NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Children's Roles in Dysfunctional Families

Children of dysfunctional families are often placed in rigid roles by parents to meet the parents' narcissistic needs.  These roles don't take into account the children's emotional needs and, as result, these dynamics are traumatic for the children.  As adult children, these same people often continue to function in these roles with their families and in other relationships.  In my next article, I'll discuss how psychotherapy helps adult children of dysfunctional families to overcome these unhealthy patterns (see my article: Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families).

The Roles of Children in Dysfunctional Families 

Roles of Children in Dysfunctional Families
The following are some of the most typical roles of children in dysfunctional families:
  • Scapegoat Child
  • Hero/Responsible Child
  • Invisible/Lost Child
  • Golden Child
  • Caretaker/Placater Child
  • Mascot/Clown Child
  • Scapegoat Child:  The role of the scapegoat child is to carry the family shame.  This child is seen as being inferior.  Even though the family often has many other serious problems, he is usually the "designated patient" when the family comes to family therapy.  One or both parents will often tell the family therapist that, except for problems with this child, the family has no other problems which, of course, usually isn't true.  Although this child might spend his whole life trying to get his parents' approval, he can almost never live up to the parents' expectations because his parents won't allow it.  They need him to continue to function in his designated role of being the scapegoat.  This often results in the scapegoat child rebelling because of the emotional burden placed on him to carry the family's problems.  This can lead to real problems outside the home as this child tries to get his parents' attention--whether it's positive or negative attention (see my article:  The Role of the Family Scapegoat in a Dysfunctional Family).
  • The Hero/Responsible Child:  Typically, the role of the hero/responsible child is assigned to the oldest child in the family.  This child takes on the role of the parent (often referred to as the "parentified child").  Trying to be "perfect" to meet the parents' expectations, this child will often try to be the best academically or in sports to gratify the parents' narcissistic needs.  This is the child that the parents will often point to when they want to look good to outsiders.  This child is aware that if she isn't "perfect" in her parents' eyes, her parents might make her the scapegoat child, which this child wants to avoid at all costs--no matter how stressful it is for her to try to function in the hero/responsible child.  As a result, she develops into someone who is self critical and critical of others.  She often feels ashamed because she knows deep down that she's not perfect (see my article: The Trauma of the Family Hero in a Dysfunctional Family and The Connection Between Perfectionism and Core Shame).
  • The Invisible Child/Lost Child:  The child who is placed in the invisible child role is ignored.  Receiving neither praise nor criticism from the parents, this child is seen as having no value in terms of gratifying the narcissistic parents' needs, which is why she is ignored.  In order to protect herself, this child might withdraw emotionally and isolate.  She often doesn't develop the necessary interpersonal skills to interact effectively with others.  As a result, this child has difficulty allowing others into her inner emotional world.  She usually grows up feeling unlovable and these feelings often continue into adulthood (see my articles: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally InvalidatedAre You Feeling Lost? and Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).
  • The Golden Child:  The child who is in the role of being the golden child is the favorite of one of one or both parents.  The parents are unaware that this child (or any of the other children in the other roles) has his own subjectivity.  This child is seen as an extension of one or both parents so that they can live through this child.  She is the "perfect" child in the parents' eyes.  Rather than being seen for her inner qualities, this child is often valued for being physically attractive.  This is an emotional burden, especially as this child becomes an adult, ages and no longer is as attractive as she once was as a child.  Since the golden child is valued mostly for outer appearances, she believes that her looks are all that she has to offer.  The parents often establish an enmeshed relationship with this child (see my article: Overcoming Shame: Enmeshed Families).
  • The Mascot/Clown Child:  The child who is in the mascot/clown role is constantly joking and clowning around to divert the family's attention away from their dysfunctional patterns.  Although this child might appear on the surface to be happy, he suppresses his own emotional needs and uses the clowning around as a defense against these needs.  Beyond their humorous facade, these children (and later on as adults) struggle with feelings of loneliness and emptiness.  They are often drawn to become performers as adults (although not all performers were mascot/clown children).
Aside from the roles that I mentioned above, there are other ways that parents in dysfunctional families assign rigid roles to children.

For instance, if there are two daughters, one of them might be designated by one or both parents as "the pretty one" and the other one could be designated as "the intelligent one."

Like the other roles, these rigid roles have nothing to do with whether one child is more attractive or more intelligent.  The designation of these roles are based solely on the emotional needs of the parents.

As I mentioned earlier, I'll discuss how psychotherapy can help you if, as an adult, you continue to struggle with a rigid role in a dysfunctional family.

Getting Help in Therapy
There is a heavy emotional price to pay if you were assigned into a rigid role in a dysfunctional family.

Rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who can help you to transcend the narrow role that you were placed in as a child (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Working with a skilled psychotherapist can help you overcome the traumatic experiences of not being seen and valued for who you really as an individual (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

By breaking out of a dysfunctional role, you can be more authentic and live a more fulfilling life (see my article: Becoming Your True Self).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is helping adults to overcome traumatic experiences.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.