Part 3: Dysfunctional Family Roles: The Scapegoat Acts Out in Cry for Help
Have you ever noticed that no matter how old you are, no matter how far you’ve come in your career or how much life experience you’ve got under your belt, when your family gets together, you fall right back into old familiar patterns of relating to each other? Therapists would call these patterns of behavior “roles” – almost like the roles actors play. Every family does this to some extent, but in families that have been affected by addiction, the roles might seem like they are cast in concrete. Rigid and unchanging over decades, it seems like each child is born into their role and that’s it, forever.
Some important things to remember about these roles:
- They are not conscious choices. No parent decides, “I’m going to be a Chief Enabler” in my family. Kids don’t choose to become a Mascot or a Hero.
- The roles themselves aren’t “good” or “bad.” When growth and change is frowned upon, that is what’s bad for families. The stuckness and inability to grow beyond a role is what makes roles problematic in a family affected by addiction.
- These roles carry over into other areas of life, making intimate relationships problematic, or careers/professional relationships difficult to navigate.
- Treatment is helpful for becoming aware of these roles and how they are impacting your behavior. This is an area where therapy can be really useful and effective, and where insight can lead to making positive changes.
In prior articles, we’ve looked at the Chief Enabler and the Family Hero—two roles that are somewhat balanced in terms of having much that is positive about them and much that can be harmful or detrimental about them. These two roles are similar in that both Heroes and Enablers “over-function”—they tend to pick up the slack emotionally, financially, and in terms of physical chores. The drinker or substance abusers tend to not get to things (from dishes to bills to baseball games) because their focus is on using. The Hero and the Enabler both work hard—sometimes hard enough to make themselves physically ill—to maintain the appearance of a well-functioning family.
The Scapegoat is a very different type of role. This is the child who constantly gets in trouble, and constantly attracts negative attention. As a young child, this is the one who may be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or have “behavior problems” at school. Maybe a bully, or maybe just the class clown, this is the child who seems incapable of following rules or letting things be easy. For the Chief Enabler, this child is a thorn in his or her side.
Often as a teenager, the Scapegoat begins using drugs or alcohol. These children can have significant conflict with others in the family, and sibling issues between the Hero and the Scapegoat are common.
These children are sometimes described as the “lightning rods” for the family, since they seem to attract negative consequences. They are the typical acting-out child: they act out all the anger, frustration, rage and fear that all of the family members may feel. When a parent drinks or uses drugs, that parent’s behavior can be unpredictable and frightening for children. Rules may change based upon whether the parent is drunk, hung over, or seeking a drink. Conversations that take place while the parent is under the influence might not be remembered the next day. Permission granted can be taken back, and moods can flip on a dime. The inconsistencies of the using parent’s behavior, and the covering up or “making nice” that the enabler does can also be confusing at best, and infuriating at worst. The Hero just works harder at pretending everything is fine and that the family is fine, despite all these emotions. The Scapegoat is the family member who insists the family get attention—he is the one who screams “something is wrong” and does so by being “wrong.”
When looked at this way, the Scapegoat is easier to understand. On the surface, the Scapegoats just seem like such screw-ups; it can be hard to feel compassion for them. They appear to be committed to making a mess of their lives, and they often appear to be uncaring about the impact their behavior has on others. However, looking at the bigger picture of the whole family, it is easier to understand those who take on this role as not only a scapegoat but also a sacrificial lamb: they sacrifice their own life, health, and happiness to get the problems in the family noticed. The messes they make are the “cry for help” that may get the real problem in the family noticed.
The big risk with the Scapegoat is that by the time he or she reaches adulthood, he or she may well have developed an addiction or legal problems, or have continued “fallout” from the messes that were made during the teenage years to such a significant degree that they have severe trouble getting started in adult life. The Scapegoat needs help more urgently and at a younger age than the Hero; not only is the risk of substance abuse higher for children in this role—the risk of suicide is higher as well.