In dysfunctional families, relationships are altered and some role reversal may occur that significantly affects family members. The spouse of the addict often hides the addiction from the community to maintain peace with the addict. As a result, the problem spouse can maintain the addiction. Wegscheider's Theory suggests that this accommodating, co-dependent behavior extends to the children, who adopt abnormal roles as a defense mechanism to maintain a balance in the family. The behaviors are unnatural in a healthy environment, but may reduce chaos and protect the community's perception of the dysfunctional family. The theory defines four distinct roles, structured according to birth order.
Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse is a consultant, educator, author and family therapist. She is nationally recognized for a theory published in 1981 which identifies roles that children assume in response to dysfunction in the home. Counseling centers, business and industry commonly use her identifications of specific roles.
The firstborn becomes the Hero, a management role that includes assuming parental responsibilities and high-performer status at school. These children impose high standards on themselves, earn good grades and engage in extracurricular activities. At home they perform duties normally managed by adults, such as meal preparation and child care. The added stress and pressure can manifest in adulthood as a compulsive need to be responsible for nearly everything and everyone.
Unable or unwilling to live up to standards established by the firstborn, second children often move in the opposite direction. They crave attention, but can't compete with the "perfect" first child. They may engage in anti-social behaviors and perform poorly in school. They become the Scapegoat for the family, blamed for problems in the home and between family members. This child is at high risk for drug and alcohol abuse, unplanned pregnancy and criminal behavior.
The Lost Child
The child who tries to cope by withdrawing from the chaos is the Lost Child, who feels like an outsider in the family. These children are lonely, shy and isolate themselves at home and at school. Their voluntary withdrawal may leave them ignored by parents, siblings and teachers. This isolation causes poor communication skills and difficulty with forming relationships. Unconscious behaviors such as bed wetting, becoming accident-prone and recurring health issues such as headaches or stomachaches, asthma and allergies may reflect their need for attention. These children are at risk for addictions, including overeating. Their low self-esteem typically leads to continued isolation in adulthood.
Often the youngest child is hyperactive and engages in tomfoolery, trying to comfort the family by exhibiting comedic behavior and acting as the class clown in school. The Mascot may have a hard time staying focused, leading to learning problems and academic deficits. The Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies warns that inability to cope with inner fears, tension and intense anxiety eventually leads many to believe they are going crazy, and they may slip deeper into mental illness, become chemically dependent or commit suicide.
- Sharon Cruse: About Sharon
- Boston College: References and Research Glossary -- Role Theory Definitions
- Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies; When You Grow Up in a Dysfunctional Family; George A. Boyd; 1992
- "National Forum Journals"; Preservice Teacher Education About Drug or Alcohol-Impaired Dysfunctional Families; Robert W. Burke; 2011
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages, Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images