Familial Roles

I had to scan this and, while I know this is copyrighted material, I just had to post it. This has some concise definitions for functional and dysfunctional family dynamics and I feel compelled to share this.

This is from the book “When Love Is Not Enough” by Stephen Arterburn and Jim Burns (link to Amazon.com):

Roles That Are Played in Dysfunctional Families

Besides the basic physical needs of shelter, food, and clothing, all of us have emotional needs. In a healthy family system, the members as a unit provide one another with emotional comfort, safety, and security, and instill feelings of self-esteem and self-worth while allowing room for autonomy and self discovery.

Within a dysfunctional family system, however, family members find that the whole family structure isn’t meeting their basic psychological needs. Instead, needs are met by individual members, each of whom finds a different role to play to compensate for needs not met, insti lied, or integrated by the family unit. The role isn’t a true reflection of each person. Rather, the role engulfs each person who uses it as a means of survival. As family members’ identities become wrapped up in their roles, the true individuals are lost until a major life crisis may force the members to go back and try to retrieve what was left behind in childhood.

In a healthy family, one would normally find a group of people who are interdependent on each other. They are each unique, but because they honor the family and the relationships that exist there, they look to each other for support and help. They choose not to break from the family because it provides them with so much emotional and spiritual support. Life is easier for a person growing up in an interdependent family than it is for one growing up in a dysfunctional family.

Since the members of a dysfunctional family cannot trust each other, they rebel against relationships within the family. They replace interdependency with independence. Rejecting the identity of the family, they take on an independent identity outside the family. The role that each member evolves into is used to survive independently from the family.

As you read through the following descriptions of dysfunctional roles that children assume, see if you can discover which role you may have adoPted in order to survive in your home. Keep in mind that everyone takes on a part of every role in a healthy family, because its members move in and out of roles as they choose. In a dysfunctional family, however, sick family members find themselves trapped in roles, unable to learn different ways to exist that would be far more rewarding.

The Lost Child

A lost child is a loner who frequently hangs out on the fringe of the group.

If he or she has any friends at all, it is one or two others who also live like outcasts. A lost child is sad, feeling as if he or she doesn’t belong anywhere. Often it takes a caring adult to take this child on as a special project in order to facilitate the child’s becoming an active part of the group.

In a family, the lost child plays the role of “the different one” and functions on behalf of the family’s needs for autonomy and separateness. He or she may by physically separated by staying in the bedroom, or be separated mentally or spiritually by quietly pursuing different activities from the rest of the family, such as joining in political causes or attending a different church. When parents think about this lost child, they think that he or she gives them no trouble.

These lost kids don’t say much, don’t ask much, and don’t do much. They exist, making it through another day in painful loneliness. In a sense, they have made a statement with their lives. They have proclaimed that their families aren’t healthy and that they choose to not participate. No one seems to notice them until some major catastrophe like pregnancy, running away, or suicide jerks people back to the awareness that in isolation there must be a tremendous amount of pain.

Steve’s brother Jerry was a lost child. He did everything beautifully perfectly. He was never any trouble to anyone. Anyone would have thought he was the perfect son. All of that made it even more difficult for his family when they discovered Jerry had not only been living with gay men, he was dying with AIDS. Sadly, as in Jerry’s case, when parents discover how lost the child is, it is usually too late.

The Scapegoat

The role of the scapegoat child is to act out that which the rest of the family is feeling but not expressing. The scapegoat, most likely the “black sheep of the family,” is often in trouble at school or with the law, acting out the family’s dysfunction. Frequently the scapegoat uses drugs.

The scapegoat provides the dysfunctional family with an “out,” a way to focus attention away from themselves and their need to be responsible. “If only the scapegoat would get rid of his (or her) problem,” family members might say, “then our family would be normal.” The scapegoat child also represents the desire for help. He or she is screaming at the world through destructive behavior, begging for someone to notice that all is not well in the family and hoping that someone will intervene.

The teenagers who come into New Life Treatment Centers for help are most often the family scapegoats. Sometimes they will be lost children, but usually they’ve assumed the role of troublemaker and have been involved with drugs and/or become so violent that their parents can no longer control them. When scapegoat teenagers come into our centers, they are each attached to one or two confused and troubled parents who hope their children can be fixed and returned to a normal behavioral state. Ironically, we often find these extremely troubled children to be the most rational members of thei r fami lies. Often these children have unknowingly set up a crisis that forces mom and dad to get help. These “sacrificial lambs” place themselves on the altar of treatment in hopes that the sacrifice will be worthy of God’s intervention and that their families might be saved. Frequently, the treatment provided the children is secondary to what must be done to solve their parents’ problems.

The Clown/Distracter

Although this family member provides comic relief, there isn’t much real humor in the way this child lives. The clown never shows pain or discomfort. If the emotions get too heavy, the distracter will provide a distraction so that heavy issues don’t have to be faced, resolved, or confronted. The distracter’s hidden message is, “Everything’s fine. See, everyone is laughing. Why would you think something’s wrong?” In effect, the distracter/clown provides a manifestation of the “denial” element for the family. Seething beneath the surface of the humor and laughter is intense anger that becomes a controlling force in this child’s life.

Clown/distracter children from dysfunctional families often grow up to be immature and irresponsible. Never forced to grow up, they move frequently, run up big bills, and never hold a job for very long. Because they were allowed to laugh away their smaller problems, they have no idea how to solve the big problems that surface. If something is too big to make light of, they have learned the best thing to do is run. As adults, it’s extremely painful forclownldistracters to realize that they lack adult problem-solving skills because they never went through the pain of learning them as children. Although it’s hard for these angry, hurting men and women to go back and grow up all over again, that’s exactly what they must do.

This idea of going back and growing up all over again is often referred to as reparenting. In its most simple form, it is a resubmission to authority. Rather than continuing to make unhealthy, independent decisions, the adult clown instead makes a conscious decision to retract the boundaries back to where they should have been when the person was an adolecscent. It is a rather dramatic form of being mentored. Admitting that something is missing in the maturing process, the clown looks to someone else to temporarily train him in how to delay gratification and make solid decisions based on something other than emotions. As the person progresses, he takes more and more of his life back in to his own hands. If successful, he emerges from the process with the moral sensitivity and wisdom needed to succeed outside the role of clown.

The Hero

A hero child assumes this role to survive. This is the role we assumed. It’s a tough role because the child’s self-expectations are so high. He or she also believes that everyone else’s expectations are just as extreme. This child tries to deal with pain by accomplishing good things for his or her family and for God. Some of what this child does is healthy; some isn’t.

The hero (or family savior) provides the family with self-esteem and accomplishment. The hero child is the one everyone can point to-the one who is “safe” to talk about, the one who often seems to have it “the most together.” But the emotional burden of carrying the family standard is heavy. Thus the hero is often the first one to break emotionally.

Like many today, both of us have experienced hero-related pressures that lead to burn-out and superficial existence. Along the way. we’ve seen many others play out the hero role until the pressure becomes too great. Finally, the heroes crack under the stress. Ministries die. Families are destroyed. And children grow up to repeat the same unhealthy patterns. It’s a burden to be a hero. If you are one, your life-long challenge is to replace heroism with balance.

When one of Jim’s family members received treatment for alcoholism, for instance, he quickly realized that he wasn’t the only one in ministry who had taken on the role of hero while growing up. There were several other ministers in the recovery group he attended for family members of alcoholics. Questions were piercing as each hero in the group was asked to look deeply at his motivation to work for God. It’s hard to admit that sometimes what Christians do is a result of a need to survive, not the result of a pure motivation to serve God. Those of us who are family heroes have to deal with the question of motivation as we try to please God so that we can serve Him for healthy reasons rather than to compensate for an unhealthy past.

The Enabler/Do-er

In this role, a child attempts to control everyone and everything in an effort to hold the family together, make it function (to the extent that it does), provide continuity, and smooth the rough spots. The do-er is most often the oldest sibling (but may be a parent). Although probably feeling used and abused and unappreciated, the do-er also enjoys the role of martyr and would rather function in this role and know what’s expected than to face changes and an uncertain future. Other family members resent this person because he or she appears to have so much control. Yet the difficult situations never improve; the family doesn’t get better.

This role particularly plagues Christians, so many of whom allow their families to be destroyed under the guise of servanthood or submission. It’s tough to break through the denial of an enabler who believes that he or she is acting on Christian principles rather than on a sick survival mode. It’s vital that enablers see the genuine fruits of their labor. It is one thing, for example, for an enabling person to stick by a spouse through good times and bad. It’s something quite different when the enabler’s actions actually cause the person being helped to experience more bad times than good.

We have both seen an entire ministry fall apart while the minister’s faithful wife silently watched it happen. Whether in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, we’ve seen ministers’ wives do all the wrong things for what they believe are the right motivations. If they could have seen what they were doing to themselves and the ministries by trying to smooth over problems, they might have spoken up and tried to implement positive changes. At least they might have admitted that all was not well.

If Anamarie Tosca, for instance, could have foreseen the impact her actions would have on her son, perhaps she wouldn’t have allowed the family problems to flourish. Perhaps she would have been willing to break one of the unwritten rules that kept her and her children silent about just how serious the problems had become.

Rules in Dysfunctional Families

Just as individual members of dysfunctional families assume roles, a system of rules is also developed. These rules may be simple or complex, depending on whether abusive and/or addictive behavior is involved and whether there is a dysfunctional personality. But dysfunctional families all contain similar and very distinct traits and themes. You can use the following traits or statements that are regularly found in or used by dysfunctional families to evaluate your home or the home of someone you love.

Compulsive Behavior

Family members applying this rule always have to do something in a certain way, even when there’s not a logical or compelling reason to do so. (There may even be compelling reasons to do it differently.) It’s a way one or more people try to manage their lives with a nice, orderly routine. But the compulsive person(s) will fall apart if the routine is ever changed.

Constant Criticism

Even if it’s well-meaning and done in love. perfectionism-and the criticism that results – is a trademark of a dysfunctional family. The best act or intention remai ns an open target for a remark that pierces through the deed to reveal its inadequacy. Every joke or jab becomes a clever means to express discontent or even anger over a family member’s imperfection.

“You Should” or “You Shouldn’t”

Although it’s important to set boundaries and establish right and wrong, these words often reflect perfectionistic and compulsive tendencies in the parents. A person raised under these harsh “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” is frequently void of the moral foundations that answer “why.” Rigidity replaces his need to develop a rationale. There is no foundation for good decision making. One who grows up acting or reacting to “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” not knowing the reason why, will naturally rebel against what was demanded and those who demanded it. This perfectionist, legalistic form of parenti ng is an extreme called” authoritarian parenti ng.” Balance is the key that produces healthy kids who can make healthy choices.

“Don’t Talk”

This phrase reflects the desire to keep family secrets. It is expressed as, “Keep the family honor.” “Other people don’t need to know about our problems.” “You shouldn’t discuss our problems with other people.”

An extreme example of this was a lady Steve met at a New Life Treatment Center. When she arrived, she didn’t talk. No one could get through to her. She had learned the “no-talk” rule so well that she carried it into all of her relationships. But as treatment progressed, the roots of that rule were slowly uncovered.

She remembered that when she was two her father hanged her. She remembered choking for breath and her mother cutting her down moments before she would have died. Something so traumatic should have initiated help for her father, or at least her mother should have moved out to protect her little girl. Instead, everyone acted as ifnothing was wrong-until the father burned down the house while his daughter was asleep in her crib. Her brother saved her with only seconds to spare. No wonder she wasn’t talking when she came to us’ She had learned that even the worst things are not worthy of discussion. Within three weeks of treatment, however, she was breaking her life-long rule. There was nothing she wouldn’t talk about with the staff and other patients. It’s too bad more people who have grown up with the “no-talk” rule can’t have the same positive experience. Instead, they often live out their lives in painful isolation-unwittingly perpetuating the problem.

“Don’t Feel”

Some family members are embarrassed to express emotions. Typically one parent in a dysfunctional family is absent emotionally. A common expression in such a family would be, “We know that our family loves one another; we just have difficulty expressing it.” Or, “We’re just not the type to be real demonstrative about it.”

When Steve was a youth pastor in a small town, he met a troubled young girl who was not allowed to share her pain with her family. She also never received an open expression of love from her stoic father. No one knew how serious the problem was until she became pregnant. The love she couldn’t feel from her father she had sought from boys. Desiring to hear, “I love you,” she had been willing to give up her standards, have sex, and feel like a tramp. What she ended up receiving was a baby girl-a candidate for another generation of pain.

“Don’t Trust”

Members of a dysfunctional family have learned not to take anything at face value. Living with the quirks of at least one unpredictable personality and having to use associated dysfunctional behavior to adapt, immediate family members develop an uncanny ability to pick up on subtle behaviors and statements and “read” other people’s intentions with amazing accuracy. They believe that what a person says has little to do with what he or she means.

We have seen this pattern develop in many families, especially when it becomes harder for them to make ends meet. The workaholic dad, for instance, who promises to be at the game but doesn’t show up teaches his child not to trust. The mom who is so busy she forgets to pick her daughter up at school shows the child that trusting someone only leads to disappointment. Like other learned rules, this one is difficult to break.

Walking on Eggshells

When a family member responds unpredictably due to addiction, personality mood swings, or other reasons, the rest of the family never knows what to expect and feels obligated to accommodate the erratic behavior. Very quickly the children take on responsibility for the troubled person’s behavior, since they are usually blamed for any outbreak or disturbance. These future perfectionists live with the tyranny of the “if onlys,” feeling that if only they were better, their mom or dad would stay in control and the situation would be better.

No Angry Words, Just Angry Behavior

The family members using this rule may even be proud of the fact that they “never yell,” raise their voices, or have arguments. However, terse or tense actions, avoidance, and withdrawal behavior typically reveal hostility and pent-up anger.

Children in this type of family learn never to ask if there’s a problem because if there is, it’s denied. (Anyone bold enough to suggest that there might be a problem is usually punished in an unrelated way for breaking the “no-talk” rule.)

When many or all of these rules are found in one family, it’s a tough place for children (and their parents) to exist and attempt to have needs mel. Family members become preoccupied with not breaking the rules, and one who doesn’t adhere to the rules is either shamed or treated like an outcast. A child growing up in this type of home usually institutes the same kind of system when raising his or her own family. Instead of avoiding such rules, the adult uses them because that system is all the person knows – what he or she is comfortable with.

Aren’t All Families Dysfunctional?

Before the 1980s, characteristics of dysfunctional families were seldom recognized. Today many people wonder if the concept of dysfunction isn’t just another way of describing every family that has ever existed. “All families are dysfunctional,” some say. “All children grow up with scars from unhealthy parents.” As John and Linda Friel point out in their book on the subject, ” … is it not true that almost everyone is co-dependent? Is it not true that almost everyone has some form of dysfunction in their childhood?” We challenge this type of thinking, which is just a different way of denying the severity offamily problems. Perhaps you are tempted to dismiss this material by saying, “Oh, all families are like this. Almost every family I know has one of these problems from time to time!” If so, be cautious. The danger is that this attitude often excuses a person from making needed changes that will prevent the next generation from having to experience the same types of problems.

“If everyone has ‘it,’ ” someone else might ask, “doesn’t dysfunction lose its conceptual and diagnostic meaning?” We don’t think so, for the same reason that depression has not lost its meaning despite the fact that everyone has ‘it’ at one time or another over a lifetime. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association” always describes symptoms, but asks us to look at length and severity of symptoms.” Year after year, a truly dysfunctional family will experience worsening problems with no hope of the situation improving.

Indeed, all families have plenty of problems, but this doesn’t make them dysfunctional. Family members may lie to each other from time to time and resort to other unhealthy behaviors, but they aren’t, in the clinical sense, dysfunctional because they don’t use inappropriate adaptations as a way of life. Parents in these families aren’t perfect, but they somehow find a way of connecting with their children rather than unknowingly trapping them. These parents provide their children with values, self-worth, and confidence. Their faith in God strengthens their children rather than leaves them feeling guilty or inadequate. Parents in families where there’s a normal amount of unhealthy behavior don’t fit the label of dysfunctional, for they somehow guide and allow their children to develop into healthy adults who are free of tremendous emotional baggage from childhood.

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