was to focus solely on the needs and feelings of others before their own.

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The Comedian

Often also referred to as the mascot, court jester, or family clown, these individuals are usually the ones responsible for easing tension within the household, usually through the use of humor.

Someone in the role of the comedian is usually seen as being funny or witty and, like the mediator, is constantly responsible for reading other people’s energies. Their purpose within the family relies solely on their ability to gauge and ease tension.

This may translate into adulthood through an inability to healthily cope with negative emotions or conflict. Rather than actually address an issue, these individuals will instead attempt to use humor to deflect negative emotions and situations.

The Caretaker

Individuals who find themselves consistently taking on the responsibilities of other family members fit the role of the caretaker. This is typically done as a means of preventing a family member from possibly making a mistake and having to suffer the consequences.

The term “helicopter parent” is a particularly prominent example of this role. These individuals will often control their child’s every action and decision, so as to prevent them from acting out or getting into risky situations.

While not necessarily negative in their intentions, these individuals often produce extremely sheltered children. Unfortunately, these children often become adults who are incapable of leading healthy independent lives.

The Doer

Typically the role given to the traditional mother figure, who takes care of all of the domestic responsibilities within their household, the doer is the person who takes charge and gets things done.

However, this role may also be adopted by a child in the event that their parental figure is unable or unwilling to. As the primary caretaker for their family, these children often sacrifice their own childhood in order to better serve this role.

In their adulthood, the doer will likely have a negative relationship with resting, often seeing downtime as unproductive or stressful. These individuals must be in constant motion all of the time, and are more prone to exhaustion and burnout.

Doers may also feel incapable of saying “no” to the requests and needs of others, and be extremely critical of people who they deem to be less hard-working or productive than them.

The Martyr

Commonly co-existing with the role of the doer, the martyr is represented by someone who consistently makes their dedication and self-sacrifice known to the rest of their family.

These individuals will often manipulate those they care for by making them feel guilty for the martyr’s role in providing for them, or responding to another person’s contributions with sarcasm or criticism.

Individuals who have experienced living with or being cared for by a martyr will likely struggle with the concept of external support being provided to them without strings attached.

They may also experience intense guilt when relaxing or engaging in activities that may not be seen as being productive, or do not serve an additional purpose outside of personal enjoyment.

Is it Possible to Swap or Fill Multiple Roles?

When it comes to dysfunctional family roles, these titles are not set-in-stone. In fact, many individuals who have experienced family dysfunction find that they have swapped or filled multiple roles at several points in their lives.

For example, the roles of the lost child, mediator, and comedian will often coexist with one another, presenting themselves in accordance to the shifting stability of an individual’s home environment.

Furthermore, as family dynamics shift, so too will the assignment of these roles. This may occur in the event of a divorce, an addition to the family, or an adult child leaving the household (for example, adult children going away for college).

The Relationship Between Dysfunctional Families & Addiction

Relationship Between Dysfunctional Families & Addiction

Substance abuse can play a role in a family’s dysfunction in multiple ways, a fact of which has established addiction as being a family disease.

Unfortunately, a parent’s dysfunctional behavior involving substance use can have a number of negative consequences on the physical and mental health of their children, partners, and any other members of their family.

For starters, being exposed to an alcoholic family or parental patterns of drug abuse from a young age can be a major contributor to a child’s own development of a substance use disorder. These children may also have a greater likelihood of enduring physical and/or emotional abuse.

In addition to this, the behavior of an addicted individual (whether a parent or child) can also serve as a significant factor in the development and extent of which dysfunctional family role another member of their household will fill.

The Role of the Dependent

An addicted or dependent individual, also sometimes referred to as an identified patient, will often serve as the focal point of their family’s problems. As their addiction develops and worsens, the dysfunctional family roles within their household will shift in accordance.

In the event that a child is struggling with abuse, their addiction will likely be used to explain the issues occurring within a negative home environment. When, in reality, the child’s habits were very likely a result of their dysfunctional family structure.

The role of the dependent will greatly mirror that of the scapegoat child in these cases, which can cause an addicted child to struggle with seeking treatment. This may result from feelings of low self-worth, or familial intervention, as their problem allows for the dysfunction to continue.

For example, someone who fills the role of the doer or martyr, particularly if a parent, may want a dependent individual to stay addicted. After all, their identity is centered around their self-sacrificing behaviors, which allow them to feel as though people are indebted to them.

Thus, this creates the opportunity to maintain a victim mentality by providing for the addicted individual, while also projecting them as the cause of their family’s dysfunction.

In other cases, if a parental figure fills the role of caretaker, this individual may make excuses for the addicted individual and refuse to acknowledge the true weight of the issue.

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Coping With a Dysfunctional Family Member

Whether dealing with a singular dysfunctional individual, or an entire family that fits into this category, there are ways of coping with this problem. For individuals who are still living with or are dependent on a dysfunctional person, this may include:

  • Seeking support from other family members.
  • Seeking out school counseling & support services.
  • Building a support system with friends, teachers, or neighbors.
  • Discussing these problems with other members of their household, such as siblings or a functional caregiver.

 

For those who no longer live with or nearby their dysfunctional family member(s), they may choose to cope with and heal this relationship through:

  • Limiting contact when and if necessary.
  • Completely cutting off contact.
  • Establishing healthy boundaries.
  • Seeking individual or family therapy & couple counseling services.

Recovering from Addiction and Dysfunctional Family Roles

If you identify with any of the dysfunctional family roles discussed above, this can be an incredibly difficult thing to process. And, if you or a loved one is struggling with addiction in addition to this, it may even feel impossible.

That’s why at Find Addiction Rehabs, we are dedicated to connecting you and your family with professional addiction treatment centers that can serve all of your personal care needs; including the broken bonds caused by a dysfunctional home environment.

Our hotline is available 24/7, and our representatives can provide you with recovery tools and resources anytime you need them. So call today, and take the first step to rebuild stronger and healthier relationships with your loved ones and, most importantly, yourself!

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