The 8 most common dysfunctional family roles (& how to fix them)

10 minutes read -
A sad girl with her parents fighting in the background
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Summary: Family roles can create a strong foundation, but unhealthy ones can lead to problems. Discover how to identify them and transform your dynamics for the better.
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We all love a good family drama. But let’s be honest—when it’s your own family playing out a dysfunctional script, it’s less The Kardashians and more downright disastrous.

You know the feeling. Holidays with passive-aggressive barbs. Or your every move feels judged by a resident family critic.

These ingrained patterns are what’s called “family roles.” Simply put, it’s where everyone falls into a predictable role.

And understanding them can be the first step to rewriting the script and creating a more harmonious family dynamic.

What are family roles?

Family roles are the unspoken behaviors and expectations that define how we interact with each other. They can be positive—think of the supportive younger sister or the wise older brother. But more often than not, they fall into unhealthy patterns.

They can stem from a variety of factors, like conflict, misbehavior, neglect, abuse, or generational beliefs. And they can leave you feeling stuck, misunderstood, and resentful.

Most of our beliefs are unconscious; we don’t even know that we have them,” says Shelly Lefkoe, the owner of Lefkoe Institute and founder of Parenting the Next Generation, in Mindvalley’s Little Humans Quest. “But they totally determine our behavior, our emotions, and even our reality.”

This unconscious programming can create a ripple effect, shaping how you view yourself and interact with the world.

8 common roles in family

When it comes to family dynamics, the roles are diverse. So what do these characters look like?

Here are eight of the most common ones you might find:

The golden child, hero, or saint

A seemingly perfect child, this person basks in the spotlight and is showered with praise. 

The downside of it is, being the golden child-slash-hero-slash-saint can come with a heavy burden. They’re constantly trying to be #1 and can be in constant fear of letting the family down.

Example in pop culture: Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls

The scapegoat or black sheep

It’s likely you know a scapegoat-slash-black sheep or two. This person is the family’s designated “problem child,” and they’re often blamed for everything that goes wrong.

Scapegoats can feel like outsiders, struggling to gain approval and feeling misunderstood. As a result, they may act out in response to the negativity, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Example in pop culture: Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls

The parentified child

When the parents are unable to be and act like parents, sometimes the child (often the eldest) takes on that role.

They’re mature for their age and are responsible and dependable. However, that’s at the expense of their childhood. And the unfortunate thing is, it can become difficult for them to form healthy relationships with their actual parents.

Example in pop culture: Randall Pearson from This Is Us

The mascot or clown

They’re loud. They’re funny. And they’re the life of the party. These people are the family mascot—they use humor to lighten the mood and deflect tension.

While they bring laughter, this role can mask deeper issues and prevent them from forming genuine connections.

Example in pop culture: Chandler Bing from Friends 

The addict

Children of alcoholics and adult children of addicts (ACOA) are terms used to describe people who grew up in a household where one or both parents struggled with substance abuse. More often than not, they develop their own unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope with the dysfunction at home.

The thing is, this role isn’t limited to just drugs and alcoholism. It can also encompass any unhealthy behavior used to cope with emotional pain or family dysfunction. 

Family roles in addiction become particularly complex. While the addict’s behavior is central, other members often fall into specific roles in response, like the enabler who protects the addict or the hero who tries to fix everything. 

Example in pop culture: Kevin Pearson from This Is Us

The lost child, problem child, or rebel

Often withdrawn or attention-seeking, the lost child acts out in ways that cry for help. They may struggle academically or socially, feeling unseen and unheard.

These lost children can feel like they don’t belong and may lash out in ways that further isolate them.

Example in pop culture: Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family

The peacemaker or mediator

The peacemaker is the family diplomat, constantly trying to smooth over conflict and maintain harmony. They often find themselves caught in the middle of squabbles and mediating arguments.

While this role can be helpful in the short term, it can also lead to the peacemaker neglecting their own needs to keep everyone else happy.

Example in pop culture: Elaine Benes from Seinfeld

The narcissist

Those in narcissistic family roles only care about one thing: themselves. They demand constant admiration and attention, and they may use manipulation and control to get it.

As a result, they often leave a trail of emotional wreckage in their wake. And their self-absorption can be incredibly damaging to family relationships.

Example in pop culture: Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones

An older sister consoling her younger brother

How to heal from dysfunctional family roles

If your children (or even you) struggle with the effects of dysfunctional family roles, know that it doesn’t mean they have to stay there.

Explore these expert-backed tips. They can help you parent consciously so you can take the steps to heal the dysfunction in your family dynamics and the roles that your children have fallen into.

1. Challenge your own negative beliefs

Most of our negative thoughts about ourselves as adults are due to disempowering beliefs that we form as children.

The thing is, the way adults parent changes the way their children see the world and their chance to thrive, according to a British birth cohort study. That means healthy family dynamics shape healthy children, and vice versa.

So think back to your childhood. How might your family dynamics have shaped your self-perception?

Shelly recommends questioning the negative beliefs you hold about yourself. These beliefs might sound like “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t deserve happiness.”

Often, these beliefs stem from misinterpretations of childhood experiences. For instance, maybe you failed a test and concluded you’re “bad at math” instead of recognizing it as a single setback.

To challenge these negative beliefs, ask yourself: “What is the evidence for this belief?

Look for alternative interpretations. Did you not study for the test? Was the teacher’s style not a good fit for your learning?

By seeking evidence to the contrary, you can begin to weaken the hold these negative beliefs have on you. And as a result, you don’t spill it over to your children.

2. Practice active listening

It’s no secret that an essential aspect of building strong relationships is active listening.

When your child is talking to you, just look at them and say, ‘Hmm. Oh. I see. I got it. That makes sense’…and then stop talking,” Shelly advises. “And when you listen and listen and listen, when they stop talking, keep listening, you will find out things that you will not find out if you keep talking. So practice active listening.”

This parenting skill is a way to create a safe space for open communication. This will not only strengthen your bond with your child but also equip them with the skills to be a good listener themselves, fostering healthier relationships throughout their lives.

3. Validate their feelings

Before you say anything,” says Shelly, “the most important thing is, ‘I totally hear how sad you are. I totally hear how angry you are. That makes total sense to me that you want that.’ Then you can interact.”

This is how you can validate your child’s emotions.

It builds on the foundation of active listening, where you acknowledge and accept their feelings, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. The most important thing is, it shows them you understand and care.

This not only provides a safe space for them to express themselves openly, but it also fosters trust and helps them to identify and manage their emotions in a healthy way.

Keep in mind, though, that validation is different from praise. You don’t need to judge their emotions as good or bad. Simply acknowledge their feelings and let them know it’s okay to feel that way.

4. Move out of control and into connection

Instead of constantly trying to control your child’s behavior, focus on building a deeper connection. Dr. Shefali Tsabary, a clinical psychologist, acknowledges the frustration parents feel when they know they love their child but struggle to connect in her Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest on Mindvalley.

Connection with our children doesn’t just come about because we have a good intention to connect,” she explains. “All true connection emerges from one place only: our connection to ourselves.”

If you’re disconnected from yourself, you can’t truly connect with your child. Past experiences and unresolved issues can create barriers to connection.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries or provide guidance. However, the approach shifts from giving orders to asking questions. By fostering curiosity and open-mindedness, you invite your child to share their experiences and feelings.

5. Let go of the expectations

When you expect your child to behave in a certain way, it creates pressure and disconnection. 

Expectations create this conditional kind of love,” Dr. Shefali points out. “When our desires, needs, our wants, our expectations get met, we show great love for our kids. And when they don’t get met, then we immediately withdraw our love; we enter reactivity and anger.”

Look at it this way: You want Chinese food, but there are no restaurants nearby. You either change your expectations (find a different meal) or change your reality (travel to a different town). This applies to parenting as well.

Dr. Shefali suggests taking these three steps:

  1. When feeling stuck, ask yourself what you expected.
  2. Re-evaluate your expectations. Are they realistic and helpful? Can you adjust them?
  3. Choose to change your expectations or your reality.

There might not always be a perfect solution, but letting go of rigid expectations creates space for empathy.

FAQ

What is the impact of dysfunctional family dynamics?

Did you know that in the United States, “more people”—approximately 70–80%—“come from dysfunctional families than healthy families,” according to Terence T. Gorski, M.A., N.C.A.C., in his book, Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy?

While this unhealthy family dynamic is common, growing up in such an environment can affect you in many ways. You might experience low self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, or trouble maintaining healthy relationships. These dynamics can also lead to anxiety, depression, or difficulty managing emotions.

Imagine a family where fights are constant and emotions are never discussed openly. This can leave a child feeling confused and unsafe. They might learn to bottle up their emotions or develop unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The good news is, you can heal from these experiences. By understanding your family dynamics and developing healthy coping mechanisms, you can build a brighter future.

How to recognize my own family role

Recognizing your role in your family starts with reflecting on your interactions and how you respond to family conflicts. Here are some signs that can help you identify which one you may fall under:

  • The golden child: You always try to “fix” things and take care of everyone else’s problems.
  • The scapegoat: You often get blamed for family problems, even if it’s not your fault.
  • The lost child: You feel invisible or unheard in your family.
  • The parentified child: You take on adult responsibilities to try to keep the peace.

It’s important to note that if you recognize yourself in one of these roles, it doesn’t define you. But when you’re aware, you can begin to break free from unhealthy patterns and build healthier relationships.

When should I look for professional help?

If you’re struggling to cope with the effects of your family dynamics, consider seeking professional help through family therapy. A therapist can provide a safe and supportive environment for your family to work through past experiences together.

Here are some signs that family therapy might be beneficial:

  • You find it difficult to trust or form healthy relationships within your family.
  • You or your family members struggle with low self-esteem or negative self-talk.
  • There are difficulties managing emotions in a healthy way within the family unit.
  • Your past family experiences are interfering with your present happiness.

Family therapy can be a powerful tool for healing and growth for the entire family unit. A therapist can guide open communication and help develop healthy coping mechanisms for everyone involved.

Let your change do the talking

As you strive to find the best ways to nurture and love your child, remember that the journey starts with you. Healing your inner child is crucial for being the parent your child needs.

That’s the beauty of Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest on Mindvalley. In just 20 minutes a day, you’ll gain powerful tools to:

  • Let go of self-doubt and connect with your child on a deeper level.
  • Raise an emotionally intelligent child.
  • Foster a loving and supportive family environment.

The great thing is, when you sign up for a FREE Mindvalley account, you’ll have access to the first few lessons of this powerful program. And with it, you’ll really see why more than 100,000 students have enrolled in it. Like Mayra Velazquez, a small business owner from Charlotte, U.S.A.:

This course was life-saving for me because it allowed me to let me [sic] guard down and connect with my daughter the way I wanted to, and in the process, I learned that I needed to work on myself in order to be a better mother and person overall.”

The fact of the matter is, as Dr. Shefali puts it, humanity needs you to “shine your light, bright, conscious, and evolved.” Being a conscious parent is a great way to do it.

Welcome in.

Watch the First Lesson of the Quest

NYT Bestselling Author and a Global Authority on Parenting, Dr. Shefali, Teaches Conscious Parenting Mastery

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Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman is the SEO content editor for Mindvalley and a certified life coach. With a background in spa and wellness as well as having gone through a cancer experience, she's constantly on the lookout for natural, effective ways that help with one's overall well-being.
Written by

Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman is the SEO content editor for Mindvalley and a certified life coach. With a background in spa and wellness as well as having gone through a cancer experience, she's constantly on the lookout for natural, effective ways that help with one's overall well-being.
Shelly Lefkoe, co-founder of the Lefkoe Institute
Expertise by

Shelly Lefkoe is a co-founder of the Lefkoe Institute and a key figure in the fields of personal development and parenting. Along with her late husband, Morty Lefkoe, she developed the Lefkoe Method, a series of psychological processes designed to help individuals eliminate limiting beliefs that prevent them from achieving their full potential.

Shelly specializes in applying this method to parenting, aiming to help parents raise confident and thriving children by changing the beliefs that limit both their own and their children’s behaviors and emotions. She has facilitated workshops and given speeches globally, committed to transforming lives through belief modification.

Dr. Shefali Tsabary - Quest Trainer
Expertise by

Dr. Shefali Tsabary is the trainer of Mindvalley’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest. She’s also a clinical psychologist and best-selling author of “The Conscious Parent” and “A Radical Awakening.” Dr. Shefali was endorsed by Oprah as “revolutionary” and “life-changing.” Merging western psychology and eastern philosophy, Dr. Shefali espouses a more conscious approach to parenting that centers around honoring our children as sovereign beings, creating real connections with them, and most importantly, raising our own consciousness as parents.

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Mindvalley is committed to providing reliable and trustworthy content. 

We rely heavily on evidence-based sources, including peer-reviewed studies and insights from recognized experts in various personal growth fields. Our goal is to keep the information we share both current and factual. 

The Mindvalley fact-checking guidelines are based on:

To learn more about our dedication to reliable reporting, you can read our detailed editorial standards.