What Is A Family Symptom Bearer?
In psychology, the term ‘family symptom bearer’ essentially refers to a scapegoat in the family who displays psychiatric problems brought on by the extreme dysfunction, especially with regard to communication, of the family as a whole.
In other words, the family symptom bearer is a kind of conduit through which the psychological problems of the whole family unit are expressed.
It is also suggested that the dysfunctional family of the family symptom bearer is unconsciously motivated to ensure his/her status as the mentally ill member of the family is maintained and that his/her mental illness does not improve…
But why should this be?
One theory is that identifying one family member as ‘the mentally ill one’ detracts attention from the psychological problems of the other family members, of which they may feel ashamed or wish to conceal for other reasons (perhaps wanting to put out the coded message : ‘we’re not the problem, s/he is!’).
Often, however, the family symptom bearer is the least psychologically disturbed of the family on many levels and may have the greatest insight into the disturbed family’s extreme dysfunction – making him/her a kind of ‘family truth revealer’, in effect.
The psychiatrist RD Laign suggested that certain family members may have an unconscious need to take on and maintain a caretaker role, due to their own inadequacies, which motivates them (again, on an unconscious level) to prevent the family symptom bearer from recovering. Furthermore, the focus on the family symptom bearer helps to avoid a focus on, and analysis of, the toxic interactions of the family as a whole.
It is also suggested that the family symptom bearer is, in effect, acting out and representing in a tangible manner the whole family’s psychological problems.
The family may frequently deny that the family symptom bearer’s psychiatric problems are a representation and expression of the whole family’s pathological interactions, scapegoat him/her, deem him/her a destructive influence, troublesome and difficult and even exclude him/her from the family, thus evading their own culpability.
The family symptom bearer’s response to the dysfunctional family is, however, unwilled, non-deliberate and unconsciously driven – often, too, s/he is the most sensitive and vulnerable of all the family members.
Frequently, the family symptom bearer has suffered abuse from his/her family and will have unprocessed trauma issues; s/he is also at increased risk of developing problems relating to excessive alcohol and/or drug consumption.
It is important to note that the family symptom bearer’s problems are the RESULT OF WIDER FAMILY PROBLEMS, NOT THE CAUSE OF THEM.
It is therefore vital that the family symptom bearer’s psychiatric difficulties are analyzed in the context of the dysfunctional family dynamics responsible for their genesis ideally by the means, in most cases (if the family is amenable), of intensive family therapy.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).