What role did you play in your imperfect family?
Remember: all families are dysfunctional – it’s a matter of degree. So, you got to be in here somewhere. I flaunt some combination of hero and scapegoat – the ambitious outsider from a southern conservative family. Let’s see from whence you came. As you wander through this time-honored family tree, keep in mind that birth order is not dictatorial. And that one can take on behaviors of more than one role.
The Hero Child. Think perfection. Good grades, athletic star, friendly. Top of the heap. Best at everything. This child often develops an ego based on external esteem via achievement. In other words, if attention and validation are lacking at home, I need to have my bucket filled somewhere. So, the child brilliantly and creatively looks outside the family sphere to get his or her emotional needs met. Furthermore, this child does the family a great “service.” Not only does this child carry a successful persona, but the child makes the family look good too. I mean, really, only a healthy loving family could produce such a champion, right? Thus, the child covers the family shame. No one would even guess that this family is dysfunctional or that this child is hurting underneath all the bravado. The up side? This child is inbred with ambition and drive for societally-defined success. The down side? This child grows into a production machine at the expense of his/her heart, feelings and relationships.
The Scapegoat. This role is often filled by the next in line but doesn’t have to be. He or she takes one look at Super-Power older brother or sister and says, “Hell, I can’t top that. I’ll go the other direction!” Thus, this child gets attended to for how awful he or she can be because negative attention is better than no attention at all. Think black sheep. Fuck up. Trouble maker. Whereas the hero child can do no wrong, the scapegoat can do no right. Why does this child revert to such atrocity? Two reasons. First, because he or she accepts the role of “stabilizing” the dysfunctional family. Someone must eat the shit and this child volunteers. Thus, he or she absorbs all the negative projection and blame as the “bad kid” who is causing this family to be dysfunctional. “If only Johnny would behave, we’d all be happy.” Or, “If only Suzie would stop her drug use, then we’d all get along swimmingly.” Secondly, whereas the hero child compensates for the pain, the troubled child tries to cast light onto the family dysfunction in hopes for healing. A smart school guidance counselor or an informed police officer will at least question and investigate what is going on at home to cause the child to act out. Thus, the scapegoat can lead the way toward growth and change. The down side? The scapegoat child often ruins his or her own life in the process of trying to save the family.
The Lost Child. Again, not always in a classical order, but certainly makes sense in the now crowded lot where emotional resources are limited. The next child takes one look at Super Power and one at the Screw-Up. The phone is ringing non-stop with yet another college scholarship or the detention office with yet another violation. “Shit. I think the best I can do for this family is get out of the way,” says the lost child. And that is what this child offers the family – relief. He or she needs nothing. They often hole up in their room and seek emotional comfort outside of human interaction. Think computers, TV, books, food or the child that got left behind in the movie, “Home Alone.” He or she raises themselves as a means to ease the familial discord. I personally think this is the saddest of the childhood roles. Emotional deficit embeds deep in this invisible child. Scars that can last a lifetime.
The Mascot Child. This child is often the youngest but again, not necessarily. There is already a cramped house but this circus needs a clown. Someone to ease the tension by bringing comic-relief. He or she is cute, likable, gregarious. A human doll. Everyone wants to be around him or her and baby them with full-blown coddle. Again, helpful to the dysfunctional family but not so helpful to the child. Often this person never grows up. He or she needs a parent, an audience, someone to hold him or her accountable for the boring adult responsibilities that were always being done for them.
Get the picture? Which one can you identify with?
Let’s grow them up with no therapy, no self-reflection. Emotionally-stunted without having worked on themselves.
Hero. CEO of a company. Soccer coach to his/her three kids. Big earner. Big personality. Drops dead of a heart attack. Or spouse leaves for someone more emotionally attentive and available.
Scapegoat. Jail, drugs, multiple marriages with multiple children. Financial debt. Never reached potential. Angry, self-loathing and shame-filled.
Lost Child. Writer, artist. Hermit. Never married or had kids. (Why would I want to do that?) Lives in cramped studio apartment in NYC filled with books and empty food containers from the deli around the corner. Pornography. Anxious. Depressed.
Mascot. Drug addict. Fun to be around. Life of the party. Peter Pan. Unable to sustain a long-term relationship. Disney Dad. Financial ruin.
Ugh. That was wrenching, if not hopeless.
Where is the hope? – I hear you asking. With whatever your chosen path toward growth and healing, you don’t have to forever stay stuck in your cast role. You can emotionally develop and mature beyond the given script from your family of origin.
That being said, we do still carry ripples of our early life, but those patterns can turn into something constructive. The hero child can be productive, ambitious, successful and often a leader. The scapegoat can be a change-maker, a questioner, a bold trailblazer. The lost child often has a rich inner life by which to create art or intelligent thought. The mascot brings joy.
So, know your start. Thank the opportunity you had to survive. Now, get moving as to not be stifled forever as the know-it-all, the loser, the hermit or the clown. For, you are so much more than what you once needed to be.