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Are You An Adult Child of A Dysfunctional Family? 8 Dysfunctional Family Roles (& How To Overcome Them)

6 Dysfunctional Family Roles (+FREE Worksheets PDF)

Today, you’re going to find out if you’re an Adult Child of a dysfunctional family, discover the 8 dysfunctional family roles and find out how to recover from Adult Child syndrome.

What Constitutes A Functional Family?

A functional family system is one that meets family members’ needs. Those needs include:

  • Basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter.
  • Safety, warmth and nurturance: appropriate touch, laughing together, crying together, sharing joys together and protecting each other from harm.
  • Love and belongingness: a sense of communion, of belonging to a group or a unit, of being loved and included.
  • Autonomy or separateness (depending upon the age of the family member): freedom to find out and express what they like and don’t like, a sense of uniqueness, privacy.
  • Self-esteem or a sense of worth: this is done by praise and healthy skill-building.
  • Room for human error and imperfection: freedom to make mistakes.
  • Fun: playfulness and creativity.
  • Spirituality: it doesn’t have to be a formal religion, but rather a relationship with a Higher Power (be it God, Nature, the Universe, or the ineffable, unexplainable around us).

Related: Healing From Childhood Emotional Neglect In 6 Steps (+FREE Worksheets PDF)

8 Dysfunctional Family Roles

The needs that each family member needs are usually divided up and delegated to one family member or not present at all.

The following are some of the dysfunctional family roles that develop (Wegscheider-Cruse, Satir, Kellogg).

1. The Do-er

The Do-er provides most or all of the basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter). The Do-er does a lot but because it is a dysfunctional family, basic needs are all the Do-er has the time or energy to do.

This leaves the Do-er feeling tired, empty, and taken advantage of. But the Do-er gets a lot of satisfaction out of being so accomplished and their overdeveloped sense of responsibility keeps them going.

2. The Enabler/Helper

The Enabler provides nurturance and sense of belongingness for the family. They keep everyone together and try to avoid conflict.

Sometimes, this person is also the Do-er.

The Enabler is motivated by fear of abandonment and fear that other family members cannot stand on their own two feet.

Related: Caregiving vs Caretaking (The Savior Complex)

3. The Lost Child/Loner

The Lost Child copes with the family dysfunction by means of escape and isolating themselves. But it is not healthy aloneness.

In a way, the Lost Child is taking care of the family’s needs for separateness and autonomy.

Related: How To Overcome Avoidant Attachment Style?

4. The Hero

The Hero makes the family proud. They accomplish great things in life but would secretly feel awful because of their other family members who are not doing as well.

The Hero provides self-esteem for the family but at the expense of their own well-being.

Related: Top 20 Practical Ways to Overcome Toxic Perfectionism (& Get Things Done)

5. The Mascot

The Mascot provides humor, a sense of fun or playfulness, and a distorted type of “joy” for the family.

On the other hand, the Mascot’s true feelings of pain and isolation don’t get expressed.

6. The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat is the “black sheep.” They act out all of the family’s dysfunction and therefore take the blame for the family.

The Scapegoat might get into drugs, steal, get in a lot of fights, act out sexually, etc.

The family might say something like, “If your little brother weren’t such a trouble maker, we would be a healthy family.”

7. Dad’s Little Princess/Mom’s Little Man

This is when a child gets to be “a little spouse” to one of the parents.

This role is a form of emotional abuse. The child does not get to be a child.

8. The Saint

This child expresses the family’s spirituality and is expected to become a priest, a nun, a rabbi or a monk.

The expectation might not be a spoken one but rather one that is subtly reinforced and encouraged, by making the child believe that they are only worthy if they act out the spirituality for the family.

Many people will have more than one role (a Lost Child can also be a Scapegoat) or change roles as they grow up (a Mascot can later become a Hero).

Do these roles exist in functional family?

The answer is No!

Instead of roles, functional families have different personality types.

One family member might be shy but that doesn’t mean that they’ll isolate themselves and become the Lost Child/Loner.

What Is The Adult Child Syndome?

An adult child is someone who grew up under the care – or lack thereof – of alcoholics or dysfunctional parents in general.

Because of the abuse, neglect, or poor parenting judgment of their parents or primary caretakers, these adult children are facing challenges when it comes to their mental health, relationships, and even physical health.

Dr. Lindsay Gibson, a psychotherapist, and author of three self-help books on the topic, says “The adult child is often not in touch with their own interior. They are not in touch with their feelings, their instincts, their intuitions, their impulses in a way that a normal, healthy person should be.”

Related: Undermothered: How to Mother Yourself Using These Practical 10 Strategies?

Symptoms of Adult Children Syndrome

Adult children may experience a wide range of different symptoms, such as

  • stress-related disorders,
  • substance use disorders and other addictions,
  • depression,
  • phobias,
  • anxiety,
  • personality disorders,
  • sexual dysfunction,
  • intimacy disorders,
  • eating disorders,
  • compulsive behavior, and
  • obsessions.

Regardless of the symptoms, you are an Adult Child of a Dysfunctional Family if something happened to you (1) a long time ago, (2) more than once, (3) it hurts you, and (4) you tried to protect yourself the only way you knew how and are still trying to protect yourself but it’s not working anymore.

If you’re an adult child, your symptoms will have certain characteristics that seem to hold true for most Adult Children:

  • They are part of your denial system
  • They give you the illusion that you are in control
  • They started out as a coping mechanism for a pain that as a child you had no power to remove
  • They are a way to numb your feelings and avoid them
  • They are intimacy “blockers”
  • They are about shame

Many of us will display adult child syndrome symptoms with varying intensity.

Emotions worksheets

How To Recover From Adult Child Syndrome?

#1. Increase Self-Awareness

Take a step back and look at your life as if you were someone else.

The following questions can help you do that:

  • How does your life feel like? Is it a good life? Does it feel fulfilling? Boring?
  • Are there enough people in your life? Too many? Do you like them? Do they like you? Are they the kind of people you really want to have in your life?

#2. Get Feedback From Your Loved Ones

Another way to uncover unhealthy behaviors and issues is to get feedback from people you trust.

Does your partner feel that you have an unhealthy behavior or an issue that you’re in denial about?

Do you have anyone other than your partner with whom you can talk about “personal things”? What do they think?

#3. Take Action

Make a decision to change your current lifestyle and heal your past.

Depending on the problems you’re facing, you may consider going through treatment program for an addiction, seeing a therapist, joining a support group, etc.

Related: Best 15 Inner Child Exercises: How To Connect With Your Inner Child (& Heal Your Childhood Wounds)

Come out of denial Worksheets (2)


It is important to note that healthy family systems also experience stress and problems.

However, they are able to handle these problems in a healthy way.

Healthy families share responsibilities, spend quality time together, recognize and admit their own stress, and so something to change the situation.


  • Portions of this article were adapted from the book Adult Children Secrets of Dysfunctional Families: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, © 1988 by John C. Friel Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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