8 Dysfunctional Roles Within The Dysfunctional Family

dysfunctional-family-imageWithin dysfunctional families, according to various psychologists (e.g. Wegscheider-Cruse and Kellogg), each family member develops a dysfunctional role. The number of roles, and how they are defined, varies somewhat but eight roles, representative of those so far proposed, are as follows:


Let’s look at each of these in turn :

THE ENABLER: The enabler maintains the family status quo, irrespective of the costs, and tries to keep family conflict to a minimum. The enabler may be motivated by fears of abandonment and/or a conviction that other members of the family cannot cope independently. S/he also tends to be in denial of the family’s problems and makes excuses for family members’ destructive behaviour rather than confronting them. The enabler may be a child in the family but, more usually, is a spouse.

THE DO-ER: The do-er takes care of the family’s practical needs and is driven by unhealthy guilt and a heavy burden of responsibility. However, s/he has little energy or time to meet other requirements of family members such as their emotional needs. S/he gains self-esteem from being the one to fulfil the family’s practical needs but also feels exploited and lonely. Other family members spur him/her on to maintain his / her role via either direct or indirect means.

THE HERO: The ‘hero’ is the person who is good for the family’s public image and detracts from the dysfunction that lies at the heart of the family. S/he may have been very successful at school and may also have gone on to have an impressive career. However, his / her own mental well-being is poor as s/he carries around the knowledge that the image of the family s/he represents to wider society is deeply misleading. S/he is a driven, Type A personality, a workaholic and a perfectionist which can put him/her, eventually, at risk of developing stress-related illnesses due to the inner anxiety s/he carries around. Normally, the ‘hero’ is the oldest child.

THE MASCOT: The mascot, desperate for approval, is usually the youngest member of the family who is a kind of ‘court jester’ who provides ‘comic relief’ for the family with jokiness and light-heartedness; however, beneath this thin veneer s/he conceals his / her own emotional pain and vulnerability; despite this superficial joviality when interacting with other family members, the family’s fundamental dysfunction remains unresolved.

THE LOST CHILD / LONER: The lost child/loner isolates him/herself from the family (e.g. the child who spends all his / her time in his / her bedroom) and is motivated to do so by his / her family’s need to be apart and separate from him/her. Therefore, the child’s isolation is not, at the fundamental level, his / her own personal choice and, as such, s/he feels deeply lonely. S/he is withdrawn, lacks social confidence and tends to experience relationship difficulties in later life or lives a solitary existence

THE SCAPEGOAT: The ‘scapegoat’ or ‘black sheep (usually the second oldest child) of the family’ is the one who later ‘acts out’ (usually the male acts out through violence and the female by promiscuous sex) the family’s dysfunction. S/he is the one the other family members (wrongly) blame for their dysfunction.

THE SAINT: The ‘saint’ is (tacitly) expected to personify the family’s religious/spiritual dimension and to refrain from sexual activity although this is not explicitly stated and the other family members’ encouragement that s/he will fulfil this role operates on an unconscious level.

DAD’S ‘LITTLE PRINCESS’ / MOM’S LITTLE MAN : When a parent puts a child into this role it is often referred to by psychologists as emotional incest or covert incest and constitutes a serious form of emotional abuse.  It involves the adult exploiting the child for his / her own emotional needs which, in turn, robs the young person of their childhood. This often leads to severe interpersonal difficulties when the child becomes an adult and makes him/her extremely vulnerable to revictimization as s/he is likely to have developed a lack of understanding about personal boundaries. A closely related concept to emotional/covert incest is that of ‘parentification’ of the child.

Not all dysfunctional families, of course, will incorporate individuals who fit each of these roles and, within any particular family, the same individual may fulfil different roles at different stages of development; for example, the ‘lost child’ may later become the ‘scapegoat.’


A family who experiences this sort of problems can find family therapy extremely helpful. Family therapists may offer various approaches to treatment, including cognitive behavioural therapy and psychodynamic therapy. Techniques family therapists use include ‘reframing’, setting families ‘homework’ (e.g. changing their responses to other family members), role-play and family situation re-enactments (and subsequent analysis).


Kellogg, Terry/ Broken Toys Broken Dreams: Understanding and Healing Codependency, Compulsive Behaviors and Family/ISBN 1560730013

Satir, V. Conjoint Family Therapy. Science and Behavior Books (January 01,1983) (1602) ASIN: B015X4TW1U


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Childhoodtraumarecovery.com is reader-supported. When you buy through links on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

three × five =