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The Effect of Family Roles on Life’s Choices

by Dr. Ilona L. Tobin

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 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.

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 that role’s impact on adult life.

The Hero

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Work: No one expects much of the scapegoat and, too often, she agrees, choosing jobs that are beneath her abilities.

Relationships: The scapegoat will be drawn to friends and relationships who are certain to meet with parental disapproval. This will please her, despite the fact that her family may be right.

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.

OTHER ROLES


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.

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.

Roles may have shaped our childhood but they need not keep us in chains. Acknowledging the gifts and detriments of the role or roles that you played as a child can help you honor yourself, as well as help you make wise choices as an adult.

Ilona Tobin has been a psychologist and a marriage and family therapist for more than 25 years in Birmingham, Michigan. For more information, please visit her listing on the Therapist Directory.

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