The tears streamed down her face. It had just hit her like a ton of bricks.
” I never really had a childhood’, she said quietly. “I was too busy taking care of everyone else because my mother was depressed and slept almost all the time. Her bedroom was like a fortress that I could never penetrate”
Dysfunctional families come in all shapes and sizes. Parents can be addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, religion, and work, to name a few. Or they may suffer from a personality disorder like narcissism, or in the case of my client, a debilitating depression that rendered her mother incapable of assuming the role of parent for her and her siblings.
Despite the myriad forms these families take there are ( at least) two common denominators they all share:
- Mom and/or Dad is unable to function as a parent
- The child(ren) and perhaps the other parent organize around this dysfunction and adapt roles to survive and make the family “work”
I want to name these roles for you today because there is tremendous power in giving language to your experiences and recognizing that you are not alone.
- The Enabler: More often than not, this is the role the other parent fills. The job of the enabler is to protect the person from the consequences of their behavior. An example of this is the wife who calls her husband in sick from work when he is drunk or hungover. Although this may seem like a loving act, it only serves to keep her husband from feeling the full impact of his drinking on him and the family. People tend to stay stuck in their dysfunction to the extent that they are saved from it’s destruction.
- The Caretaker: Usually this role is performed by the oldest in the family. The purpose of this role is to ensure the family is functioning. The caretaker does exactly what the name implies: they take care of the family for the parent who is not performing as one. In the case of my client, she assumed the cooking, the cleaning, paying the bills and essentially raising her younger siblings. She even got a job as a teenager to help ends meet because her father had checked out of the marriage and was involved with another woman. Caretakers are forced to grow up too quickly. As adults, they often have trouble relaxing and having fun. They tend to look for people to rescue and seek the validation and approval they did not get from others. Their belief that they have to be responsible all the time creates fatigue, resentment and guilt.
- The Hero: Achievement is the name of the game for this child. Their sole function is to make the family look good from the outside by getting straight A’s, being the star quarterback, getting into a good college and so forth. Having such a successful person in their midst allows the family themselves to deny the dysfunction. “See, things can’t be that bad. Look at how well Johnny is doing” . It also makes the trauma harder for the family to talk about because outsiders more easily dismiss it. Heroes are so intent on putting forth a good image to the world that they are actually terrified of anyone getting too close to them. This sets up a whole host of issues in intimacy later in life.
- The Scapegoat: This child is the opposite of the hero. They are the rebels, the ones constantly getting into trouble at school or with the law. They may develop substance abuse problems themselves. Their purpose in the family is too take the focus off the dysfunctional parent. They take the blame for all the problems in the family; meanwhile, the real issues never get addressed. Scapegoats may have trouble as adults fitting in with societal norms, as well as accessing their own emotions.
- The Clown: Typically a younger child, this person uses humor to de-escalate situations. Anytime there is tension or arguing, the clown will make a joke or act silly in some way to diffuse the chaos. Their job is to divert and distract by being cute, funny, or charming. Nothing to see here, folks, move along is their mantra. As adults, they can have a hard time taking responsibility seriously. Intimacy is challenging for them, as they can make jokes and dismiss the serious concerns of their partner. Their use of humor can also mask a pretty severe underlying depression.
- The Lost Child: Often the baby of the family, this child simply fades into the woodwork and ceases to exist. Their job is to be invisible, not rock the boat, or add anymore trouble to the situation. They do this by being very quiet, compliant and agreeable. You will often find these lost souls playing alone, completely immersed in fantasy worlds they have created to deny the dysfunction. As adults, these children lack boundaries, are easily manipulated because they don’t have opinions of their own, and readily lapse into complete denial about relationship problems just like they did as a child.
Of course, not all dysfunctional families have all these roles, and people within the system can switch roles or have characteristics of more than one. Regardless of the type of trauma, or the role played, these children have incredible difficulty with intimate relationships later in life.
If you see yourself here, or wonder if you do, reach out to me for help. Together, we will unwind the confusing, messy, painful knot of your childhood so that you can thrive in your life.