Part 2: Dysfunctional Family Roles: The Family Hero Tries to Hide the Obvious
Whenever groups of people get together—at work, in families, at the firehouse, on a sports team, or among the club members—individuals take on roles as part of interacting with each other. Someone might be the “class clown” in the room, always quick to make a joke or lighten up a situation; someone else might take on the role of “mom” and do the caretaking for the group. Roles are normal, inevitable, and in healthy situations, they help make for smooth functioning (or an easy target for gentle teasing!).
In families affected by addiction, or any family in which one or both of the parents are unable to fulfill their role as parent, there is a tendency for all family members to take on rigid and surprisingly predictable roles. In any group of children of addicts or alcoholics, ask about the roles in their families growing up and you will hear some very similar reports over and over again. In a dysfunctional family, the key difference regarding roles is that they are rigid: once you’re pegged as a Mascot or Hero, for example, you’re stuck. Behave in a way that is not in line with that role, and your entire family pressures you to get back in line. Placing a value on change, flexibility and authenticity (think of being authentic as embodying and expressing your individuality instead your role behaviors) are not typically part of dysfunctional family dynamics.
Several experts on addiction and family roles have named and described these typical roles. The names are a little different depending upon which author you’re reading: family systems therapist Virginia Satir used the terms placater, adjuster, distracter, blamer, and computer to label the different communication styles and roles family members take on. Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider Cruse built upon Satir’s work on communication styles and family roles, and used the names scapegoat, family mascot, hero/responsible one, and lost child to describe the different roles.
In an earlier article we discussed the role of the Chief Enabler, typically a role taken on by the addict or alcoholic’s partner. Here we’ll take a closer look at The Family Hero. This role could be taken on by any child in the family although birth order does seem to play a role with family heroes most commonly being the oldest child. The Family Hero is the child who lives the denial, devoting his or her life to proving that they are fine despite the “elephant in the living room.”
Characteristics of The Family Hero
The Family Hero is the perfect child. He or she takes on being perfect for the family as a way of proving that the addict or alcoholic’s drinking isn’t a problem. Look: I can get good grades, play a sport, and totally have my life together despite Mom or Dad’s drinking. The Family Hero crafts life to contradict the assumption by others outside the family that the drinking or drugging will affect the kids.
The children who take on the family hero role often do extremely well at whatever they take on, and are successful in the eyes of the world. They often become professionals; doctors or other healing professions are common. They often manage money well, and have very high standards for themselves and their own families.
They are often intolerant of their own emotions, and this is their Achilles heel. They need to be perfect, and they need their lives to be perfect to “undo” the imperfections they had to tolerate from early on. The problem is life is not perfect and uncontrollable things happen: accidents, being victimized, relationship problems, health issues…life tosses obstacles in our path constantly and the need to handle each one “perfectly” is a pressure family heroes place upon themselves.
Risks and Pitfalls
This places the Family Hero at high risk for developing substance abuse problems themselves. Finding a way to cope with the tremendous internal pressures isn’t easy and all those unmet needs from childhood can crash into the adult pressures to “have it all together.” Substance abuse isn’t the only risk: eating disorders are also common among women who have filled this role in a dysfunctional family. The efforts to control the uncontrollable can easily be channeled into controlling eating and weight, and focusing on something tangible: appearance and/or weight can make the overwhelming pressures of making “everything” perfect feel more manageable. Children who have taken on the Family Hero role also seem prone to depression and anxiety, as they try so hard to make everything better than it was during their own childhood but inevitably feel as if they have failed, either due to their own dissatisfactions and old wounds, or due to the challenges and “bumps in the road” that life hands them.
How to Help
Often as an adult, the Family Hero feels like he or she needs to do everything, take on every responsibility, and be in charge of all of it. While this is understandable, since so much didn’t get done in a responsible or timely way during childhood, this inability to delegate or share responsibility, and the need to be in control of everything all the time is draining and destructive. You can see how a Family Hero could grow up to become a Chief Enabler as the roles in adulthood are rather similar.
Psychotherapy aimed at helping shed the Family Hero role can be effective. Learning to tolerate imperfection and the notion of “good enough” (as opposed to perfect) can be life changing for these people.