"There are four basic roles that children adopt in order to survive growing up in emotionally dishonest, shame-based, dysfunctional family systems."

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". . . people who go into the helping professions do truly care and are not doing what they do simply out of Codependence.  Nothing is black and white.  Recovery is about getting honest with ourselves and finding some balance in our life."


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the Web Site of Robert Burney and Joy to You and Me Enterprises.

Robert Burney is a codependency therapist, Spiritual teacher, and the author of the Joyously inspirational book

Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls.

On this page is a column about Roles In Dysfunctional Families written by Robert Burney.
Quotations in maroon are from Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls by Robert Burney (Copyright 1995). Quotations from columns & articles (Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999) written by Mr. Burney are noted and in blue text. Blue text material that is not in quotes is from Robert's upcoming book Wounded Souls Dancing in the Light (Copyright 1998) unless otherwise noted. There are several authors quoted in excerpts from The Dance of Wounded Souls, those are noted with copyright acknowledgment at the end of the applicable page.

This is a column by Robert Burney 
 
 

Roles In Dysfunctional Families

by Robert Burney M.A.

žWe have come to understand that both the passive and the aggressive behavioral defense systems are reactions to the same kinds of childhood trauma, to the same kinds of emotional wounds.  The Family Systems Dynamics research shows that within the family system, children adopt certain roles according to their family dynamics.  Some of these roles are more passive, some are more aggressive, because in the competition for attention and validation within a family system the children must adopt different types of behaviors in order to feel like an individual.Ó

Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls  by Robert Burney\
There are four basic roles that children adopt in order to survive growing up in emotionally dishonest, shame-based, dysfunctional family systems.  Some children maintain one role into adulthood while others switch from one role to another as the family dynamic changes (i.e. when the oldest leaves home, etc.)

žResponsible ChildÓ - žFamily HeroÓ

This is the child who is ž9 going on 40.Ó  This child takes over the parent role at a very young age, becoming very responsible and self-sufficient.  They give the family self-worth because they look good on the outside.  They are the good students, the sports stars, the prom queens.  The parents look to this child to prove that they are good parents and good people.

As an adult the Family Hero is rigid, controlling, and extremely judgmentalof others and secretly of themselves.  They achieve žsuccessÓ on the outside and get lots of positive attention but are cut off from their inner emotional life, from their True Self.  They are compulsive and driven as adults because deep inside they feel inadequate and insecure.
 
 

žActing out childÓ - žScapegoatÓ

This is the child that the family feels ashamed of - and the most emotionally honest child in the family.  He/she acts out the tension and anger the family ignores.  This child provides distraction from the real issues in the family.  The scapegoat usually has trouble in school because they get attention the only way they know how - which is negatively.  They often become pregnant or addicted as teenagers.

These children are usually the most sensitive and caring which is why they feel such tremendous hurt.  They are romantics who become very cynical and distrustful.  They have a lot of self-hatred and can be very self-destructive.
 
 

žPlacaterÓ - žMascotÓ

This child takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family.  They become the families Žsocial directorÓ and clown, diverting the familyŪs attention from the pain and anger.

This child becomes an adult who is valued for their kind heart, generosity, and ability to listen to others.  Their whole self-definition is centered on others and they donŪt know how to get their own needs met.  They become adults who cannot receive love, only give it.  They often get involved in abusive relationships in an attempt to žsaveÓ the other person.  They go into the helping professions and become nurses, and social workers, and therapists.  They have very low self-worth and feel a lot of guilt.
 
 

žAdjusterÓ - žLost ChildÓ

This child escapes by attempting to be invisible.  They daydream, fantasize, read a lot of books or watch a lot of TV. They deal with reality by withdrawing from it.  They deny that they have any feelings and ždonŪt bother getting upset.Ó

These children grow up to be adults who find themselves unable to feel and suffer very low self-esteem.  They are terrified of intimacy and often have relationship phobia.  They are very withdrawn and shy and become socially isolated because that is the only way they know to be safe from being hurt.  A lot of actors and writers are Žlost childrenŪ who have found a way to express emotions while hiding behind their characters.

It is important to note that we adapt the roles that are best suited to our personalities.  We are, of course, born with a certain personality.  What happens with the roles we adapt in our family dynamic is that we get a twisted, distorted view of who we are as a result of our personality melding with the roles. This is dysfunctional because it causes us to not be able to see ourselves clearly.  The false self that we develop to survive is never totally false - there is always some Truth in it.  For example, people who go into the helping professions do truly care and are not doing what they do simply out of Codependence.  Nothing is black and white.  Recovery is about getting honest with ourselves and finding some balance in our life.


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Copyright 1997 by Robert Burney    PO Box 977 Cambria, CA 93428
(The Column "Roles In Dysfunctional Families" by Robert Burney originally appeared in the Information Press of San Luis Obispo California)
I wrote this column years ago adapting several different lists that I had.  I do not remember the original sources.  If anyone knows the original source of any of them, I would be more than happy to give credit where credit is due.
6/9/08 I received an e-mail from Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse pointing out that the four roles originated in her book Another Chance --Hope and Health For The Alcoholic Family published in 1981.   I acknowledge her on my recommended book page as one of the Pioneers of the Adult Child / Codependence recovery movement.