SOURCE: Excerpted from the book by
There are two types of family roles: formal and informal.
Formal family roles have recognizable labels of mother, father, husband, wife, student, infant, and so forth. Our expectations for these roles are shaped by our culture and are fairly consistent.
Informal family roles are much less obvious than formal roles. They revolve around emotional tasks that individuals carry out for the rest of the family. These may be performed consciously, but more often they are unconscious.
The general function of all informal family roles is to regulate tension – maintain stability – within the family. They may or may not be successful. Tension and conflict are natural paths of any relationship. Conflict in itself is not good or bad, right or wrong. In many ways it may be a sign of life, growth, and progress. Although tension is normal, how that tension is handled will determine whether it is positive or negative. Too much conflict in a family will result in chaos; too little will result in stagnation. Informal roles are an attempt to regulate the tension – to balance the mobile. Through family roles each of us learns how to respond to uncomfortable emotions such as anger, hurt, and sadness. In these roles we learn to deal with the feelings of others as well. Long before we reach adulthood, we have learned our roles so well that they seem instinctual.
Many families cast one member as the “family hero”, or “good child” – the member the others would describe as the most successful. The task of this member is usually to represent the family in a positive light to outsiders. The “good child” tends to be the ultra-responsible member who does things “correctly”. This is often one of the older siblings who take on parental responsibilities for the younger children. The terms caring, considerate, competent, and dependable are usually good descriptions for people in this role.
While almost every family will have a member with a number of these positive traits, the characteristics will be more pronounced in families with dysfunctions. The more profound the dysfunction, the more pronounced the role. We see this role emerging most prominently in families where one or both parents are negligent. Alcoholism, abuse and mental illness generally create emotional voids into which this member steps.
Family heroes grow up learning to fulfill the expectations placed on them, which for a variety of reasons have been high. Appearances are important to them. It is also very important for the good child to do the “right” thing in any situation. “To be right is good and to be wrong is bad, and it’s terrible to be bad”. This perspective on life can make an individual very controlled and very controlling. Heroes often find it difficult to relax and be spontaneous. Family heroes have a strong need to please authority figures and are generally pretty good at it.
The family hero is a child who is fairly independent of the family in his or her success – the athlete, scholar, or musician. Success is measured by how he or she projects himself or herself to outsiders. This child’s emotional bond to other family members is generally not as close as other “good children”. Typically, this child’s closest relationships are with people outside the family.
The Lieutenant is the child who takes on some or all of the parental responsibilities for the siblings. This role of “lieutenant” may develop out of obedience to the directives from parents or to fill a void left by irresponsible, negligent, preoccupied or otherwise unavailable parents. This child’s success is measured primarily by how he or she interacts within the family.
The Rescuer is the child who has taken over one particular aspect of parenting, that of nurturing – encouraging, supporting, and caring for siblings – becomes the “rescuer”. Usually this is a job taken on because no one else was doing it. The negative side of this role is that someone else must have a problem or be in pain for the rescuer to function.
Family heroes tend to carry these traits into adulthood. Outwardly they are productive, hardworking, motivated, and self-controlled. They often live with a vague sense of guilt over what they cannot accomplish. Their strong need to please everyone leads to patterns of over-commitment and unrealistic expectations for themselves, which often result in unfulfilled commitments, half-completed tasks, or exhaustion. These in turn lead to more guilt. Family heroes experience failure as rejection. Their response to rejection is to work harder. It is difficult for these over-responsible “children” to maintain a realistic assessment of their own capabilities. Most never had the chance to learn that they could fail and still be loved. Their sense of acceptance and belonging became dependent on good performance. Heroes also tend to be difficult to get close to emotionally. They don’t let their guards down very easily. Looking good means feeling good and vice versa. To become open and vulnerable to another person would mean admitting fears and shortcomings they hide even from themselves.
Frequently motivated by guilt and fear of self-perceived failure, they invest a great deal of energy in the approval of others, often compromising their own convictions, values and emotional needs to avoid the criticism they may receive by not fulfilling another person’s expectations. The need for approval from authorities in childhood frequently develops into a “need to be needed” mentality in adulthood. People who fall into this pattern generally become rescuers – over-responsible people who tend to be attracted to under-responsible individuals who need their help. These roles tend to complement each other, fulfilling a number of emotional needs in each partner.
The Scapegoat Role – almost every dysfunctional family has a member who plays the role of family scapegoat. The more severe the family dysfunction, the more obvious the scapegoat role will be. It is the scapegoat’s job to bear the bulk of the blame for the family problems. In this way the scapegoat reduces tension in the family. Usually the scapegoat began the role by trying to succeed to please Mom and Dad, but for one reason or another was not able to do that. Perhaps an older or more gifted sibling in the role of hero made competition impossible. Perhaps the parents had unreasonable expectations and demands that promoted constant failure. Whatever the initial cause, the scapegoat learned to believe that recognition could be achieved only through negative means. Gradually this child began to believe that rejection and failure were a part of who he or she was. The family member is emotionally sent away and feels as if he or she is on the outside looking in on family life. These feelings of rejection are rarely verbalized. A small child may express these feelings by hiding under the bed or in a far corner of the house. A teen may become involved with peers who share similar frustrations and offer the affirmation he craves. Alcohol or drug abuse is especially common if one or both parents have chosen the same route of escape from pressure or tension.
Though not conscious of the role, scapegoats have an uncanny way of directing blame toward themselves. At time they may even create situations in which they can be blamed in order to minimize tension in the rest of the family. Every member needs to achieve a feeling of belonging in the family. Even a negative, painful role will give this sense of belonging, a place to “fit”. It feels better to belong as a scapegoat than to feel totally alone.
Young Scapegoats. Robert and Mary had been married three years with a fourteen-month-old son, Bobby. During marriage counseling they discovered an interesting pattern, Bobby would sometimes act in direct disobedience to his parents. While discussing Bobby’s discipline, they both realized that his misbehavior occurred inevitably when there was tension between the two of them. They observed that as they began to disagree and their tone of voice rose, Bobby would do something “naughty”. At that point his parents would stop arguing, turn their attention toward Bobby, and deal with his misbehavior. At this point the tension was broken, and they seldom returned to their original conflict. Bobby was learning an important lesson that all scapegoats learn: “If this family is to survive, I must get into trouble.” Recognizing this became the motivation Robert and Mary needed to work toward resolving their differences. They also committed themselves to expressing affection and affirmation to each other, in Bobby’s presence, at the conclusion of their conflicts.
If one of the parents grew up as the family scapegoat, chances are good that he or she will continue that role as an adult. If neither parent was a scapegoat but both grew up in families where scapegoats existed, they will probably “scapegoat” one of the children – often the firstborn.
If one child threatens the self-esteem of the family, perhaps due to a handicap of some sort, there is a good possibility that he or she may become designated as the “problem”. If the child is retarded or overly intelligent, unattractive or especially attractive, or in any way “different” from the other family members, that unique quality may become a factor in that person’s becoming a family scapegoat. The “differentness” may be a family member’s temperament. If one member is too aggressive or too passive, too dependent or too autonomous, these factors may predispose one individual to be scapegoated. Sometimes even being named after or resembling some past scapegoat may designate the role. Though the roots of the role may vary a great deal, the results are remarkably similar.
Adult Scapegoats. Like family heroes, scapegoats generally carry the characteristics they develop in childhood into adulthood and they continue to play their family role in other relationships. The role of scapegoat served a purpose in the family of origin, even though it was negative – it served to reduce tension and give the child an identity within the family. Yet once that role is carried outside the family, it often wreaks havoc in new relationships, as well as life in general.
Adult scapegoats often find it difficult to feel at ease in any situation. The family scapegoat feels deeply guilty, lonely and helpless. In spite of a desire to do well, he or she feels almost compelled toward self-defeating, self-destructive behavior, as if being swept along by a current he or she doesn’t understand, propelled by the responses of others who are often oblivious to the process.
The Mascot Role – a family mascot tends to be the focus of everyone else’s attention. The nurturing the mascot receives is not necessarily earned or deserved.
- Being the youngest of the siblings, especially if much younger.
- Being the smallest or “cutest”.
- Being more frail, disabled, or needy in some way.
- Being the only boy in a family of girls, or vice versa.
Regardless of which attribute elicits attention, one characteristic is universal for all mascots: less maturity and independence is expected of the mascot than of the other siblings. The mascot can often “get away with murder.”
Adult Mascots. Mascots learn early in life that they are likable. They are generally talkative and sociable, often becoming “the life of the party” in groups. They learn to use their charismatic charm advantageously. While they may be effective in passively controlling situations, they generally do not assume leadership well and are usually uncomfortable if designated “the boss”.
As adults, mascots tend to be outgoing, spontaneous people-pleasers. They usually reflect self-confidence and handle social situations well. Family mascots are usually fun to be around. Mascots have a tendency to be emotionally dependent and self-centered with a strong need for the approval of others. They tend to relinquish responsibility easily. They seem to assume that whatever they leave undone will somehow get done or won’t matter. Often impulsive, their lifestyles can be chaotic and unstable. Mascots often seem to search for partners to nurture, guide and control them.
The Lost Child – a middle childe (not first or last born), “the lost child” deals with tension by withdrawing from or avoiding the family. This family member usually has his or her closest relationships outside the family. The most likely to be overlooked or neglected by the family, this person finds it hard to relax in relationships because fundamental trust has never been established within the family. In adulthood this person has difficulty drawing close to others and has few, if any, intimate relationships. The fear of rejection tends to control a great deal of this person’s behavior.
The Mediator – the “mediator” is the family member who always seems to be in the middle of family confrontations, trying to bring the opposing sides together. Since family members tend to rely on this person to help them resolve their own problems, his or her identity becomes very wrapped up in the needs of others. In adulthood this person typically is well liked and has many friends. But since most of these relationships are based on problems, he or she has few true peers and enjoys very little mutual sharing of needs. Actually, this popular person often feels very lonely.
The Family Clown – the “family clown” deals with tension through humor. When there is anger or conflict within the family, the family clown will crack a joke, make a snide comment, or act out some humorous antic. Sometimes the clown will relieve family tension at his or her own expense. When the laughter is a response to self-criticism or self-deprecation, the family is sacrificing this member to avoid its own tension. As an adult, the family clown is very difficult to get close to emotionally because he or she has learned that emotional intensity should be avoided. Though this person may draw many acquaintances to his or her lighthearted approach to life, intimate friendships are rare. The family clown may be fun to be around, but you often sense that you never really know this person.
Role Changes. Family roles are not unchangeable. In fact, changes in formal family roles are traditionally announced and celebrated. Weddings, graduations, baby showers, and even funerals are ways of announcing formal role changes. Informal family roles may also change as a family grows.
Exploring informal family roles may involve more than just examining the behavior of family members. Clues can be found in other characteristics displayed by family members. Family nicknames can point to family roles. An adult who still responds to a childish name may be continuing to play an old role. This is especially true if the name is used only by the family of origin. For example, a successful corporate vice-president whose parents and siblings continue to call him “Spanky” may have a family who wants to maintain a familiar role even though it is inconsistent with the rest of his life.
Sometimes a child will resemble an older family member who had a particular role. Such a resemblance may be a factor in assuming or assigning that informal role. A child who is regularly told that he looks exactly like Uncle Herman will spend time thinking about Uncle Herman. If Uncle Herman was an alcoholic who spent twenty-five years in prison, that life scenario will affect the child’s view of himself. If family members constantly remind the child of the resemblance, it may indicate their expectations for that child to take over the role.
A family member who has some sort of special characteristic, such as a disability or a special gift, or is known as the tallest, shortest, heaviest, strongest, angriest, or kindest person in the family may have a unique informal family role. When you identify someone in your family with a particular role, pay attention to how various family members relate to this person – other roles may begin to emerge.
Childish Thinking – It shouldn’t surprise you that we readily accept what we are told as children. What is amazing is that we are so slow to question these messages as we grow older. Many of the things we learn as children are obviously untrue. Many of them probably affect how we live, how we perceive ourselves, and how we respond to others. Unfortunately, many of those false assumptions have never changed.
Thus it is with family roles. We learned them in childhood, when they served a purpose. Too often we carry them with us into adulthood and continue to play them long after their usefulness has ended.