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Family Dynamics

6 Ways People Take on Roles in Dysfunctional Families

3. They can serve to protect the family's reputation or image.

Key points

  • In all social units, members take on roles, and families are no exception.
  • Dysfunctional roles often emerge organically within the family system as a response to underlying dysfunction.
  • Each member's role works to keep the homeostasis of the dysfunctional or abusive family unit going.
  • Without awareness and intervention, these roles can become deeply ingrained within the family system.
Source: Alisa Dyson / Pixabay
Source: Alisa Dyson / Pixabay

Dysfunctional family roles often emerge organically within the family system as a response to underlying dysfunction within the family unit. In dysfunctional families, communication may be strained, emotions may be suppressed, and conflicts may go unresolved. In such environments, family members naturally adapt to their surroundings in an effort to navigate the complexities of their relationships and experiences. These adaptations often take the form of dysfunctional roles, which serve to maintain a fragile equilibrium within the family system.

Because dysfunctional roles arise out of necessity rather than choice, they are often perpetuated unconsciously.

For example, a child growing up in a household with a narcissistic parent may instinctively adopt the role of the scapegoat as a means of coping with constant criticism and blame. Similarly, a parent struggling with addiction may inadvertently thrust their child into the role of the caretaker, relying on them for emotional support and stability.

Family Roles Can Change and Merge Over Time

Dysfunctional family roles serve several purposes within the family dynamic despite their negative consequences. Here are some of the key purposes they serve:

1. Maintaining Homeostasis: Dysfunctional family roles help maintain a sense of equilibrium or stability within the family system, even if that stability is unhealthy. Each role contributes to the overall functioning of the family by managing conflicts, minimizing disruptions, and preserving the status quo. By adhering to their assigned roles, family members create a predictable environment where everyone knows their place and what is expected of them, which can provide a false sense of security amidst underlying turmoil.

2. Coping Mechanisms: Dysfunctional family roles can function as coping mechanisms for individuals attempting to navigate challenging family dynamics. These roles offer a sense of control or agency in situations where individuals may otherwise feel powerless or overwhelmed. For example, the scapegoat may accept blame for family problems as a way to exert some control over their circumstances or to shield other family members from further harm. Similarly, the caretaker may derive a sense of purpose and identity from fulfilling the needs of others, compensating for the lack of emotional support or validation within the family.

3. Protecting the Family Image: Dysfunctional family roles can also serve to protect the family's reputation or image externally. For example, the hero may strive to maintain the appearance of a perfect family to outsiders, even if dysfunction exists behind closed doors. This can create a profound sense of isolation for individuals within the family, as they feel compelled to uphold a false narrative that denies the reality of their experiences.

4. Meeting Needs: While the roles all exist to reinforce and maintain the power of the abusive person or system, each role fulfills specific emotional needs for both the individual and the family as a whole. For example, the caretaker may derive a sense of purpose and identity from caring for others, while the hero may receive praise and validation for their achievements.

5. Avoiding Accountability: Dysfunctional family roles serve as a mechanism for deflecting blame or responsibility away from the individuals causing harm within the family. For instance, in a family where one parent is emotionally abusive, the scapegoat may become the target of criticism and blame for all family problems. By scapegoating one member, other family members can avoid confronting the uncomfortable truth about the abusive parent's behavior. This allows the abusive parent to evade accountability and continue their harmful actions without repercussions. In this way, dysfunctional family roles perpetuate a cycle of denial and enablement, preventing meaningful change and healing within the family unit.

6. Preserving Family Dynamics: Over time, dysfunctional family roles become ingrained in the family's identity and interactions, shaping how family members relate to one another and perceive themselves. These roles may persist even as individuals grow and change, perpetuating patterns of dysfunction across generations. Dysfunctional family roles become deeply ingrained in the family's identity and interactions over time, shaping how family members relate to one another and perceive themselves.

In adulthood, these roles often serve as a blueprint for how individuals navigate relationships and conflicts both within the family and in other social contexts. For example, a child who grows up in the role of the hero may continue to seek validation through achievement and perfectionism in their adult relationships. Similarly, the scapegoat may struggle with feelings of worthlessness and self-blame long after leaving the family environment. These roles may persist across generations as family members unwittingly replicate the same patterns of dysfunction learned in childhood.

Without intervention, dysfunctional family roles perpetuate a cycle of dysfunction and hinder individual and collective growth and healing within the family system.

While dysfunctional family roles may initially serve these purposes as a means of survival or adaptation, they ultimately contribute to unhealthy patterns of behavior, communication, and relationships within the family. Recognizing and addressing these roles is essential for breaking free from dysfunctional dynamics and fostering healthier family relationships.

If you are struggling to break free from an unhealthy or dysfunctional family role, therapy can help. Find a therapist who understands unhealthy family dynamics or family of origin trauma.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook image: PLotulitStocker/Shutterstock

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