Family dynamics: The patterns of individual roles in a family Part 1
Every family has a dynamic. The healthier a family is, the more this dynamic is constructive and uplifting for the child’s life. In the healthiest family one can still observe a pattern in the behavior of the children. I know many families, where the oldest child is the “responsible, loyal” one, the second is the rebel, the third either the clown of the family or the one being easy and “invisible”.
The role of a family hero – the caretaker of the family – is often taken by the oldest child.
The hero saves the family – that’s where his name “hero” comes from – by being perfect and making it look good, giving the family self-worth because they look good on the outside.
The positive characteristics of the family hero are :
good kid, high achiever, follows rules, seeks approval, very responsible, trustworthy, dutiful, mature, helpful and organized, dependable, hard worker, successful, focused, generous in praising others, leader, loyal, powerful
Negative characteristics of the family hero:
Inflexible, fears intimacy, driven, unable to play, has unreasonable expectations, fears failure, experiences guilt easily, has trouble getting personal needs met, rigid, controlling, and extremely judgmental (although perhaps very subtle about it) – of others and secretly of himself
Inner Feelings of the family hero:
Works hard for approval, super responsible, successful, appears to be all-together and believes himself to be special
Major hidden feelings of the family hero: Inadequacy because nothing is ever good enough.
This child will be the one who follows and believes in the family rules. That makes this child very loyal and trustworthy. This role can be observed in a family that is functioning, as well as in a family that is struggling. I can identify my oldest sibling with it – and easily identify my oldest child with that role. However, in families that are highly dysfunctional this role gets highly pronounced. In such a family, the family hero may take on the responsibilities of the addict father and become the family breadwinner at an early age. Or he may become the surrogate husband, giving his mother the emotional support she should be getting from her spouse. Heroes are seen as having it all together, as being mature and responsible. The price for putting all their energy into achieving, though, is that these heroes of the family rarely feel good inside. Instead of being in touch with who they are and what they require, they have sacrificed their emotional lives trying to preserve the family unity. Whatever family you come from or you are having – you can make a great difference in your child’s life. The great thing about knowing of these different roles is that it enables you as parents to reach out to our children and help them to not get lost in such a role and to become the unique valuable and highly capable person they are meant to be.
Ways to help your child to not get lost (or start recovering) in such a role:
- Teach your child that they are responsible for getting their own needs met and not for everyone around them. With our oldest that is something we have to teach him again and again. He will try to make his siblings obey, to prevent them from doing some kind of nonsense. He can get emotional when they ignore him and don’t follow his good advice. We then step in and tell him that we appreciate his heart and his trustworthy behavior and tell him to let us deal with the situation.
- Teach your child to play and not take himself and others so serious. They need to give up that compulsion to be perfect and give up the need to be the boss trying to win approval from authority figures. Our oldest can get really upset when his siblings tease him for example by being first to get dressed. He does not see that as game but as serious competition. He tries to meet his high self-expectations by being first. We tell him that he’s amazing even by being second and that we celebrate him for who he is – even if he’s not first.
- Allow the family hero to know, it is all right to make mistakes. Sometimes, our oldest gets grumpy and upset. Digging into his behavior, it has often to do with him realizing, that he did some sort of mistake. We reassure him, that his value doesn’t depend on him being perfect. This leads to my next point:
- Help the family hero to feel validated by his/her own person rather than by achievements. We celebrate our oldest… not only when he has achieved something. Not only when he was perfect in what he just did. But simply for being our beloved son.
Attributes: “problem child” or the “trouble maker”.
The scapegoat is – as the name describes it so accurately – the one who is taking the blame for all the problems in a family. It is typically the second child and is often described as irritating, defiant deceitful, hostile, angry and disobedient. Outer appearance: Hostile, defiant, rule breaker, in trouble
positive characteristics of the scapegoat
Has many friends, good group leader and/or counselor, courage to reveal reality, sensitive to others’ feelings, handles stress well, commands attention
Negative characteristics of the scapegoat:
anger, hostile, defiant, angry, rule-breaker, may be in trouble, may have legal trouble, irresponsible, manipulative
Inner Feelings of the scapegoat:
rejection, hurt, guilt, jealousy, loneliness, fear, anger
Major hidden feelings of the scapegoat: has self-hatred and can be very self-destructive, self rejection also means he rejects others.
His behavior is so outrageous that everyone else in the family looks good by comparison. When the family focuses on the scapegoat, it stops paying attention to the real issues that need to be resolved. The scapegoat is the truth teller of the family and will often verbalize or act out the “problem” which the family is attempting to cover up or deny. This is the child that the family feels ashamed of – and the most emotionally honest child in the family. These children are usually the most sensitive and caring which is why they feel such tremendous hurt.
When I was taught about these different roles back in 2003, I identified myself tremendously in this role. I am the second child of five, I was the one who tried to verbalize the problems I felt in my family of origin. I was the one making our family life difficult. In fact, I had left home at the age of 16 to live as an au pair in the French part of Switzerland and to do an apprenticeship. After that they didn’t allow me to come back home when I asked them to. They told me their life was finally peaceful and nice without me being part of the family. Of course there was a lot of hurt, rejection and shame of having wrecked my family. It took me years to get rid of these intense feelings and to become the person I am today. I am still the one who asks about the “why” behind the things I don’t understand. I still think that the problems I saw in my family of origin were really there and that I was spot on in what I saw. The problem was that my way of telling them was wrong – normal for a child and teenager, but still wrong. Today I have a good relationship with my family, even with those who didn’t change much. I’m able to have a relationship with them, show them love and appreciation – still seeing the patterns in their behavior that hurt me back in my childhood. Yet, now I am free. I am restored. But more on that later.
Let’s go back to the article:
Ways to help your child to not get lost (or start recovering) from such a role:
- Teach your child to learn conflict resolution rather than dealing with the difficulty by rebelling. Our second child would fit perfectly into this role of the rebel – but we don’t let her. We teach her about the possible ways to respond, when her first reaction is a rebellious outburst of her not wanting something.
- Be assertive and tell others of his/her true feelings We teach her to identify her true feelings – and her true motivation behind what she just did. She is highly vulnerable to wrong accusations and needs our love and affirmation after we have told her off wrongly – or simply when her motivations haven’t been what they seemed to be (for example when she has tripped one of her siblings, simply not thinking of the effect it would cause and then being told off that this was something mean to do).
- Learn to identify the hurt under the anger and learn to recognize when they use anger to cover hurt This even works with me to this day. When I realize anger is rising up within me by something my husband or someone else did, I quickly try to identify why… and mostly it’s because I got hurt by something they did – which they usually did not intend at all.
- Don’t get caught up in the scapegoat’s cover of “anger” and accept and love them with all their overflowing emotions We don’t let our girl get into that role of the rebellious, scapegoat. We always dig into her behavior. In the end we always, always have a sweet, tender loving girl, snuggling into our lap, telling us how much she loves us.
- Teach the scapegoat to negotiate rather than rebel . Help the scapegoat to understand he/she has control over her feelings of anger.
The main issue of this role is anger and how to well deal with it. For those parents that see themselves or their child deep into that anger issue, there are many valuable books out there that show us how to deal with anger.