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Family Roles

biracial man with biracial teenage boy

When you think about your family or a particular family member, you’ve likely thought, “____ always or never does ____”. This is one example of a family role. Family roles shape how we interact with each other in the family system. At times, these roles function to create and maintain a balance in the family system. Family roles have positive and negative aspects to them. The key is understanding how well these roles work for the family and how they help or hurt family members in their effort to establish deep, meaningful, and safe relationships.

Common Family Roles

The following are a number of roles that can exist within a family:

  • Hero: This is the “good” and “responsible” child. This person is a high achiever, carries the pride of the family, and he/she overcompensates to avoid looking or feeling inadequate. He/she is often a good leader and organizer, and is goal-oriented and self-disciplined. Sometimes the hero lacks the ability to play, relax, follow others, or allow others to be right.
  • Rescuer: The rescuer takes care of others’ needs and emotions and problem-solves for others in the family. The rescuer might have difficulty with conflict. He/she takes on the role of rescuer in the name of helping others, though it is often to meet his/her own needs, such as relieving anxiety. This person doesn’t realize that sometimes helping hurts. He/she also lives with a lot of guilt and finds it challenging to focus on him/herself.
  • Mediator: The mediator can be a rescuer-type although he/she works to keep peace in the family system. This person does the emotional work of the family to avoid conflict. He/she acts as a buffer, and does it in the name of helping others, although it may be for his/her needs. This can be a healthy role depending on how the person mediates.
  • Scapegoat/Black sheep: This is the person the other family members feel needs the most help. Usually this is the family member in need of treatment or in treatment. This person often shows the obvious symptoms of the family being unable to work through problems. The person may have strengths such as a sense of humor, a greater level of honesty, and the willingness to be close to his/her feelings. Yet there can also be an inappropriate expression of feelings, and the person may experience social or emotional problems.
  • Switchboard: This person is the central information center in the family. He/she keeps track of what’s going on by being aware of who is doing what and when. This person has strength in being the central person to go to and understanding how the family is doing. However, this person focuses on everyone else’s issues rather than his/her own.
  • Power broker: This person works at maintaining a hierarchy in the family with him/herself at the top. His/her safety and security with life depends on feeling in control of the environment around him/her.
  • Lost child: The lost child is the subservient good child. He/she is obedient, passive, and hidden in the family trauma. He/she stays hidden to avoid being a problem. Generally, this person is flexible and easygoing. However, he/she lacks direction, is fearful in making decisions, and follows without questioning.
  • Clown: The clown uses humor to offset the family conflict and to create a sense that things are okay. This person has a talent to readily lighten the moment but he/she hides his/her true feelings.
  • Cheerleader: The cheerleader provides support and encouragement to others. There is usually balance in taking care of his/her own needs while providing a positive influence on those around him/her.
  • Nurturer: This person provides emotional support, creates safety, is available to others, and can be a mediator. He/she focuses on having and meeting emotional needs, usually in a balanced manner.
  • Thinker: The thinker provides the objective, reasoning focus. His/her strength is being able to see situations in a logical, objective manner. However, he/she may find it difficult to connect emotionally with others.
  • Truthteller: This person reflects the system as it is. At times the challenge is how that information is relayed. Other members in the family might be offended or avoid the truthteller because of the power of the truth he/she holds. Strength occurs when this person is coupled with another positive role, such as a nurturer or cheerleader.

Identify the Roles in Your Family

  • Write down your role in the family and the roles you see other family members exhibiting. Which roles don’t benefit your family and which roles would you like to see more of? Discuss this with your family members and make goals to increase those roles you think would benefit your family.