Dysfunctional Family Rules and Roles

Dysfunctional Family Rules

Rules and roles in dysfunctional families keep people operating with masks and pretense. Over time this lack of authenticity results in deeply entrenched false beliefs in family members; even after a child is grown these thought patterns might be very difficult to break. The words dysfunction and sin are synonymous when used in the context of Christian counseling and heart healing. Curiously, American believers are more likely to admit they are “sinning” than to say they are “dysfunctional”; while unbelievers find it easier to say they are “dysfunctional” than that they have “sinned”. For our purposes sanctification roughly means appropriating more of the truth and becoming more real to God, others, and ourselves. As individuals face reality, their families also can become healthier, in a sense “sanctified”.

Here are some typical spoken or unspoken rules in unhealthy family systems:

  • Do what “looks good”, even if it is dishonest
  • Don’t be a bother and don’t rock the boat
  • Deny things you don’t want to see, and they will go away
  • Do what I say, even when I do the opposite
  • Express only happy positive feelings
  • It is wrong to be angry or sad
  • You must never question our behavior, but go along with it
  • You must conform to what we expect of you, no matter what
  • Your needs are not as important as our needs

Here are some common beliefs and personality traits found in adults from seriously dysfunctional families:

  • They feel different than other people, that God loves them less or wants to punish them more
  • They are unsure what constitutes normal family functioning and have high tolerance for inappropriate and disrespectful behavior
  • They have difficulty in trusting people, and also may have difficulty trusting God and His love
  • They judge themselves mercilessly and disregard their own needs
  • They take themselves very seriously and feel guilty when trying to relax and have fun
  • They are “approval addicts”, constantly seeking affirmation
  • They have difficulty feeling, identifying, and expressing emotions
  • They are terrified by angry people or personal criticism
  • They usually attempt to control circumstances and relationships, and overreact to changes over which they have no control
  • They often feel helpless, trapped, and victimized
  • They unnecessarily take responsibility for people and situations and blame themselves when things go wrong
  • They are drawn to relationships with people they can pity and rescue.
  • They will do anything to avoid the pain of abandonment
  • They have problems finishing projects, and difficulties with impulsivity and lying
  • They tend to become addicted to excitement and crises

Because there is no ideal family, we all are bound to exhibit certain of the tendencies cited above. However, when early exposure to dysfunction has been traumatic, symptoms are more intense and easily recognizable.

Dysfunctional Family Roles

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” -Colossians 2: 8

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” -2 Corinthians 10: 5

“What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.” -2 Corinthians 6: 16A

Dysfunction takes many forms in families; in fact all kinship relationships are dysfunctional in some ways. When unhealthy parental behavior is serious, however, long-term results are pervasive and widespread.

Some common roles in such toxic family structures have been identified. A family is a system, much like a mobile. Where there is imbalance, the mobile or family automatically tries to compensate. For example, if Mother is overwhelmed and Father is unavailable, a child will often step in to assume the missing parent role. And if one person in the family strives to become more emotionally healthy, the other family members may sabotage her efforts, because the resulting sense of disequilibrium feels threatening to them.

With harmful family dynamics like dangerous addictions, child or spouse abuse, and emotional or physical neglect, certain roles are often forced on others in order to maintain a semblance of stability in an atmosphere that feels unpredictable, even chaotic. (We all play roles sometimes, but when they are rigid and prevent spontaneous expression of our individuality they become undesirable.) In such destructive family units, compulsory roles mesh into the false identities children create to adjust to their environment.

Following are some common dysfunctional family roles:

  • The Hero: This person adopts the values and dreams of others-even at great personal cost-in order to maintain his coveted place in the family. He tends to be very guarded about his psychic space, not allowing anyone to get too close.
  • The Enabler/Codependent: The enabler is the family peacemaker who feels responsible for everyone’s emotional well-being. The concept of “enabling” was originally coined to describe the wife of an alcoholic, when it was discovered her behavior actually set up an unconscious collusion with the substance abuser. This was clear when the enabler or codependent got worse as the addict improved. Enablers are often angry, self-righteous, and over-responsible, coming from families where they took over parents’ responsibilities. They feel they have lost their childhood.
  • The Scapegoat: The scapegoat is considered the family’s problem child. His behavior is so outrageous that everyone else in the family looks good by comparison. Actually, the scapegoat is unconsciously acting out the unspoken family conflict. When the family focuses on the scapegoat, it stops paying attention to the real issues that need to be resolved. Thus the scapegoat becomes the structure’s “sacrificial lamb”.
  • The Lost Child/Loner: The lost child is also a performer; however, his philosophy is “disappear and don’t cause trouble.” He may spend most of his time escaping into television, chat rooms, reading, or any activity that helps him be “seen and not heard.” The lost child makes few demands on his parents; he escapes through withdrawal into his own world.
  • The Doer: The doer is the family’s outstanding performer, the super responsible performance-oriented one who makes good grades, excels in athletics, takes care of siblings, or serves as a surrogate spouse. Self-appointed, the doer is the overdeveloped, overstressed family member.
  • The Mascot: The mascot is the family clown, comic relief in a stressful situation. Mascots try to joke their way out of anything serious; their laughter covers tears and their humor can become sadistic and “black”.
  • The Manipulator: The manipulator is the clever controller in the family, the one who instinctively knows how to use any and every trick to assure that he will get what he wants.
  • The Critic: The critic is negative and faultfinding, using sarcasm and mean-spirited teasing as a weapon to gain power in the family.
  • Daddy’s Little Princess: This child is the victim of a subtle and intense form of emotional incest in which the daughter is required to fulfill the needs of the father. “Daddy” uses the child by drawing her into adult conversations or activities. He may confide to her about his own problems with his wife or violate her boundaries through sexual grooming or outright sexual abuse.
  • The Saint: This family member’s worth in the system is dependent on fulfilling a predetermined occupation or course of action, regardless of the needs or wishes of the individual involved.