Roles in Dysfunctional Families
Carolyn Cruse, MSW, LCSW
When a family is experiencing dysfunction–particularly dysfunction related to one member’s alcohol or other drug abuse–other members of the family tend to organize themselves to seek balance and equilibrium, often at the expense of attending to the issue head-on. This is usually done unconsciously, with the hope that the issues will eventually change or resolve on their own if the family can just keep itself together long enough.
According to Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse (no relation), in her work with and writings about adult children of alcoholics, there are five common roles that develop under these circumstances–in addition to the role of the family member whose addiction (or other dysfunctional behavior, such as sexual or physical abuse) is the direct source of the family’s dynamic. These roles may shift over time, family members may take on aspects of multiple roles at different points in time, and some roles may be absent, but each part is played in service of trying to maintain balance.
While these five roles do often allow families to survive tremendous chaos and distress, they can greatly impact members’ emotional wellbeing long into adulthood. Each can also disrupt or impact the development of the member’s sense of self and their relationship to themself. Note: while many writers refer to family members whose dysfunction is the underlying cause of this dynamic as “The Addict,” I will be using another commonly used phrase, “The Dependent,” to emphasize that this dynamic expands beyond only alcoholism or addiction.
In the context of a dysfunctional family, The Caretaker’s job is to keep things going despite The Dependent’s behavior. It’s a very important role, one which attempts to alleviate anxiety and struggle by avoiding or absorbing the consequences of The Dependent’s actions. Caretakers manage the environment (cleaning up messes left after an altercation, trying to quiet children that might wake an intoxicated parent, coaching other family members on how best to navigate The Dependent’s behavior, etc.), compensate for family members who are unable to complete tasks (making sure siblings get fed or to school on time, etc.), and deal with the fallout of problematic behavior (apologizing for The Dependent, etc.). It’s a largely sacrificial role, as Caretakers’ own needs are often left unmet. Caretakers might develop keen problem-solving skills and are great in crisis situations, though they may also struggle with overcompensating for others and building a supportive relationship with themselves.
Heroes in dysfunctional families are members whose success or behaviors are identified as “proof” that the family is doing well. Parents often rely heavily on a Hero child to be easygoing or an emotional support for them, and Heroes often do well in school, sports, or other performance-based tasks outside the home. Heroes may develop a strong sense of loyalty and responsibility, though they may also struggle with maintaining a sense of self independent of their productivity or performance. They may also struggle more with perfectionism and self-criticism.
Scapegoat is a particularly challenging role to inhabit in a dysfunctional family. Scapegoats (usually children) provide an avenue through which family struggles might be channeled. They are often identified as the source of a family’s challenges, rather than The Dependent’s behavior. Scapegoats might be children who act out behaviorally (getting into trouble at school or engaging in risky behaviors), who may be defiant, or who break unspoken family rules by talking about the dysfunction openly. They may also be children with chronic medical conditions or neurodivergence, and Scapegoats and Heroes may be placed in competition with each other. In adulthood, Scapegoats may develop a strong sense of justice, though they may also have a hard time trusting others and may be more defensive in their relationships.
The Lost Child
The Lost Child is a bit of a misnomer, as the role is sometimes filled by an adult. Lost Children cope with family dysfunction by blending into their backgrounds as much as possible and by suppressing their needs and feelings. They may be similar to Heroes in that they are perceived as “easy,” as causing little trouble, and as needing little help. In adulthood, Lost Children might develop a strong awareness of their environment and of others’ feelings, though they might struggle to identify and express their own emotions and needs and they may feel uncomfortable with intimacy.
A Mascot’s role in the dysfunctional family is to distract from problematic behavior, usually through humor or social skill. Mascots may perform similar tasks to Caretakers, as they can be enlisted to soothe The Dependent’s emotions. While Mascots and Scapegoats might behave similarly at times, Mascots’ actions are treated as more endearing. In adulthood, Mascots may develop great social skills, though they might struggle with identifying their own emotions and with addressing conflict directly.
In dysfunctional families, harm doesn’t just come directly through The Dependent’s behaviors. Trauma can come from the impact that this person’s behavior has had on the family’s economic resources, social supports, and internal structure. Like any coping strategy, the roles in dysfunctional families are survival techniques that have been adapted and adjusted to help individuals and families get through overwhelming situations.
Any coping strategy can have both helpful and harmful impacts on an individual. The roles in dysfunctional families exist to try and meet important needs that family members have (like safety, security, attention, etc.) and to avoid anxiety. Exploring one’s role in their family system can help people to find other, less limiting ways of meeting these needs.