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Dysfunctional Family Roles

These are the rigid family roles that develop in dysfunctional families.  This video by Jef Gazley relates to alcoholic family systems, which is often an issue for the parents or the adult children of a narcissist, or both.  In my experience this is very helpful to understand and many of the same ideas also apply if the core issue is mental illness in a parent too.

There is a dysfunction, such as addiction or mental illness of the parent that requires these roles to form.  The parent is not functioning as parent in meeting the needs of the children in a healthy way.  Inside the children are often angry, insecure and do not feel good enough.   

Inverted parenting is a hallmark of an alcoholic family, as well as in a family with a narcissistic personality disordered mother.  This situation causes post traumatic stress disorder.  None of the children are getting their emotional needs met in a healthy way.  Each position that the children fill serves a purpose for the family.

The children often act very mature, such as acting 40 when they are 10.  However, when they are older all of their infantile needs rise to the surface and they want to be taken care of by their partner.  This often dooms the relationship because the partner can not be the parent and save the relationship.

Each one functions by the unwritten dysfunctional family rules.  They function as a cell within an organism.  The family is the individual, not each separate person.  If one enters therapy or attempts to get out of their role, the entire family system will attempt to get them back in their assigned place in an attempt to keep the family in tact.

It is possible for a child to have two or three of these roles.  If one person leaves the family, very often another will take over their role.  However, the one leaving does not necessary lose their role.

In a very real sense, when a person grows up this way, they have (yes, he said "have") to develop an addiction to something, whether that is to a chemical, work or gambling.  Under every addiction there will be some codependency.  Under any codependency there will always be a personal developmental problem, dysfunctional family, lack of individuation and lack of boundaries.

I think it helps to understand why we are focusing so much on a certain area of recovery.  This is one aspect of why individuation and boundaries are stressed so much in recovery!

Enabling Spouse
There is also usually an enabling spouse, the silent parent.

  • Usually the oldest child.
  • Parentified child, often treated as a peer with Mom and Dad.
  • At other times the child is treat like one of the children, which is confusing.
  • This child's purpose is to show the family and the outside world that the parents must be doing something right.  It is hard to believe a family is doing so poorly if a child like this child who is so together and responsible came from that family.
  • This child is the lieutenant.  Junior Mom, in one example.
  • Feels a deep sense of doubt inside that they cannot handle all of the jobs Mom and Dad are providing for them by their emotional absence.  These do not have to be outward job, it can be the emotional care of the parents because of how immature they act.
  • On the outside they behave as if they are super confident.
  • Get along with authority figures, but may have trouble getting along with peers.
  • A codependent in training.
  • Will often marry the same type of spouse and start the whole family process over again.

  • Usually the second child.
  • It is possible for the second born to become the hero and the firstborn to become the scapegoat, but usually it is the other way around.
  • The purpose of the scapegoat is to provide sufficient distraction from the real core issue of the addiction or mental illness of the parent(s)
  • The symptom bearer of the family.
  • Get in trouble in school, etc., then the parents can fight over whether this is bad kid or a misunderstood kid, instead of the real core issue.  That is a lot less threatening to the marital relationship that focusing on the addiction or mental illness.
  • Inside this child feel insecure and not good enough.
  • On the outside presents as angry and a rebel.
  • Get along with peers well.
  • Fight with authority figures at every step.
  • An alcoholic or drug addiction in training.
  • Often the one presented as the problem if help is sought. 

 Lost Child
  • The chameleon in the family.
  • The one who adjusts and also acts in a codependent manner.
  • Also often develop drug or alcohol addictions.
  • May develop an early pregnancy or food disorder.
  • The quiet child.
  • Looks at what is happening with the firstborn and decides this job does not look like any fun.
  • Looks at the second born or the scapegoat and says this person is getting killed out there and blamed for everything.
  • Decides not to get into trouble and keep everything inside.
  • Decides to give people what they want to see and tell them what they want to hear.
  • Adjusts to the situation.
  • Inside feels angry, upset, depressed and not good enough.
  • On the outside they appear perfectly calm, sweet and light.  No problems, no strong opinions, they can handle anything.
  • This child provides another example of the family looking normal and healthy.

  • Often the fourth child.
  • This child's job is to provide some humor to this otherwise tragic situation.
  • Humor is often negative, sarcastic and at the expense of another.
  • Often everyone in the family allows this child to get away with it, which is very different than the way the others are treated.
  • On the inside, angry, insecure and does not feel good enough.
  • On the outside, everything is a joke.
  • They get along with their peers.
  • Do not get along with authority figures, but work with and charm them.
  • Another alcoholic or chemically dependent person in training.
  • Appears charming on the outside up until about the age of 30.
  • Never really grow up.

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