The Competent Parent: Dysfunctional family roles


Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dear Dr. Debbie,
With the holidays upon us, I’m dreading the get-togethers with my siblings and mother. I have tried to “outgrow” the dysfunction that colored my childhood when our mother was left to raise us on her own, but something seems to come over us when we are all in the same place at the same time. Any advice?

Much Better on My Own

Click here to read last week’s column about Memory tips for the sleep-deprived

Dear On My Own,
Thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and its spinoff, Adult Children of Alcoholics, adults who were raised in “dysfunctional” families have found a safe place to share and analyze how children seem to fall into one of four roles when parents aren’t up to the job of competent parenting. It may help if you can identify which role you and each of your siblings play so that the behavior makes sense. If you feel close enough to one of them, you might have a private conversation about how your mother’s coping with single parenthood created patterns among you in the past. Then try to spot how these patterns get re-played when the family gets together.

The Hero:

This child, often the oldest, makes up for the missing or incompetent parent. She is expected to always do well and is drawn early into adult decision making. Picture the adult asking an eight-year-old about whether little sibling looks too sick to go to school. Or big sister herself has to make the decision to stay home knowing that her younger brother wouldn’t have lunch if she weren’t there to make it.

The Rebel/ Scapegoat:

In a dysfunctional family, children’s needs often go unmet. Attention-getting behavior is a sure way to get noticed. This child’s role is to draw more parenting out of the person who should be doing it, but the behaviors he chooses are also good at getting the attention of adults at school, in the community, and in the extended family. His errant behavior allows the adults to blame him for the tension at home.

The Lost Child:

This child sees the trouble around her at home, recognizes she is only a child, and finds relief in pretending the trouble isn’t there. She stays to herself, keeps her feelings tucked away, and usually has trouble choosing good people to trust. Not only does she struggle to find fulfillment in sharing herself with others, she also does all she can to avoid conflict because she lacks skills for that, too.

The Mascot:

This child’s purpose is to bring a pleasant distraction to the family’s troubles. He makes them laugh. He makes up for not carrying his weight in family chores by being the one you’d most like to have with you when you have to do them. He takes the point of view that things aren’t so bad, because if he strikes a funny pose or cracks a good joke, the scowling, shouting, and tears of his family members go away.

Of course you may not each fall neatly into the four roles, but you may find the gatherings less stressful if you can assign a Dysfunctional Child Role to a specific behavior that is being re-played. There are many websites
and books that can help you understand the past so you can consciously strive to make your present life free of it.

Dr. Debbie