The Four Basic Roles of Dysfunctional Families:
Golden Child, Scapegoat, Mascot and Lost Child
Dysfunctional families don’t allow people to be their authentic selves. They dance around their shame, denials and addictions, working to keep everyone in their assigned dysfunctional roles — like it or not.
There are four basic roles in the dysfunctional family:
The Golden Child/Hero
The golden child is the one who “can do no wrong”. This child is viewed as being the best and the brightest; even if they’re not.
Some golden children play the part well and end up stuck in the role of success-object, and some golden children are entitled troublemakers who are never expected to actually earn anything, due to their already-favored status. Golden children are expected to abandon their authentic selves in exchange for hollow esteem.
Many golden children wake up much later in life to a nice home, a fancy car, a high-paying job and a supposedly perfect family, all of which they suddenly realize they’d like to trade for something more authentic. Other golden children are the opposite; their lives are a mess because they’ve never had to work to earn their status, and the rest of the world doesn’t reward them similarly for doing nothing.
The scapegoat is the child who can “do no right”. This child is viewed as being the reason for everything undesirable and bad, even when they excel.
Some scapegoats enter into the trap of trying harder and harder to redeem themselves in the eyes of their family so they can finally be respected and appreciated for who they really are. They can never be good enough, and will burn themselves out trying to get a pat on the back. Other scapegoats succumb to the role of “bad one” and make waves, because they’re always labeled bad regardless, so they give up trying and rebel in anger.
Many scapegoats spend much of their adult lives still trying to be accepted and appreciated by constantly doing more, giving more and trying more. Other scapegoats spark lots of conflict and difficulties. Scapegoats typically wake up later in life and and realize things aren’t as they should be when their constant efforts to gain respect backfire and get them walked all over at work and at home (or when they get themselves into one too many conflicts pertaining to their adoption of a “who cares” attitude).
The Lost Child
The Lost Child is the child who withdraws in self-preservation. Ignored and invisible, this child experiences loneliness and a feeling of not belonging.
Many Lost Children remain in the background into their adult lives, hiding from conflict and healthy risk-taking, stuck in the feeling of being a frightened outsider or unimportant “nobody”. Lost children typically wake up later in life to find that they have missed out on many emotional things others have had, such as a sense of connectedness and having made a difference in the world.
Often overlooked, many opportunities for better things have likely passed them by as they retreated into a quiet world which focused on something of value to them that was not likely related to confident interaction (and even conflict) with others. Some lost children take an interest in material possessions or other pursuits with limited social/intimate requirements.
The Mascot is the child who jokes and distracts the family from the heaviness of its dysfunction. This child expresses the effects of the family’s painful experiences as humor.
Mascots have difficulty accepting and expressing difficult feelings, and will joke their way out of serious circumstances, avoiding the real issue that needs addressing. Mascots may find themselves in entertainment-related fields, since it’s second nature for them to make light of tragedy, pain and suffering. Many mascots awaken later in life to find they have not been taken seriously, or are always counted on to make everyone feel better, perhaps at the expense of acknowledging their own painful realities.
The Limitations of the concept of family roles
While helpful, the definitions of these roles are imperfect. Some sources claim there are more roles, as many as seven. Some sources claim the golden child/hero only plays the “perfect” role, though there are some golden children who are actually quite entitled, lazy and even antisocial. A similar issue exists with the definition of scapegoats. Some sources claim the scapegoat is “the bad seed”, and others say the scapegoat is the healthiest member of the family.
It’s also been noted that parents may change and mix the roles assigned to a given child based on changes in the family’s needs, experiences, environment and structure. This means it is possible for one child to be both the scapegoat and the lost child, etc., or start out as the golden child and tumble from grace to end up the scapegoat.
Ultimately, these definitions function more like helpful guidelines than scientific analysis, and have helped many people understand the fundamentals of dysfunctional family life.
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