Were You the Family Hero? The Scapegoat? Here’s How to Get Past Our Childhood Roles

My sister was the pretty one; I was the smart one. What I saw in the mirror or what she saw on her report card counted for less than what our families believed and how we were treated. What was expected of us as children led to what we expected from ourselves as we grew to be adults. Family roles, family belief systems and family legends live on far beyond childhood.

The role you played as a child in a family affected by alcoholism or substance abuse evolved for a number of complex reasons that often include birth order, personality, and your parent’s stage in addiction when you were young. The three main roles kids seem to take are:

  • Family hero - Often the oldest child, this role is all about functioning really well, to convince yourself and everyone else that despite your parent’s addiction, everything is fine. “I’ve got it all under control” is the motto for this role.
  • The Scapegoat - A younger or youngest child, this role is all about sacrificing yourself to get help for the family. This is the child who acts “bad” in one or more ways to try to bring outsiders - medical or mental health professionals, teachers, law enforcement - into the family. This often backfires, however, and the family typically blames the scapegoat for causing the problems and sometimes for causing the addiction. “If only you would behave, everything would be ok” is the family’s belief about this role.
  • The Lost One - These children try to fade into the background, trying hard to have no needs, since having needs and risking them being unmet is so painful. These kids retreat into their own private space and are often loners, avoiding close relationships with others and spending a lot of time engaged in solo activities. “Thank goodness there’s one I don’t have to worry about” is how the family thinks about the lost child.

Family Roles Through the Developmental Cycle

Families grow and change, and the world hands families new challenges and new situations to which family members must adapt throughout the lives of all the family members. To be more specific, take one family as an example. The married couple meets, dates and eventually gets married. They enjoy a few years of being young lovers and having fun together. Then the kids come along and they spend 10 to 20 years engaged in child-rearing activities that range from choosing a babysitter for when mom goes back to work, to choosing a college. Then the couple adjusts to becoming empty nesters, perhaps taking in a grandparent who requires more help, and ultimately retiring and becoming grandparents themselves. These are all developmental stages in the life of a family. But during any stage, sudden intense things can happen that will affect or “flavor” the family’s experience of that stage and their memories of it. The death of a parent, a natural disaster, or being the victim of a crime are all examples of this.

Roles Get Established

So what happens to family roles as the family goes through its developmental changes? In a family affected by addiction, early to middle childhood (from just before kindergarten to about age 10) is when these roles are taken on and become engrained in children. As personalities emerge, places in the family become more and more set. This is the period of time when expectations and roles are established.

Roles Can Switch!

Adolescence is a critical time for most family members. The nature of this developmental phase is so overwhelming - whatever adolescents do, they do it big - most families, whether affected by addiction or mental illness or not, experience tough times and many challenges while raising adolescents. Here’s a nasty twist, though: if a role is going to change, it is most likely going to happen during adolescence. Especially in families where there are only two children, often the family hero ditches that “goody-goody” role for the role of the scapegoat during adolescence. Scapegoats or heroes may also retreat into Lost Child roles during adolescence. These switches can be permanent, and they can also be temporary, with the original role retaken by age 18 or so.

Questioning Your Role

In adulthood, and especially as you create your own family with a spouse and children of your own, taking a critical look at these roles is important. Letting go of your family role can be both scary and freeing. In another article we’ll look at each role separately and in some detail, to better understand just how you bring the limits and challenges of each role into your adult life and how to break free from them. But in general, developing a questioning and open attitude toward the things you expect from yourself is a good place to start.

Remember, the roles themselves aren’t good or bad, but boxing yourself in and having no awareness about why you behave the way you do can lead you to limit yourself in ways that just aren’t necessary. Coming full circle to where I started this article, if my sister believed she was as smart as she was pretty, or if she believed that both of us could be smart and pretty, it might have spared her years of fretting and fussing, years of insecure dieting and anxious exercising, always measuring herself up to a standard of being prettier than everyone else and ultimately risking her health due to eating disorders. If she could have challenged her role and stepped away from measuring herself up against the “pretty” ruler, she could have defined herself in any number of other ways. Now her daughter, at age 19, shows signs of an eating disorder - the result of being parented by someone who was still harboring dysfunctional family beliefs about beauty and self worth. The bottom line? If we can stop reacting to the past, we can respond to the present.

Posted on June 30th, 2013

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