Understanding Your Family

As the holidays approach, you may feel excited and/or anxious about seeing your family. Or, perhaps you avoid your family and feel relief at not spending time with them.

Family holds a certain space in our lives. Whether you talk to your family members every day or not at all, family has a way of either providing just the right support and a familiarity rarely found in others, or they can push our buttons faster and better than anyone.

Your relationship with your family dictates how you choose and interact with others in your life

In dysfunctional family systems (I don’t know anyone who did not come from a dysfunctional family) all family members play a role in the family which helps to keep balance in the system. This model is widely used to demonstrate alcoholic family systems but can be used for any addiction, mental illness or dysfunction. Here is how it works:

Let’s imagine one parent has an addiction. Let’s say it is Dad and he is a workaholic. What are some behaviors Dad will do? He may stay at the office until very late at night, often working from home or going back into the office at a moment’s notice. He may be unavailable to the children, emotionally as well as physically.

In order to help get the system back on balance, Mom will compensate. What are some things Mom will do? She may focus extra attention on the children, and blame her husband for not spending time with the family.
While this is happening, the kids are out of balance. Therefore, the kids take on roles to bring balance back into the system. What roles do they take on?

One will become the Hero (the Responsible One). This person gets straight A’s in school, makes lunch for his or her siblings, and makes sure everyone is doing their homework. He or she might even hide food or save money just in case the family needs it. The Hero makes the family look like it is okay.

The Lost Child is the person who may also get good grades in school, but she is withdrawn. She may read a lot, daydream, and will chose to be alone. This child also helps the family to look functional because she never gets into trouble.

The Clown or Mascot is the one that keeps everyone laughing. I would bet that today’s comedians took on the Clown role in their family. He uses humor as a way to distract from the dysfunction in the family.

The Scapegoat or Identified Patient is the one who acts out the addiction in the family, in order to draw attention away from the parent with the addiction. This is the child that is always in trouble: at school, at home and even with the law. This person’s purpose is to draw attention to the family system, to say, “Something is wrong here” and hope to get help. Unfortunately, this is rarely recognized and instead all the blame for the family is put on this child.

Things to keep in mind:
• The Lost Child and Scapegoat are at the highest risk for addictions and the Lost Child and Hero are at highest risk for eating disorders. The Lost Child usually takes on compulsive eating because she prefers to be in her own world and emotional eating helps her to stay there. The Hero may choose anorexia or bulimia because she is a perfectionist and is practiced at looking good. She can hide the behaviors and is good at using control needed for these disorders. In other words, a hidden secret life is necessary for the perfectionist hero who cannot possibly maintain her own expectations.

• Roles switch depending on the stage of the family. For example, if one child leaves, another child may take over his or her role.

• If Mom or Dad leaves or is no longer part of the system, the Hero will likely fill in the missing parental role.

• Often roles are split between children; each child can carry more than one. If there are four children in the family, each child will likely take one role.

• These roles are not bad; rather they are necessary in order to survive the family dynamics. Later in life, we continue these roles and choose partners based on them. This can recreate the system.

• There is often pressure to relapse for members of the system who try to change or enter into recovery. The trick is to change while still maintaining boundaries and accepting other family members.

• Family therapy or couples counseling is the preferred way to help change this dynamic. Sending just the Mascot into treatment might send the message that only that child has a problem.

Explore your own family system; Try the following exercise:
On a piece of paper, use colors, pictures and images to demonstrate who had what role in your family. Do this in whatever way you want. Demonstrate in some visual way these ideas:

• Who had the power

• The relationships between yourself and your other family members (i.e. were they close or distant). You can use lines to demonstrate, such as 2 lines to equal connection or a dotted line to show disconnection.

• What role each person played

Share this with someone who cares about you. Include in your sharing how you felt while doing the exercise as well as how you feel as you tell it.


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