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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 behavior 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 fulfill 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 fulfill 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 fulfill different roles at different stages of development; for example, the ‘lost child’ may later become the ‘scapegoat.’


A family who experiences this sort of problem can find family therapy extremely helpful. Family therapists may offer various approaches to treatment, including cognitive-behavioral 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).  


  BATESON PROJECT: It has been theorized (originally in the 1950s as part of the Bateson Project, led by Gregory Bateson), that in many dysfunctional families an individual within the family is, largely unconsciously, assigned the role of the ‘identified patient’. Essentially, this process comes about as a result of the dysfunctional family projecting onto a family scapegoat.

What Is ‘Projection?

Projection is a psychological defense mechanism by which people avoid facing up to their own unwanted feelings, such as aggressive impulses, by displacing and seeing them in others)  An example of projection would be a very selfish person who constantly accuses others of being selfish and, indeed, sees selfishness in others everywhere she or he looks. In this way it is a type of blame-shifting – the family displaces their own psychological difficulties onto one specific family member, who, as a result, becomes the family scapegoat, diverting attention from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems. Often, the identified patient is unconsciously selected as she or he is the youngest, most vulnerable, weakest, and most sensitive member of the family. If we were made to be the identified patient in our family, our family may have:

  • constantly belittled, undermined, ridiculed, humiliated, and vindictively teased us.
  • made us feel inferior and of little or no worth.
  • made us feel like the family outsider, disconnected from its other members and unacceptable to them, excluded and ‘kept at a distance.
  • made us feel that we were an ‘intrinsically bad person.
  • shown little or no interest in us / ignored us / treated us dismissively
  • labeled us as a ‘problem child’ and/or ‘trouble maker, ‘ responsible for all the family’s ills’ and its external locus of control
  • over-emphasized our faults whilst, simultaneously, ignoring or minimizing our strengths, qualities, and accomplishments
  • blamed us not only for our own problems (that have arisen due to family dysfunction and are therefore symptoms of this dysfunction) but for the problems and mistakes of the entire family. In this way, parents seek to exempt themselves from all responsibility or accountability.
  • made us the receptacle of all the family’s unconscious, shared failings
  • made us the target of all the family’s malice In relation to being treated with malice by other family members, you may wish to read my article on sadistic mothers
  • made us feel stigmatized
  • stonewalled us if we tried to make other family members aware of the reality of the family’s dysfunction as a whole
  • frozen us out and ostracized us
  • made us function as ‘black sheep of the family and the scapegoat so as to exonerate and remove the onus of responsibility from themselves
  • because other family members have a vested interest in our remaining emotionally distressed and ‘ill’ they reinforce the signs of this state by only showing positive affect (which may take on the form of infantilizing care) when we are ‘broken’ and ‘sick’. Any attempt to diverge from this designated role is not tolerated and is likely to be deliberately undermined for fear that it will interfere with the family homeostasis
  • made to feel isolated and alone and suffer from ‘traumatized loneliness’ which, in turn, reinforces feelings of shame
  • made us feel marginalized, disenfranchised, and alienated
  • made us the recipient of mockery, scorn, contempt, disdain, and derision

As our family will have a vested interest in continuing to keep us in our role of the identified patient (namely to prevent them from having to face up to their own failings and contributions to the family’s dysfunction), they will go to great lengths in order to do so. In fact, if we, the identified patient start to recover,  they may be unconsciously driven to prevent this recovery, and thus, by such means, maintain the family’s status quo.

Externalization: It is likely that, in such families, the identified patient has been psychologically abused by some, or all, other members of the dysfunctional family and that any problematic behaviors she or he does display are, in fact, externalizing behaviors brought on by the family’s mistreatment of him/her. Indeed, one school of thought has been of the view that in families in which an identified patient has been unconsciously designated, it is not the identified patient who is ‘mad’; on the contrary – it is the other family members. In relation to this view, R.D. Laing put forward the notion that such families suffered from ‘a distorted and disturbing pattern of communications.’ And, indeed, the anti-psychiatry movement of which R.D. Laing (see above) was a leading part, suggested that, frequently, it was the family of the identified patient who was ‘mad’, and the identified patient the ‘most sane’, having the insight that is lacking in the other family members.


It follows from this that therapy, in cases where an identified patient seems to have been selected, should involve ALL family members.

Indeed, one such therapy, based on the views of Virginia Satir, is called FAMILY SYSTEMS THERAPY and it emphasizes the idea that the identified patient, although having been consciously or unconsciously selected by the family to distract attention from the dysfunction of the family as a whole, may also hold the key to gaining insight into the family’s so-called ‘secret agenda).  


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    

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