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What Role Do You Play In Your Family System?

Here are the 5 most common roles in family systems. Which one are you?


We all have specific roles that we play in our family of origin— that is, the family we grew up in. And while we didn’t choose these roles— sometimes, we just fell into them, other times, they were thrust upon us— they can still persist today, dictating how we relate to our parents, our siblings, and ourselves.


1. The Hero

Sometimes known as “The Valedictorian,” The Hero is the golden child. They are responsible. They are dependable. They are disciplined and ambitious and perfectionists and successful. They are the “good” kid. The family often prides themselves on the high achievements of The Hero.

But, this Hero carries a lot of responsibility. They can be workaholics— they feel like they always have to be the leader, which means they don’t get to be vulnerable because they think they always have to be strong.

How this role develops:

Usually, The Hero adopts this role to cope with dysfunction in the family system, so they try to be helpful and competent to the point of acting like one of the parents. They also take on this role as a distraction— if they’re succeeding in school or sports or extra-curricular activities, the family dysfunction is overshadowed and hidden by their accomplishments. If they can get straight A’s in school, then their family looks perfect.


2. The Mascot/ The Clown

The Mascot, also known as “The Clown,” is the funny kid— they’re cute and charming and outgoing. They’re often the entertainer and the center of attention at family gatherings. But they’re not just funny. They use humor, specifically, to offset any tension or negativity in the family. They try to lighten the mood to make it seem like everything’s fine.

They also use this humor to mask familial problems instead of facing them directly, which leads to them repressing their own emotions. The Mascot also has a tendency to get anxious or depressed and can become codependent.

How this role develops:

A child becomes the mascot as a way to deal and cope with tension in families. By becoming the center of attention, they can distract the family from their problems, shifting the attention from dysfunction to themselves. Often, this need to alleviate tension with humor is actually a signal of powerlessness— the child feels powerless, so they try to control the situation with levity. They also fall into this role because humor becomes an easier way to, internally, deal with their own pain.


3. The Black Sheep/ The Scapegoat

The Black Sheep, also known as “The Scapegoat,” is usually cast, by the family, as the troublemaker, or the “problem child.” They might have ADHD, or behavioral problems. They don’t like to follow the rules, and so The Black Sheep’s disobedience allows the family to blame most of their problems on them (hence the other name— The Scapegoat).

The family might see The Black Sheep as angry, antagonistic, cynical, and rebellious. The Black Sheep can also be the person who the family views as needing the most improvement, who they want to “help,” but don’t know how because The Black Sheep also has a tendency towards self-destructive behavior.

How this role develops:

While The Hero tries to cover up familial strife and insist everything’s fine, and The Mascot tries to distract everyone from the tension, The Black Sheep becomes the child who externalizes the family’s problems. They speak up about it, or act out because of it— either way, they become The Black Sheep because they are actually trying to speak honestly about problems in the family, which the family doesn’t want to hear. Their behavior can also be a cry for help— they purposefully mess up to bring attention to the family’s dysfunction.

4. The Rescuer

Also known as the “caretaker” or “enabler” (the latter being used in families with an addict in the system), The Rescuer feels a personal responsibility to keep the family together. They put the needs of others before their own, which means that sometimes, they don’t even know their own needs. Instead, they try to solve everyone’s problems, whether or not the family wants their help.

However, this role gives them a sense of self and purpose— they see themselves as problem solver. And while The Rescuer might have the best intentions, this role is associated with codependency, because helping others actually addresses a need of their own— whether that’s a need to relieve anxiety by relieving family tension, or a need to feel needed and purposeful.

How this role develops:

Sometimes, this role can develop as a response to The Black Sheep— they want to help The Black Sheep, which they feel might help relieve familial tension and conflict. It can also develop from feelings of anxiety or fear that arise from family dysfunction; instead of sitting with these uncomfortable feelings, a child adapts and takes on this Rescuer role by trying to fix these problems to make themselves feel better.


5. The Lost Child

The Lost Child is invisible. They’re quiet, submissive, compliant, and spend a lot of time alone. They stay away from the family drama, so they seem like the “good” or “easy” kid.

They seem pliable and even-tempered, but they’re often very shy, hesitant, risk-averse, and lack important social skills. The Lost Child also has a tendency to withdraw from reality because they’ve always just shoved their own feelings away, which makes it difficult for them to form intimate relationships.

How this role develops:

A child develops this role when they try to escape family drama by withdrawing and removing themselves entirely from the equation. They don’t want to make the family dysfunction worse, so they learn to become invisible. Instead, they let themselves get lost in books and TV and movies and fantasy as a way to cope, and a way to disappear. A child also becomes The Lost Child when they stop making any demands of their parents and stop expressing their needs because they don’t want to add stress to the family or parents.

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR ROLE

These are just some of the many roles we play within our families. But. These are not static. In fact, they’re not really…real. They are roles within a system— they were placed on us or used as coping mechanisms to deal with dysfunction, but they are not “who” we are.

Once we understand these roles and become aware of our patterns, as well as the patterns of our family, these roles can become tools to better understand our lives and our relationships. And if these roles don’t serve us, then we have to figure out how to free ourselves from them. Which can be through things like therapy and setting boundaries.

But the best way to break free from this role is through differentiation, which means learning to define ourselves and our identities as separate from our family of origin. It’s recognizing that our sense of self is not confined to the one created by our family.

Often, our roles developed because the family dynamic and dysfunction completely subsumed our own individual needs— we viewed ourselves as part of an unchanging unit. Dr. Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist, explains that “people take on their parent or caretaker's point of view as their own at such an early stage in life,” so “it’s possible that a feeling they have felt for what seems like forever or an attitude they've long held isn't even their real feeling or attitude.”

By learning to differentiate ourselves, we not only change how we view ourselves and how we shape our own identity, but over time, we can change the family dynamic, too. It might be messy at first; our siblings and parents might be used to treating us as The Black Sheep or The Mascot, so when we stop engaging in patterns of behavior that reflect these roles, they might be confused, hurt, and resistant.

But eventually, if we stop trying to diffuse the tension with humor, or we stop trying to distract everyone with our accomplishments, we can have more authentic, meaningful, and truthful relationships with our families, our partners, ourselves.


by Marissa Pomerance

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