Changing Family History
Types of dysfunction during the holidays are rampant, but there is hope
Philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” People in families affected by addictive disorders and the attendant stress find themselves in a downward spiral of makeshift coping with impossible situations. A common arena: family holiday get-togethers. Living in these families is like being raised in a fun house with distorting mirrors.
Children never realize that the mirrors don’t present a normal picture of themselves and their world. Only later do they begin to notice the discrepancy between what they’ve always experienced and how things are outside the “fun house.” Out of this improvised coping with events that are, as often as not, traumatic, come inevitable distortions of interaction among family members, so-called “family roles.”
Like a script, these behavior patterns adopted by various family members become their modus operandi for life in general, both at the time and, unless they’re revised, for life.
This re-enactment becomes automatic, even unconscious. Children in disturbed, traumatic situations generally adopt either a defensive, aggressive stance toward the world, or they retreat into isolation. This impaired ability to relate honestly can hinder their relationships for the rest of their lives. Adopting the roles makes it impossible for the child to have a healthy, normal childhood, and it can inhibit the formation of mutuallynourishing adult relationships. The classic “roles” are:
The “Good Child” (a.k.a. “Hero”), who becomes a high achiever or overachiever outside the family to escape the dysfunctional family environment, defining him/herself independently of his/her role in the dysfunctional family, currying favor with parents, and/or shielding him/herself from criticism by family members.
The “Caretaker,” who takes responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of the family, often assuming a parental role (even if unwillingly).
The “Lost Child,” the loner, the inconspicuous, quiet one, whose needs are usually ignored or hidden.
The “Mascot” or “Family Clown,” the comedian, who diverts attention away from the increasingly dysfunctional family system.
The “Mastermind,” the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members’ faults to get whatever he or she wants; often the object of appeasement by grown-ups.
The “Problem Child” (a.k.a. “Scapegoat”), who causes most problems related to the family’s dysfunction and/or who “acts out” in response to pre-existing family dysfunction, in the latter case often in an attempt to divert attention paid to another member who exhibits a pattern of similar misbehavior.
All of this begs the question, why would anyone choose such constricting patterns of relating to others and to the wider world? The simple, stark answer: survival and repetitive training.
Let’s you and I be an invisible spectator at a typical family gathering. (I warn you that it isn’t going to be pretty.)
Frances and Bill, the alcoholic parents, are yelling at one another at the dinner table, having yet another alcohol-fueled argument about God knows what. Because of their addiction, they never resolve conflicts, and every argument is a scattershot marathon of mutual bitterness. As has happened throughout this family’s history, their children react to this spectacle in their characteristic fashion:
Andrea, the “Caretaker” and “Hero,” is interrupting the scolding from Shirley in an effort to protect her parents so their feelings won’t be hurt. She secretly wishes her parents would just divorce and get it over with.
Jack, the “Lost Child,” is staring down at the table silently, doing his best to disappear and insulate himself from the anger surrounding him and within him. When he can’t take any more of the turmoil, he excuses himself inconspicuously and leaves.
Bobby, the “Mascot,” is incessantly cracking jokes, trying to “work the crowd” to keep everything from becoming an outright melee. No one here is in a laughing mood, so his efforts prove completely ineffective.
Shirley, the “Mastermind,” is doing her dead-level best to intensify the argument by blaming her parents for the pain their arguing is causing. “Can’t you two ever behave yourselves?” she yells at them.
David, the “Problem Child,” is in jail— again—for assaulting a drinking buddy at a local bar a week ago.
That’s a pretty bleak scenario, but the good news is that CADA offers family involvement and professional support, and we also host a monthly family peersupport program funded from a grant from the Edna I. Davis Foundation.
Family members can re-examine the “roles” they’ve perhaps felt they had to play in life.
After all, any script can be rewritten. History doesn’t have to be repeated.
Kent Dean has been active as a teacher and in addiction and mental health counseling since 1975. He is CADA’s director of clinical development, where he participates in staff development and in CADA clinical education outreach.