With hardly any thought at all, you can probably say whether, in your family of origin, you played the role of the responsible one or the rebel, the people pleaser or the mascot. Roles serve an organizing function. In a family, roles sort out each person’s relationship to the group. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with roles, they become a problem when they’re rigid and shape poor choices as a teenager or adult.
Roles can be helpful or detrimental depending on how healthy each individual is in the family. The concern is that roles are especially harmful in families where abuse and/or addiction occurs. They become a vain attempt to control a situation that is chaotic and frightening. Also, as John Bradshaw explains in On the Family, roles function to project the image of the happy family, preserving denial that anything is wrong.
Family relationships are one of the biggest challenges for many who are in a caring season with their siblings. Gaining a better understanding of the roles and their impact into adulthood might make working as a team a bit easier.
Based on the work of Virginia Satir, Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider, below are the common roles that children play in the family, as well as the role’s impact on adult life.
The hero is the responsible one. She gets good grades in school, is goal oriented and self-disciplined. From the outside, she appears on top of her game. Internally, however, she bears the burden of making the family look good. She also believes that if she is perfect enough, the family problems will go away.
The hero has most often stepped into the primary caregiver in the family. She can be single-minded and sacrifice everything in order to be the perfect caregiver. My way or the highway attitude can be difficult on the family team during their caring season.
Relationships: Whether as breadwinner or head of the household, the hero will take charge, needing to lead and be in control. This can create discord or inequality in relationship.
Work: As an adult, she is often successful, reaching for excellence in her occupation. The trouble is, “excellent” is never good enough. If she’s not at the top, she’s nowhere.
Self-esteem: Although she’s a leader, she still relies upon the approval of others for her own self-worth. To be healthy, she needs to realize that she doesn’t have to prove her worthiness and that life can be joyful regardless of achievement.
The Placater or People Pleaser
The placater tries to ease and prevent any trouble in the family. He is caring, compassionate and sensitive. He also denies his own needs, is anxious and hypervigilant.
The people pleaser as a family caregiver is the worrier in the family. He often borrows trouble from the future which can bring stress but he can also help the family avoid some problems if he will speak up. He will also do whatever needs to be done for his aging parent at the expense of his own health at times.
Relationships: The placater believes that if he takes care of his partner that person will never leave. He may lose himself in his partner’s needs, becoming more caregiver than equal.
Work: The placater will find himself caretaking and facilitating in his work environment. He may be drawn to service occupations; however, in order to truly help others, he must face his need to please
Self-esteem: The people pleaser often feels that he has no value except for what he can do or be for another person. To be healthy, he needs to find his own value within.
The Scapegoat or Rebel
The scapegoat is the family member who is blamed for the trouble in the family. She acts out her anger at any family dysfunction and rebels by drawing negative attention to herself. While she is more in touch with her feelings than the other roles and is often creative, in school she gets poor grades and is often in trouble.
The rebel usually is not a part of the caring team in a family, rather she pops in and out. Sometimes stepping up and being a big help but usually not sticking around long enough to really help them.
Relationships: The scapegoat will be drawn to friends and relationships who are certain to meet with disapproval. This will please her, despite the fact that her family may be right.
Work: No one expects much of the scapegoat and, too often, she agrees, choosing jobs that are beneath her abilities.
Self-esteem: While the scapegoat rebels against the family, she also internalizes their poor opinion of her and thus fails to acknowledge her talents. She’s a screw-up, she’ll say, proudly. To be healthy, she needs to realize that she’s much more than that.
The Mascot is the class clown with the uncanny ability to relieve stress and pain for others.
But there’s something missing that he won’t find until he looks beneath the humor façade and faces his own pain. A family mascot can bring levity to the family and the healthier he gets the more he will be able to bring to the caregiving family.
The Lost Child is quiet, withdrawn, lonely and depressed. She doesn’t draw attention to herself because she doesn’t want to be a burden.
But what she wants most is to be seen and loved, and to be healthy, she must allow herself to be visible. The lost child can be an important part of the family if you embrace her and are aware of her, Helping her discover how much of a help she can be to her loved one and the family.
Roles may have shaped our childhood but that does not mean that you have to stay in that role as an adult. Acknowledging the gifts and detriments of the role or roles that you and your siblings played as a child can help you honor yourself and them, as well as help you make wise choices as adults. Your role in your family is important during your caring season.
No one can take your place in your parent’s hearts. They need and want you to have a place on the caregiving team.
What role are you playing? How is that role helpful to your parent and family? How can you move beyond your role to a healthier place?
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Rayna Neises understands the joys and challenges that come from a season of caring. She helped care for both of her parents during their separate battles with Alzheimer’s over a thirty-year span. She is able to look back on those days now with no regrets – and she wishes the same for every woman caring for aging parents.
To help others through this challenging season of life, Rayna has written No Regrets: Hope for Your Caregiving Season, a book filled with her own heart-warming stories and practical suggestions for journeying through a caregiving season. Rayna is an ICF Associate Certified Coach with certifications in both Life and Leadership Coaching from the Professional Christian Coaching Institute.
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