The family system is more important than any of its individual parts. At least that is the message that we continually get directly or indirectly growing up. It consists of the unconscious rules, roles, beliefs, feelings and behaviours collected through growing up.
The kind of relationship quality that the parents had during those early years greatly impacts the foundation on which the family system develops.
Children have limited options in order to survive growing up in the family system, therefore have to adapt and conform. Part of the adaption is to fall into certain roles within the family system. Each role has its place and plays a vital part in keeping the illusion that the system is healthy and doing well.
The key as adults is to develop our awareness as to how these roles play out in our lives and present challenges. With awareness comes freedom and we are able to begin to explore healthy authentic ways in which to achieve the positive aspect of each of these roles. There are so many benefits from this as to the way in which our quality of life is greatly enhanced.
With greater awareness we begin to feel more stable, experience more meaningfulness in life and the courage to explore our passions our way.
We tend to run a couple of more conscious roles and then one that is more below our perception.
It is also possible to switch or rotate through roles depending on what is going on in your life.
Examples of Family Roles:
Sports Star, Academic Achiever, Golden Child, Over Achiever
Some family roles are approved of by general society and some are not. The family Hero is often put on a pedestal and validated by society as a whole. This role brings respect and adoration to the family name.
On the healthy side of this role it can be wonderful to have success, achieve goals and realise dreams. When achievement is done from a functional space rather than needing the achievement itself to validate our worth then it is a really valuable role.
On the unhealthy side this role can bring terrible pressure and loneliness to succeed at all costs. The weight of expectation can be crushing, carrying sometimes unrealistic expectations and feeling worthless unless we are achieving. To the outside world this role can look very enticing however the consequences can be just as harmful as any other family role engaged in from an unhealthy space.
The Hero can attract needy or dependant people who look to ride on the coat tales of success or take advantage of the Hero’s achievements.
The Hero brings to the system such elements as: achievement, success, validation, recognition, respect and leadership.
Little Parent, Worrier, Peace Keeper, The Giver
The caretaker role is about bringing enough care, concern and empathy into the family system. The mature expression of this is being a caregiver where we empower others through our support and nurture.
The immature expression is the caretaker who takes on another’s problems whether invited to or not and disempowers another through solving their problem for them. The chronic caretaker is so busy putting everyone else’s needs before their own that they often suffer from burnout and resentment. “When is it time for me to get what I want?” This is a common question for those stuck in the caretaker role.
Caretakers can struggle to love themselves or receive from others. They are more comfortable with giving than receiving. Caretakers get their value from being needed so they can inadvertently create or attract needy, helpless people.
The caretaker brings to the family system such elements as: caring, empathy, humanity, love, peace, harmony, dutifulness, nurture.
The Black Sheep, Problem Child, Rebel, Under Achiever
The mature side of scapegoat is the wondrous change agent or truth teller. The scapegoat role can be monumentally important in shifting a family system into greater health by addressing the previously ignored issues.
The down side of scapegoat is where the individual constantly finds themselves getting blamed or in trouble for whatever events are transpiring. The down side of scapegoat can play out where the person is unable to get their lives together.
The scapegoat brings to the family system: authenticity, initiate change, truthfulness, realism, validity of one’s own feelings.
Class Clown, Funny One, Family Entertainer, Cute One
The mascot role through its healthy expression brings joy, lightness, humour and fun to the family system. On the down side of the role humour can be used to inadvertently mask over stresses that need to be addressed rather than side stepped. Laughing over our pain isn’t always the way to deal effectively with our pain. Humour can be used to great effect to make our challenges a little easier to deal with or it can be used to deflect.
The mascot role brings to the family system: humour, joy, light heartedness, fun and playfulness.
Dad’s confidant, Mum’s listener, Dad’s little mate, Little Princess
At the centre of a family system is the relationship of the parents. Healthy expression of this role is where we are emotionally present with others, good listeners, loyal, attentive and creating genuine intimacy in our relationships.
Unhealthy expression of this role is where the child and the parent inappropriately bond due to the gaps in the parental relationship. The child is falsely empowered, engulfed and exposed to elements of adult relationships before they are ready. The child becomes the parents source of emotional support, the confidant, the one who listens to the parent’s complaints. The child ends up being exposed to things that are beyond their developmental maturity and/or ability to control.
It is difficult for parents to have a genuine emotional connection when there is a child in between them working unconsciously as an intimacy blocker. This can really impact a child’s healthy development.
Sometimes this dynamic presents in what is known as “the third person in the relationship.”
An example of this is where one member of the primary family relationship keeps consulting a third party on matters that are really only the business of the primary couple. The interfering father in law or mother in law syndrome.
The surrogate spouse brings to the family system: trust, loyalty, genuine emotional attunement, effective communication, sensitivity, authentic listening.
Loner, Daydreamer, Invisible One, Perfect Child
The ability to stand independent of the family system and foster healthy support without conditional compliance is one of the great gifts of the lost child. The lost child prevents unhealthy enmeshing and violation of personal boundaries. It is the ability to be an individual within the family system.
The unhealthy expression of the Lost child is the person who is constantly over looked, rarely noticed or isolated. It can be that family member who never makes any appearances at family functions or disappears as soon as they can. The child who is constantly escaping into their room to disappear into the fantasy world of a book or game so as to avoid facing reality.
The elements that the lost child role brings to the family system are the following: Creativity, fantasy, autonomy, distinctiveness, privacy, self sufficiency.
Family Roles as a concept originated with Family Therapist Virginia Satir and was later adapted by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse and Claudia Black to fit Addictive Family systems.
Behind Closed Doors: Shirley Smith