A dysfunctional family is a family unit that does not meet the emotional needs of all family members. Temporary situations may alter family dynamics for a brief period of time; however, chronic issues such as alcoholism and substance abuse, mental illness and controlling or abusive parents will permanently shape family members’ methods of coping with the central issue. In order to function within a dysfunctional family, family members may adopt certain characteristic roles. These roles function as a distraction from the central issue plaguing the family unit.
The scapegoat, usually the eldest child, is the family member who bears the burden of being the cause of all the family problems. Instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, parents place blame on the scapegoat child. The scapegoat function is to distract from the central issue. Focus is shifted from the parents’ issues that are creating conflict to the scapegoat’s bad behavior and actions as the problem source. Due to only receiving negative attention, the scapegoat tends to make bad choices in life that result in more negative attention. When the scapegoat child leaves home, another child will inherit the scapegoat role.
The hero distracts from the central issue by providing outsiders with the illusion that the family is functional and normal. The hero functions as a false reflection of the parents and the family unit. Parents believe they are good parents because they have raised an upstanding child. The hero supports the façade of a positive family image within the community. Due to chronic positive attention, the hero becomes very self-critical, seeks perfection and fears failure in life.
The comic functions as the family clown who lightens the household tone during tense times. The comic temporarily distracts from the central issue by infusing humor and laughter into the family coping with pain and resentment. Many professional comics learned their comedic skills by providing comic relief in their dysfunctional families. The comic tends to be immature and relies on humor and clever antics to avoid emotions.
The lost child, usually the youngest, is the perfect child who doesn’t create issues or act in a way to attract the parents’ attention. The parents view the lost child as perfect because the child doesn’t demand any positive or negative attention, essentially becoming invisible within the family. The hero and scapegoats roles shield the lost child from parental attention. The lost child tends to be artistic and uses art as an emotional outlet. The lost child is very clever at hiding emotions, often avoiding emotional relationships.
- Kansas State University: Dysfunctional Families: Recognizing and Overcoming Their Effects
- Roberts Wesleyan College: Family Systems and the Power of Roles, Secrets, Myths, and Lies; David Stoop, PhD
- Joy to You and Me: Roles in Dysfunctional Families: Robert Burney M.A.
- Erik Bohlin, M.A.: Handout: Family Roles of Dysfunctional Families