Scapegoat, lost child, clown… the dysfunctional family roles

Dysfunctional family

A dysfunctional family is one in which bad behavior, conflicts and frequently abuse and neglect by one or both of the parents happens regularly. Children of dysfunctional families most often grow up in these households thinking this is how every family is behind the doors of their family home.

Dysfunctional families are most frequently because one of the parents is an addict in some way and/or with an undiagnosed or untreated mental health condition. The other parent is  most likely to be codependent.

Dysfunctional parents are usually imitating their own dysfunctional parents. This is because as children we all imitate our parents to some degree.

It is likely that these dysfunctional behaviors have been in the “family blueprint” – the family way of being and its rules – for generations.

It is handed down from generation to generation. New generations will not question it because as children we have nothing else to measure it against.

Particularly in the first ten years of life we are being molded – learning how to respond and behave, finding out what’s morally right and wrong. This means that growing up in a dysfunctional family can negatively impact us for the rest of our lives.

Features of dysfunctional families

Common features of dysfunctional families

Lack of boundaries

It is normal in a dysfunctional family for there to be a relentless amount of criticism, little or no empathy and there is often neglect and abuse. Because of this it leaves all family members with no understanding of what a healthy boundary is for themselves, and consequently how to insist on and enforce one.

Conflict issues

There is either between different family members no discussion as it might lead to conflict, or there is almost continual conflict.


Treatment of one or more family members is not steady or fair. This could be due to such as gender, age, birth order, intelligence, abilities or their family role. It means that family rules and norms are inconsistent and confusing.

Healthy communication difficulties

This is not only between themselves but also outside the family. Dysfunctional families are extremely strict about the rule that when it comes to any information about them that: “Nobody must ever know…”


This means living with a belief that their unhealthy family situation is normal or even useful. The denial is usually not overtly conscious, it’s complex and much to do with the fact that there is no concept of what a healthy family is like. The “family blueprint” also hands down moral obligations that if not followed leave a feeling of guilt and even shame as – going back generations – “This is the way our family has always done it.”

What are the dysfunctional family roles?

These can also be known as the “family survival roles”, which to a great extent explains why these roles develop. But it is important to realize that dysfunctional family roles can be flexible.

This means that one family member will mostly be given or adopt one role. But they can also shift to aspects of – or fully at a certain time – another role if changes occur within the family.

The Addict

The Addict

The Addict (sometimes known as the Identified Patient or IP) may be addicted to alcohol, drugs and/or behavioral addictions such as work, sex, food, gambling as well as things that change the way they feel like power and rage.

Whether they are in active addiction or getting treatment, they will very often be the family’s focus. Within The Addict role can also be the roles of being a victim, rebel and an offender.

The Codependent

The Codependent/Co-addict

Many people think that a dysfunctional family must always be just about to break apart, that one of the parents will leave the other. But this is frequently in fact not the case at all – because the parents have “found” each other.

A codependent parent gets the external validation they need from the other parent. They feel needed because they feel that The Addict cannot survive life without them.

It’s about desperately seeking love and approval. This is most usually because these basic needs were unmet when they were a child.

So the addiction or addictions are tolerated, often ignored and excuses are readily made for The Addict – because The Codependent is addicted to the relationship. This is the reason that in some cases, The Addict will neglect or abuse their children and yet The Codependent will not stop it or even say anything.

The Codependent may also be addicted to emotions such as anxiety or sadness that serve as distractions from the painful emptiness they feel deep down. This role has many aspects of The Caretaker role that follows, although The Caretaker role is very often adopted by or assigned to one of the family’s children as well. 

The Peacemaker

The Caretaker/Peacemaker/Mediator

The Caretaker will be on constant alert to deal with any family issues and conflicts. This will always go ahead of their own personal needs, which is obviously not healthy.

They are the one who takes on the duties and responsibilities of others in the family. They will be continually attempting to save other family members from the consequences of their words and actions.

For a child to take on a parental role in this way is not only sad as it hinders the child’s childhood, it is deeply damaging. They often grow up to subconsciously seek partners with addiction, mental health or chronic health issues.

Because much of their dysfunctional family role is driven by anxiety that the family will fall apart, if they don’t always step in just in time, they are likely to become adults who suffer from stress, anxiety and depression.

As children they will often feel drained. This continues into adulthood and throughout their life, especially as people who had this role in a family find it difficult to relax – they always have to be doing something.

The Superkid

The Golden Child/Hero/Saint/Superkid

This is the child who can do no wrong. Because they are so “perfect” it lets the family believe there is nothing wrong because they have obviously done something right – just like everyone is always telling them.

But The Golden Child will have intense pressure to continue with their achievements or risk exposing the real dysfunction of their family.

They most likely only get attention when they’re achieving something – so they will often become perfectionists and are set up for a stressful life. They only feel as if they are somebody if they are achieving things. 

This role is frequently seen in a family with one or both parents suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. A narcissist loves the image of themselves, but not their true self because inside they will always feel unlovable – so they are continually seeking love and approval through their image.

The Mascot

The Clown/Mascot

As a rule the atmosphere in a dysfunctional family is tense. The Clown steps into the role of “mood lightener” to avoid something boiling over again.

Consequently, as with The Caretaker they will be on high alert at all times. They will be perpetually ready with some humor or clowning around to act as a distraction from any potential issues.

Each time this works, the pressure is pushed up for them to act in a similar way the next time. This pressure means they will most likely be full of constant anxiety inside.

In adulthood, they will continue to use humor and amusing behavior to deal with any potential conflict, when often an issue really needs to be discussed or faced. They may well end up in a dysfunctional relationship in which they can use their Clown “skills”.

The Lost Child

The Lost Child

Where there is a Golden Child there is a Lost Child. They attempt to stay out of the dysfunctional picture as much as possible by staying quiet, on their own and fending for themselves as much as possible.

Their needs are going unmet anyway. Consequently, this child will withdraw, feel alone and desperately yearn for love, approval and attention.

They are unlikely to have positive social skills or healthy self-esteem. This can continue into adulthood and so they will struggle to have any meaningful relationships.

The Troublemaker

The Scapegoat/Troublemaker/Black Sheep

Someone has to be blamed for the family’s continual problems. The Scapegoat and The Golden Child are often put against each other, which serves to strengthen their dysfunctional family roles.

In actual fact, The Scapegoat is frequently the only emotionally stable one in the family. They are the ones that speak the truth about the family’s dysfunction – but because they have broken the rule that “Nobody must ever know…” the family will make them pay by labelling them as the problem, the cause of all the family’s troubles.

They may only get any attention when they do something that causes a problem. So they cause problems, such as misbehaving at school or getting in trouble with the police.

The Scapegoat is usually assigned their role at a very young age. Then they are from then on in a clear no-win situation because everything they do is seen as “bad” or “wrong”.

It can leave them feeling guilt-ridden and full of shame. This can have obvious negative impacts when they are adults.

In recovery it’s essential to know what dysfunctional family role (or roles) someone might have had. It can help to understand why they are as they are in adulthood.

Speaking with a therapist with expertise in these matters can help someone move on and move into recovery.

Contact us today to discuss what we can do to help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

Reader Interactions

Leave a comment