The Dysfunctional Family


  • Practicing functionality can be hazardous.
  • Practice functionality within a safe environment first, in a place where consequences aren’t severe.
  • When practicing functionality within a personal relationship e.g. marriage or family, you may need to prepare for violence.  Do what you can ahead to protect yourself and minor children, if they are involved in the relationship.
  • Call/talk with safe others about your needs and plans.

The Mobile as a Model


     A mobile is a pretty gadget that hangs from a string with objects arranged in such a way that they are balanced as they hang from sticks or small rods and swirl and dance as a breeze flows through them.  They can be as simple as the kind that hang above a child’s crib to stimulate the baby with color, objects and movement.  Or they can be elaborate works of art made of prisms that catch and reflect ambient light in an endless variety.  The family mobile is made up of parents, their parents and extended family members, their children, their children’s spouses, grand children, etc.  In an ideal family one can see balance and symmetry and a system that allows the breeze to move the individuals freely and gracefully.


The Rules

1. NO think

2. NO feel

3. NO talk

4. NO trust


Source:  John Bradshaw on the Family


The Roles


     This is not meant to be an exhaustive line and we can exhibit a combination of these and others.


1. The golden child: the one who can do no wrong. In adulthood, this role often manifests as perfectionism and a low sense of self. It is common for these people to become obsessively attached to others, as they learned to get their value and worth from external sources.


2. The hero: the one who “proves” to the rest of the world the family is all right. They hold onto an idea like, “If little Jimmy is a football star, then our family can’t be that bad.” In adulthood, they are drawn to achievement and success and are prone to perfectionism and being overworked.


3. The mascot: the one who diffuses conflict in the family. Skilled with humor and other methods of deflection, they are able to draw attention toward themselves and away from where it could turn volatile. Many well-known comedians and actors are self-proclaimed “mascots.”


4. The identified patient: the person who is frequently the family’s “reason” for having problems or perhaps their reason for coming to therapy: “We're here because Bobby has a substance abuse problem,” is often heard in the therapeutic setting. As therapists, we often call this person the “identified patient” of the family, because, while the family thinks this person is the reason for them coming to therapy, clinicians know that the true issues run much deeper than one person. When the person is a child, caregivers often excuse problematic behavior as immature, still able to be “fixed,” but, by adulthood, if they haven’t already, this person often becomes the family’s "black sheep."


5. The scapegoat (a.k.a. the black sheep): the person who is the outlier—the one who is different. They are the opposite of the hero and are often the focus of the family's problems. What one family considers “normal” might make them the black sheep in another. In my experience, the black sheep is often the most honest of the family members—the one who “broke away.” But being the honest one does not always come with perks. The rest of the family, often too uncomfortable with their honesty, will try to distance themselves from them, especially if they are unhealed and still in the denial phase.


6. The lost child: the one just trying to survive unnoticed, because getting noticed means getting in trouble or being in the limelight. In adulthood, this person will maintain that feeling of being lost and unseen, often having low self-esteem or self-worth. They will struggle to make decisions and constantly have feelings of invisibility or not being “seen.”


7. The enabler or caretaker: the person who maintains the look or appearance of normalcy within the family. They support and affirm the unhealthy behavior of other family members who might have a substance use disorder or untreated mental illness or personality disorder. I sometimes see this role merged with the "golden child," but not always. In adulthood, this role often manifests into more of the same. They continue trying to “fix” others and have an overall strong sense of responsibility and ownership over the problems of others.


8. The parentified child: the one who will take on the role of the other spouse in an absence of a healthy caretaker relationship. Sometimes this role is also the caretaker, but not always. In adulthood, this person is frequently drawn to relationships with a lot of dysfunction and emotionally unavailable partners. They struggle with boundaries and base their self-worth on their partner’s (or others’) approval.


Adapted from Psychology Today



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