No two families are alike. Each is unique with its own systems and culture, but in each family one thing is certain: each person plays a specific role. These roles are often set at an early age, and can have a lasting and foundational affect on the person — this is also true in families of addiction or alcoholism.
While these roles might define us at a certain point, the great thing about our brains is they are malleable. The brain has neuroplasticity. In lay terms, this means that we have the ability to change and grow throughout our lives. Whatever role might have defined you in the past does not need define you in the future. I hope you’ll keep this in mind as you explore the different roles, and which might apply to you.
The Problem Child
This is the identified loved one, the one who has a substance problem, mental health issues or experiences a process disorder (gaming, gambling, shopping, sex, spending, eating disorders).
Chaos and disorganization are often words used to describe this person, whose life is typically ruled by substances. They may isolate and blame others. Their sphere of who is important changes, as they become secretive and/or angry. They may do things that tend to have a negative effect on themselves as well as the whole family.
The Bailer-Outer does just that: bails out the loved one. Preventing them from growing, they make their bed, call into work for them, attempt to justify their behaviors and often cover them up. The Bailer-Outer wears a coat of denial. Their central role is to protect the family at all costs by bailing out, covering up, or simply saying “it just isn’t so.” Any member of the family might assume this role.
The “perfect child,” oftentimes the hero is the straight A student, captain of the team, and service-minded community volunteer. Their role is to do everything right, to make the family look good to outsiders through their achievements and accomplishments. The Hero, however, is often plagued by anxiety and, later, depression due to the amount of pressure placed on them by themselves and others.
This is the person who receives blame for all of the family’s problems. For example, let’s assume the mother has the substance abuse disorder, and the daughter takes on the onus of the parent. The child then is continuously blamed for what goes wrong in the family, and is seen as not being “good enough.” The scapegoat often strikes out in anger and may get into trouble. Their actions shield and deflect from the person with the substance abuse disorder.
Many of us are familiar with the class clown. This person is continuous in their efforts to supply comic relief inside and outside of the family. They may be the youngest child, and are often desperate for approval, fearful and fragile. Joking is an easy way to mask pain, and the Mascot might grow up to self-medicate and suffer mental health or substance abuse issues, due to a lifetime of deflecting.
The Lost Child
In this schema, the middle or the youngest child is most vulnerable to mental health issues. This role is relegated to the child who hid in the back of the classroom, afraid to be called on, or the child who had a vivid imagination that allowed them to check out and escape the world around them. They tend not to receive a lot of attention from the family, being overlooked and forgotten. They may come to have difficulty in making decisions or having intimate relationships. They may also suffer from depression, anxiety, or other types of process addictions.
These roles may be daunting to read. It’s important to remember that you are not subject to stay in a role, should you recognize yourself in an above description. Be gentle with yourself.
People can have multiple roles and the roles can change. When someone gets into recovery, the roles will switch. When someone embraces recovery, they can change family roles and become the family hero.
Knowing which roles were assigned to you in the past can be beneficial in healing as you move forward. Once you’ve identified your roles, you can look to creating healthier and more productive patterns that facilitate a happier, well-balanced life. You deserve that life.