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Improving your Family Relationships

Going home for the holidays and dreading that there will be no change in your family relationships? Does your significant other ever accuse you of becoming someone he or she doesn’t recognize when you’re with your family? Maybe you’re reverting to an old and familiar role…

In most families, we each play a role. In dysfunctional homes, where there is violence, addiction, or physical or mental illness, those roles become more pronounced as a reaction to or a protection from the dysfunction. But even in the healthiest family relationships, we tend to each taken on certain patterns in the dyanmic.

I was watching Growing Pains on TV the other night (remember Robin Thicke and Joanna Kerns played the hapless parents and Kirk Cameron (Mike), Tracey Gold (Carol), Jeremy Miller (Ben), and Ashley Johnson (Crissy) played the savvy children?) and decided I’d use that family to explain those roles.

The Enabler

The Enabler is usually the spouse but it could be a parent or a child. The Seaver household did not have a family problem (except that the kids were smarter than the parents; I’ll save that for another blog) so there was no Enabler in that household. The Enabler’s job is to hold the family together. By doing so, they enable the dysfunction to continue. At first, the enabler seems to be making the reasonable response to the problem. Your spouse isn’t sober enough to drive the children to soccer practice so you take them. When your child is arrested, you bail them out…again…and again. If money becomes tight due to legal fees or replacing another wrecked car, you may go get a second job. Soon, the enabler is caught in a vicious cycle of being “helpful” without realizing the help only helps the problem.

The Hero

The Hero is usually the first-born, but in the Seaver household, daughter Carol is the hero. The role of the Hero is to bring self-worth to the family. Carol was a straight-A student, never in trouble, took on leadership roles in school and at home. Often as an adult, the Hero becomes the Enabler in their own family.

The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat usually follows behind the Hero in birth order but in the Seaver family, Mike is the Scapegoat. Always getting into trouble, the Scapegoat’s job is to draw the negative attention away from the problem. The Scapegoat often identifies with the dysfunctional individual and may become like him or her.

The Lost Child

The Lost Child is usally a middle child. Lost Children are often quiet and unobtrusive, easily overlooked. The Lost Child provides relief by staying out of the way and staying out of trouble. These children are the ones who spend time alone in their rooms or out with friends, especially when trouble is brewing. Overlooked by and avoiding family, the Lost Child often depends on peer relationships for support.

The Mascot

The Mascot is usually the youngest child. This child brings comic relief to the family by being charming, funny, and/or helpless. Young Ben filled this role for a while but then when baby Crissy arrived, Ben likely shifted to the Lost Child position.

You Can Change

I had a client who was the youngest of five boys and was the family mascot. Growing up in an alcoholic household, he was the butt of many “good-natured” jokes and often made jokes to stop arguments between his parents. He came to therapy feeling depressed that his family relationships were not satisfying and he was falling behind his peers at work. Once he realized he was still making jokes about himself as a way of breaking tension and diffusing situations, he came to see it was not gaining him the respect he wanted or deserved at work or with his family.

In therapy, he was able to recognize the pattern and realized those funny jokes weren’t so funny and often hurt. He also realized he used humor to avoid confronting important issues with his family. In just a few sessions, he was able to start turning things around and he stopped making himself a target of jokes and became more assertive to stop others from joking about him. He soon felt more confident and relaxed and was able to assert himself more. As he stopped making jokes at his own expense, he also noticed others were listening to him and sought his opinion. At last report, he was in a management training program at work and looking forward to advancement.

Whether you grew up in a dysfunctional home or not, you may recognize yourself in one (or more) of these roles. You may also want to reflect on how those behaviors show up in your relationships today, and whether they still serve you or get in your way.  As my client will attest, you can change your actions to better help you live a healthier, happier life.

Would love to hear your comments about the roles you played in your family and how they effect you as an adult today.