How to spot dysfunctional family roles in a toxic system

dysfunctional family roles
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Growing up in a system of dysfunctional family roles can be confusing. You’ve never known anything different, so it may take a long time to realize you’re part of a toxic machine.

Roles in a dysfunctional family are like the grease that keeps the wheels turning. They prevent the truth from coming to light and help maintain the status quo.

Growth and change are anathema to these types of families. Love is conditional on you pretending things are different than they are.

If you have the courage to speak the truth about the problems in the family, you will often be scapegoated. That’s the first dysfunctional family role we’ll address:

1. Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the one singled out to take the blame for all the problems in the family. Rather than look at themselves, the family points a collective finger at the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is the one who tells the truth about obvious defects in the family. She is gaslit and made to feel crazy as a result.

She may be the mentally healthiest member of the family but by banding together, the clan convinces itself, and the scapegoat, that the opposite is true.

The scapegoat may take on the status of “problem child” or have addiction issues due to a lifetime of being isolated, maligned, and rejected.

Fear of change and exposure motivates the family to sacrifice the scapegoat this way. Rather than face the truth and the possibility of deconstructing the family system, they demonize the truth teller.

2. The Hero

The Hero takes on the pressure of proving to the world that the family is normal and healthy. He makes his parents feel like they did a good job by appearing perfect and high-achieving on the outside.

The Hero may have to act as a surrogate spouse to his parent. He is not allowed to show weakness and becomes overly responsible and perfectionistic.

As an adult, he may succumb to workaholism due to the immense pressure to succeed. This work focus prevents him from establishing intimacy in relationships.

The dysfunctional family role of Hero supplies evidence of the family’s health and well-being. This way they can avoid addressing their problems in a “nothing to see here” fashion.

3. The Lost Child

dysfunctional family roles

The lost child avoids conflict in the family by staying small and quiet, almost invisible. They keep to themselves and may be considered loners.

They don’t express needs or interact much with the family. As a result, they may have trouble developing social skills and forming intimate relationships.

They are also used as a pawn in the family system to prove that everything is fine. Since they don’t complain or cause trouble they must be doing “okay”.

In reality, they experience severe neglect and don’t feel they matter to the parents or family at large.

4. The Mascot

The mascot is one of the dysfunctional family roles that distracts from serious issues using humor. They are the “funny one” and use their wit to defuse tension.

They may even address the family’s issues in a humorous way that prevents any real change or acknowledgment. The mascot feels it is their responsibility to prevent conflict by being funny.

This pressure to entertain and make others feel better at the expense of their own needs can carry on into adulthood. They feel it is their job to save others and become classic people pleasers.

5. The Enabler

The Enabler is the martyr of the family who tries to keep everyone happy by avoiding the truth. By denying anything is wrong, this person ensures healing never takes place.

It may be the spouse or child of someone mired in addiction who “enables” the addict to continue with their unhealthy behavior.

They are terrified of the crisis that would ensue if the family faced the truth about its problems. However, a crisis is exactly what such a family needs in order to grow.

Final thoughts on dysfunctional family roles

This is not an exhaustive or official list of dysfunctional family roles. These are a few I’ve witnessed and recognized in my own and others’ families.

Understanding these roles may help you make sense of your own family system. I referred to two online resources in compiling this list which I’ve credited below.


Love to Know: 6 Dysfunctional Family Roles and Their Characteristics

Out of the Storm: Dysfunctional Family Roles

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