Helpful, good books have been written over the last few decades about dysfunctional families and the wounding that is often carried from childhood into adulthood. Many have incorporated the belief that children in such families adopt particular roles which help them to manage and ease the pain.
Dysfunctional families are affected by mental illness, trauma from tragedy, or simply by being headed by individuals with very poor parenting skills. There is no pretty way around that statement and plenty of authors have courageously and professionally touched the subject, as a simple Internet or library search will show.
Conflict, neglect, abuse of all sorts, shame, conditional love, faulty disciplinary styles, gender prejudice, sexuality intolerance, denial of feelings and family facts, emotional dysregulation, rampant anxiety and much more are ever present in such families. The burden is then carried beyond the early family, often untreated — making for the defining term adult child (of a dysfunctional family).
Some professionals say there are four basic roles, others six. The roles seem always to collectively serve the family as well as the individual child fitting into it, and service the interplay among siblings. Here I will present a look at four such roles as I see them, which seem to typify the sad life of many children entangled in ill family dynamic, no matter the cause. Any of the traits of one can be found in another, of course (and many children have a mesh of two):
The child who gets into a lot of external trouble over internal pain. Problems in school, drugs, petty theft, pregnancy, misdemeanors — these are the “bad boys” (or girls) who are acting out the angst back home. They are often self-destructive, cynical and even mean, becoming an old soul too soon.
This individual’s behavior warrants negative attention and is a great distraction for everyone from the real issues at hand. (Thus the rebel often has been called the scapegoat.) They are often looked up to and glamorized but inside feel empty and torn apart long into adulthood.
The kid that uses comedy and whimsy to ease his own and others’ unease. This behavior is lighthearted and hilarious, just what a family twisted in pain needs — but the mascot’s clowning is not repairing the emotional wounds, only providing temporary balm. He or she equally diverts attention away from the bearing of difficult tensions, but theirs is an internal direction toward the family.
This child is usually kind and of good heart but never seems to grow up. They can show remarkable empathy, creativity and resilience, but there remains a need to quell the pain with escape to a childlike world, always stuck in a young soul.
The Good Girl (or Boy)
These are the dutiful daughters and respectable sons who take care of Mom or Dad and “do the right things” at great cost to themselves. They get good grades, don’t make waves, and go overboard with the caretaking. Theirs, too, is an internal direction like the mascot, to remedy the dysfunction. They learn at a young age to suffer the sadness of a parent and become a surrogate spouse or confidante.
Like the rebel, they grow much too old before their time. Responsibility to the incapable or manipulative parent comes before ever looking to their own childhood happiness. They are the fixers for the whole family’s emotional life, yet their needs are never met. They can grow to become extremely self-sufficient, with all the benefits that can bring, but its sad liabilities as well.
The Lost Child
This is the one who becomes invisible. Not unlike the rebel, this child is often out of the house, away from home. He or she is managing very difficult emotions by escaping into activities, friendships, sports — anything to keep away from the infighting of the house. These young souls usually are cut off from their inner life.
They can deal with reality by escaping from it, but they cannot escape the sad and angry feelings that hound them. Denying their feelings and avoiding anger is usually par for the course, as well as never learning adult emotional intimacy. They can become successful due to all that external effort and activity. Despite that, they miss connection.