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The Patterns at Play

Understanding 8 Common Roles in Family Dynamics 

From the  Onsite Journal — Volume 4  |  Written by Crystal Nero, LCMHC 

“You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” 

Good or bad, who we are today is shaped by the first group we belong to: our family of origin. The way we show up in every other relationship in our lives as adults has roots in the role we played as a child. 

According to Family Systems Theory, our individual roles are integral to the functioning and dynamics of the whole unit. The roles we play in our families can greatly influence our identity and sense of belonging. They provide us with a purpose and a place within the family structure. 

Let’s explore how Family Systems Theory can help us identify and grow within our roles in our families of origin and family units today. 

What is Family Systems Theory?

Family Systems Theory, developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen in the 1950s, revolutionized the field of psychology by emphasizing the interdependence of family members and the impact of family dynamics on individuals. Bowen believed that families are complex systems composed of interconnected parts, much like our own biological systems. Just as cells and organs work together to maintain overall health, individuals within a family collaborate to maintain their own idea of function and homeostasis. 

His theory challenged the prevailing notion that psychological struggles and disorders are solely rooted in individual experiences, instead highlighting the importance of understanding the family system as a whole. 

This theory is particularly relevant when working with individuals facing challenges such as addiction or children who exhibit problematic behaviors without apparent understanding or reason. As a family therapist I often focus on understanding and addressing the underlying systemic issues rather than solely focusing on individual problems. Think of a family system as a baby mobile: once one of the strings is pulled, all the other parts move. Our families work the same; when an individual is under stress, the family adjusts and takes on roles, desperate to get back to homeostasis.  

Often times in our adjustments or adaptations we overcorrect in hopes to change someone’s behavior, get our loved one back to health, or help ourselves to feel better. Family therapy helps us to see OUR role and how we can set boundaries allowing for flexibility while still allowing individual expression and health for all. Making these adjustments will improve the overall functioning of the family unit, which will allow individuals to make necessary adjustments and lead healthier lives. 

The Roles We Play

In family systems, each member has a unique role that contributes to the overall balance and harmony within the family. 

It is important to recognize that these roles are not fixed or permanent. They can evolve over time as family dynamics change or when new members join the family through marriage or birth. Additionally, individuals may take on multiple roles simultaneously depending on the situation at hand. 

Understanding and appreciating the different roles within a family system is crucial for fostering healthy relationships and effective com- munication. By acknowledging each person’s unique contributions, we can create an environment that promotes cooperation, support, and mutual respect among all members of the family, which is what we strive for in all our systems. 

In every family system, individuals often assume certain roles that help maintain the family’s equilibrium. A family’s equilibrium does not denote health but rather the normal homeostasis that has been mutually agreed upon. While these roles are natural, common, and often full of strength, they can become problematic when rigid and unchangeable. 

Let’s explore some of the common unhealthy family roles we or our loved ones may have taken on and how they can shape us into adulthood

Common Unhealthy Family Roles

The Hero/Golden Child

The Hero or Golden Child is typically the oldest child in the family. They are responsible, organized, trustworthy, and often considered the “perfect” child. Their achievements and successes serve as a distraction from underlying family issues, providing a sense of validation and accomplishment. Often the Hero is placed in a position to “prove” to the rest of the world the family is okay. 

In adulthood, they are drawn to achievement and perfectionism and can sometimes find themselves overworked, while feeling pressure to get things “right” without mistakes or freedom to mess up. 

Troublemaker/Scapegoat/Black Sheep

The Troublemaker, Scapegoat, or Black Sheep is the family member who receives blame for all the family’s problems. They may exhibit defiant or disobedient behavior or simply be perceived as different from the rest of the family. The Scapegoat role allows other family members to deny or ignore more significant issues within the family system. This role is also considered the truth teller of the family, which can feel difficult in the system. 

In adulthood, they often blame themselves for difficulties while feeling worthless and guilty. This role experiences intense imposter syndrome, which can lead to intense isolation and anxiety. We may see this individual struggle with addictions as well. 

The Lost Child

The Lost Child often coincides with the Hero or Troublemaker role. They receive less attention within the family and may feel overlooked or left behind. This role is often taken on by a child who has a sibling struggling with physical or mental illness or who is part of a large family. The Lost Child tends to be quiet, passive, and struggles with feelings of loneliness and the need for love and attention. 

In adulthood, the Lost Child may struggle with decision-making, self-esteem, and self-worth. They learn to take care of themselves and may struggle with asking for help or receiving support. They often feel as though they do not “belong” and may also struggle with addictions. 


The Peacemaker or Mediator role involves being caught in the middle of conflicts within the family. They may mediate between opposing parents or siblings, attempting to maintain peace and harmony. This role requires the individual to suppress their own needs and become adept at reading and responding to others’ emotions. 

In adulthood, they are very adaptable, and may ignore their own needs while often avoiding conflict. Peacemakers/Mediators often try to make everyone else happy and have the ability to read a room, which makes for a great team player and very loyal adult. 


The Mascot or Clown is the family member who uses humor and comedy to lighten tense situations and distract from underlying problems. They serve as a source of entertainment and relief in the family, often deflecting from the seriousness of issues. The Mascot role requires the individual to read the room and gauge tension levels, often to avoid conflict and negative emotions. 

In adulthood, the Mascot can have difficulty connecting to their true feelings, often distracting with humor. Most comedians identify with this role in their childhood. 


The Caretaker or Enabler assumes the responsibility of caring for others in the family, often at the expense of their own well-being. They may enable problematic behaviors by making excuses or denying the consequences of those behaviors. In the context of addiction, the Caretaker often becomes the Enabler, preventing the individual from facing the full consequences of their actions. Often this role is trying desperately to keep the family together, which often denies the family growth. 

Typically the Caretaker/Enabler was a people pleaser in childhood. In adulthood, they will often over-function for others—doing and taking care of things for another that they can take care of themselves. This role also rarely allows someone else to experience natural con- sequences and often will rescue before consequences come into effect. 


The Doer is the family member who takes charge and gets things done. They are often responsible for coordinating schedules, managing household chores, and ensuring the smooth functioning of the family. The Doer role is commonly associated with the stereotypical mother figure, but it can be assumed by any individual who takes on significant responsibilities within the family, which allows escape or distracts from the feelings in themselves or the system. 

In adulthood, doers struggle to rest and relax or stay in the present moment. Doers may feel resentful because it is difficult for them to say no. 


The Martyr sacrifices their own needs and often seeks acknowledgment and validation for their sacrifices within the family. They may guilt-trip others or use sarcasm to make others feel indebted or obligated. The Martyr role can create a sense of guilt in others and perpetuate unhealthy dynamics within the family. 

In adulthood, they overextend themselves and often battle feelings of being angry. This role often causes enormous amounts of stress and guilt. 

Identifying Family Roles and Their Impact

Understanding the roles that individuals assume within the family can provide valuable insights into family dynamics and their impact on behaviors and relationships. Our past experiences within our family systems significantly shape how we show up in our present relationships. The roles we hold as children, such as the Caregiver, Peacekeeper, or Scapegoat, can deeply influence our behaviors and expectations in our current family dynamics. When we create a new nuclear family, it’s important to recognize the impact of our past family roles and reflect on how they may be influencing our current relationships. This self-awareness allows us to identify any unhealthy or unhelpful patterns that we may have inherited and consciously work toward repairing them so as not to pass them down through generations to come. 

Creating a new nuclear family provides an opportunity for growth, healing, and transformation. It allows us to consciously choose the roles and dynamics that support healthy relationships and promote individual well-being. We can create a nurturing environment by actively working toward repairing any negative patterns or unresolved issues from our past. It’s essential to approach this journey of repair with compassion for ourselves and our loved ones. Healing familial relationships takes time, patience, and understanding. By working together to establish new norms that align with our values and needs, we can create a space where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued within the context of their unique family systems. 

Repairing as we live out relationships in a new nuclear family requires open communication, empathy, and a willingness to challenge old beliefs or assumptions. It involves creating space for honest conversations about our experiences growing up, understanding each other’s needs and boundaries, and finding ways to support each other’s personal growth. 

While the process of repairing may take time and effort, it is worth investing in for the sake of building strong foundations within our new nuclear families. By breaking free from harmful cycles or limiting beliefs inherited from our past family roles, we can create healthier dynamics that foster love, understanding, and resilience in our present relationships. 

Making Sense of Your Family System

Take a moment to reflect on your own family and consider the roles that you and other family members have adopted or may have been given based on your unique family. Recognizing these roles can shed light on current dynamics and any strong negative reactions you may have toward your significant other, own nuclear family, family of choice, or friends. Awareness of these roles allows us to challenge and reshape unhealthy patterns, fostering healthier relationships and individual growth. Learning about ourselves and our family of origin, sheds light on where we may need to enlist boundaries and/or have hard conversations with others.  

Here is an example from my own life. As a child, I would mostly identify with the Scapegoat (what I call the Black Sheep), always always feeling like the odd one out. My parents did not intentionally make me feel this way, I had big emotions and feelings that were difficult for them to navigate, which left me feeling misunderstood. Big feelings and emotions were not something that our family expressed, and we definitely did not talk about our feelings, which I always wanted to do. 

As a teenager, I became more defiant in an attempt to be understood. Over the years, I struggled with intense feelings of worthlessness and not fitting in anywhere while simultaneously feeling a desperate need to prove myself to others. These years were full of loneliness and disconnection that took time to overcome. I started to realize something important. I didn’t need to fit in with anyone else. All I needed was to be true to myself. I learned how to set boundaries with my parents, even when it was hard. And slowly, very slowly, but surely, I started to come into my own. 

It wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of times when I still felt that old sense of worthlessness creeping in, and I still feel it from time. I remain “different” than my family, yet through the years I have learned how to be kind to myself, how to show myself the same compassion I had always craved from others. 

Remember, family roles are not fixed or predetermined. With awareness and intentional efforts, individuals and families can break free from rigid roles and create healthier dynamics that promote growth, authenticity, and genuine connections. 

About the author: 

Crystal Nero, LCMHC, has worked as a mental health therapist in the prison system in Chicago, wilderness therapy in North Carolina, and, now, the group practice she owns. Crystal currently serves as Onsite’s Clinical Director and is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC), Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist (LCAS), and trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy and EMDR. 

Looking for additional support as you navigate how your family system has impacted you? Join us at an upcoming workshop.   

Onsite offers multiple experiences that support your exploration of how your family of origin can impact your relationships.

  • Healthy Love and Relationships is a group experiential workshop that addresses how attachment and pain in your past can affect how you show up in relationships.  
  • The Living Centered Program is a group experiential workshop that offers the opportunity to explore how your past is impacting your present. 

For more articles like this from our clinical team, recipes from the Onsite Kitchen, and powerful stories from Onsite Alum, pick up a copy of our annual Onsite Journal.  

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