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Dysfunctional Family Roles: Identifying and Addressing Them

The modern family takes many forms — from single-parent households to blended ones — but they have one thing in common: the potential to develop dysfunctional family roles. These roles can be an issue because when there’s dysfunction in a family, preteens, teens, and young adults can experience problems including sibling fighting, family anxiety, and substance use.   

“Dysfunctional family dynamics are often the reason people come to me and say, ‘I’m struggling with this situation in my family, but no matter what I do, it doesn’t change,’” said Jenilyn Bartolo, a licensed professional counselor at Embark Behavioral Health in Greenwood Village, Colorado.  

In a wide-ranging conversation, Bartolo discussed dysfunctional family roles, including how they affect young people, and how to heal from them.

What Are the Roles in a Family?

In a family system that involves children, the roles of family members typically include one or more caregivers — these could be a biological parent, an adoptive parent, or a grandparent or other extended family member — and the children, whether they’re related biologically, step-siblings, or adopted.  

While ideally family members are close and well connected, relating to each other in a physically and emotionally healthy way, that’s not always the case.  

Common Roles of Family Members in Dysfunctional Families

Bartolo outlined eight roles of family members that are common in dysfunctional families and explained what defines them.  

“From a roles perspective, if you have a parentified child, which is when the parent-child roles are reversed, or if there are mental health concerns or addiction present, then there’s definitely dysfunction,” she said. “But assessing a family who is struggling with dysfunction is about more than just which dysfunctional family roles are present or how many of these roles are identified in your family. If there’s avoidance of conflict, avoidance of past shame, or avoidance of talking about problems, then you have a dysfunctional pattern that needs to be addressed.” 

1. The golden child, hero, or saint

The golden child, hero, or saint is the favored child who receives special treatment, praise, and high expectations or an only child who can do no wrong. The focus on the golden child often masks a family’s underlying issues.  

“If there are siblings, parents will say to the other kids, ‘Why can’t you behave more like this child?’,” Bartolo said, “but the golden child also has a lot of expectations put on them and can be a very lonely kid.” 

She said it’s important to note that if a golden child is an only child raised in a more controlling and authoritarian style, they could develop anxiety, depression, people-pleasing behaviors, perfectionism, unhealthy coping skills, and low self-esteem. 

2. The scapegoat or black sheep

The scapegoat or black sheep is the family member who’s blamed for the home’s problems and difficulties. In some cases, this role serves as a distraction from the family’s real problems. 

3. The parentified child

In a healthy family dynamic, parents provide emotional security and meet their children’s needs. Sometimes, those roles get reversed. In these cases, parentified children take on the caregiving function, often at too young of an age, to compensate for the parents’ inadequacies and maintain family stability.  

4. The mascot or clown

The mascot or clown, who can be a parent or child, uses humor and playfulness to diffuse tension. Similar to what happens with the golden child, hero, or saint, these actions may help avoid or cover up the family’s deeper issues. 

5. The addict

The addict is someone who’s struggling with substance use or addictive behavior. These issues can exacerbate family dysfunction.  

6. The lost child, problem child, or rebel

The lost child withdraws from family conflict, while the problem child or rebel acts out. These individuals use these behaviors to cope with dysfunctional family dynamics. 

7. The peacemaker or mediator

The peacemaker or mediator tries to resolve conflicts and maintain harmony within the family, often at their own expense. They may sacrifice their own emotional needs to provide what they perceive their siblings or parents need. Parents often create these roles in their children when one of them makes negative or harsh statements about the other parent.  

8. The narcissist

The narcissist, usually the parent, exhibits self-centered behavior. They prioritize their own needs and desires above all else. 

How Dysfunctional Family Roles Affect Young People

If left unaddressed, Bartolo said dysfunctional family roles affect youths and young adults to different degrees. The severity of the impact varies, but negative outcomes can include:  

  • Addiction: Unhealthy family dynamics increase the likelihood of substance use or addiction. For example, a Development and Psychopathology journal article shared that when families are less cohesive — with less emotional and physical closeness among family members — and more conflicted during adolescence, it can lead to a higher rate of alcohol use in adolescence and adulthood.  
  • Mental health: The family unit is one of the primary sources of emotional security for a child, and difficult family relationships increase stress and can raise the risk of developing anxiety, depression, and other teen mental health concerns. These issues can be problems for young adults as well. 
  • Relationships and interactions: Bartolo said the coping mechanisms and conflict resolution strategies learned within a family can influence how a youth interacts with others going forward, even into adulthood. Poorly modeled relationships in the family can therefore negatively impact future relationships.  
  • Sibling fighting: When there are insufficient boundaries and a lack of healthy conflict resolution, children are more likely to argue with each other. Based on adolescent reports from a study published in the journal Family Process, adolescents in families characterized by conflict or disagreement were more likely to have higher average levels of an angry mood.  

How To Heal From Dysfunctional Family Roles

In addition to the potential negative outcomes discussed earlier, dysfunctional family roles could pass down from generation to generation. For example, according to research in the Journal of Marriage and Family, parentification in childhood could negatively affect early parenting practices and child behavior in the next generation. Addressing dysfunction is therefore essential for current family members and those yet to come. 

No matter what your relationship dynamics look like today, Bartolo said it’s never too late to bring balance and healing to the roles of family members in your home. Following are a few tips that can help.  

1. Identify dysfunctional family roles

Being self-aware of the different roles of family members, including the one you play, is the first step in healing your family’s relationships.  

“Start by looking at the way you grew up and your own role in your family of origin,” Bartolo said. “Often, the role we played as children carries over into the family system we’re in today.”  

2. Practice self-care

“Take a look at what your co-regulation needs are,” Bartolo said, referring to the reciprocal exchange of emotional, neurological, and physical safety you experience with your child, which starts with you calming yourself through self-regulation. “In dysfunctional family roles, we’re often letting emotions lead. When we don’t regulate ourselves, our brain isn’t fully online. Perhaps you need to take 10 minutes to yourself, or go for a walk, before addressing a conflict in your family. It basically comes down to self-care and knowing what you need to do before you try to parent or navigate a familial situation.”  

3. Create healthy boundaries

In dysfunctional families, boundaries for children are often too strict, loose, or unpredictable.  

“If parents create healthy boundaries with their preteens and teens and have healthy expectations, they’re giving their child the security they need,” Bartolo said. “But if a parent’s expectations are too high or unpredictable, there’s no security in that parent-child relationship, and that can create or reinforce unhealthy family roles.”  

4. Seek professional help

Contact a therapist if your family is stuck in a pattern you can’t seem to get out of, or if there are mental health or substance use concerns. While any licensed clinician can assist, it’s always appropriate to ask about their experience with family therapy. 

“You’re ready for therapy if you’re ready to hold yourself, and your family, accountable for the part each of you play in the family,” Bartolo said. “Therapy can feel uncomfortable, but that’s when you know you’re creating lasting change, and you’re growing. Any licensed marriage and family therapist can help you, and I recommend looking for someone familiar with positive parenting.” 

Family Roles: A Better Path Forward

Healthy roles of family members influence everything from your preteen, teen, or young adult’s mental health to how they approach conflict resolution and relationships when they’re adults — and even parents themselves. Practices such as self-care and setting boundaries, as well as family involvement in therapy, can help you and your loved ones heal from dysfunctional family roles.  

“It sounds complicated, but healing is really simple: We combat a lot of these dysfunctional family roles just by giving our children the experience of true acceptance and empathy,” Bartolo said. “Facing the roles we each play can be difficult, and it can feel like it gets worse before it gets better. But in the end, you’ll give your preteen, teen, or young adult the tools to experience joy and find meaning in life, and that’s the gift we all want to leave our kids when we’re gone.” 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.