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Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families

*Note, often the term addict and dysfunctional parent are used interchangeably. 

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

A good way to begin this page is to learn what a dysfunction family is. If you were or are a part of a dysfunctional family, define it in your terms first.

Many of the dysfunctional family problems are hard to define, as it’s normal for you; you may not see that your family is dysfunction. You may know that something isn’t quite right, but may be unable to determine what it is.

The Medical Dictionary of the Free Dictionary defines ‘ dysfunctional family’ like this:

“A family with multiple ‘internal’ – e.g., sibling rivalries, parent-child – conflicts, domestic violence, mental illness, single parenthood, or ‘external’ – e.g., alcohol or drug abuse, extramarital affairs, gambling, unemployment – influences that affect the basic needs of the family unit.”

The main things to remember about this definition are that there are multiple negative influences and that they affect basic needs. This is what separates families with minor dysfunction from those where family dysfunction is a serious problem.

The term “adult child” is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect. The group includes adults raised in homes without the presence of alcohol or drugs.

If you grew up in a family with a chemically dependent, mentally ill, or abusive parent, you know how hard it is — and you know that everyone in the family is affected, some more than others. Over time, the family begins to revolve around maintaining the status quo – the dysfunction.

Rigid family rules and family roles develop in dysfunctional families that help maintain the dysfunctional family system and allow the addict to keep using or the abuser to keep abusing.

Understanding some of the family rules that dominate dysfunctional families can help us to break free of these patterns and rebuild our self-esteem and form healthier relationships.

There are many types and degrees of dysfunction in families. For the purposes of this article, the defining feature of a dysfunctional family is that its members experience repetitive trauma.

The types of traumatic childhood experiences are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and they include experiencing any of the following during your childhood:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • A parent or close family member who is an alcoholic or addict
  • A parent or close family member who is mentally ill
  • Parents who are separated or divorced
  • A parent or close family member being incarcerated

What Are Adverse Childhood Experience Scores (ACE Scores)?

Take the ACE Test Here.

There are 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect.

Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a parent who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment.

Each type of trauma counts as one. So a person who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who was beaten up has an ACE score of three.

There are, of course, many other types of childhood trauma — racism, bullying, watching a sibling being abused, losing a caregiver (grandmother, mother, grandfather), homelessness, surviving and recovering from a severe accident, witnessing a father being abused by a mother, witnessing a grandmother abusing a father, involvement with the foster care system, involvement with the juvenile justice system, ad infinitum.

The ACE Study included only those 10 childhood traumas because these were mentioned as most common by a group of about 300 Kaiser members; those traumas were also well studied individually in the research literature.

The most important thing to remember is that the ACE score is meant as a guideline: Experiencing other types of toxic stress over months or years would would likely increase your risk of health consequences.

At the same time that the ACE Study was being done, parallel research on kids’ brains found that toxic stress physically damages a child’s developing brain. This was determined by a group of neuroscientists and pediatricians, including neuroscientist Martin Teicher and pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, both at Harvard University, child psychiatrist Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, and pediatrician Bruce Perry at the Child Trauma Academy.

When children are overloaded with stress hormones, they’re in flight, fright or freeze mode. They can’t learn in school. They often have difficulty trusting adults or developing healthy relationships with peers (i.e., they become loners).

To relieve their anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and/or inability to focus, they turn to easily available biochemical solutions — nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamines, pills — or other activities in which they can escape their problems — high-risk sports, proliferation of sex partners, and work/over-achievement. (e.g. Nicotine reduces anger, increases focus and relieves depression. Alcohol relieves stress.)

Using drugs or overeating or engaging in risky behavior leads to consequences as a direct result of this behavior. For example, smoking can lead to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or lung cancer. Overeating can lead to obesity and diabetes. In addition, there is increasing research that shows that severe and chronic stress leads to bodily systems producing an inflammatory response that leads to disease.

In addition, dysfunctional childhoods are incredibly expensive:

The breakdown per child is:

  • $32,648 in childhood health care costs
  • $10,530 in adult medical costs
  • $144,360 in productivity losses
  • $7,728 in child welfare costs
  • $6,747 in criminal justice costs
  • $7,999 in special education costs

Fortunately, brains and lives are somewhat plastic. The appropriate integration of resilience factors born out of ACE concepts — such as asking for help, developing trusting relationships, forming a positive attitude, listening to feelings — can help people improve their lives.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

What Is Resilience?

Adversity is only one part of the equation. Many children with high ACE scores have their own characteristics and experiences that protect them and help them develop resilience despite exposure to ACEs. Resilience is positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity.

In the face of adversity, neither resilience nor disease is a certain outcome.

Resilience is the result of a dynamic set of interactions between a person’s adverse experiences and their own protective factors. This interaction is what determines the developmental path towards health and well–being or towards illness and dysfunction.

No child is magically resilient or invulnerable to ACEs, just as no child is automatically doomed in the face of ACEs.

These protective factors can include a person’s own biological and developmental characteristics. Protective factors can also include characteristics of the family, community, and systems that mitigate the negative impacts of ACEs. Protective factors help explain how some people who have sustained a great deal of adversity as children have fared relatively well in adulthood.

The presence of protective factors, particularly safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, can often remove the consequences of ACEs. People, families, and communities can all influence the development of many protective factors throughout a child’s life that can impact their development.

How does resilience develop?

Well, there are multiple pathways to resilience. Resilience researchers continue to refine understanding about supporting resilience.

There is agreement about a variety of important individual, family and community conditions that support resilience. Here is a list of protective factors:

  • Close relationships with competent caregivers or other caring adults
  • Parent resilience
  • Caregiver knowledge and application of positive parenting skills
  • Identifying and cultivating a sense of purpose (faith, culture, identity)
  • Personal developmental competencies (problem solving skills, self–regulation, agency)
  • Children’s social and emotional health
  • Social connections
  • Socioeconomic advantages and concrete support for parents and families
  • Communities and social systems that support health and development, and nurture human capital

Protective factors often help a child feel safe more quickly after experiencing the toxic stress of ACEs and help to neutralize the physical changes that naturally occur during and after trauma.

If the child’s protective networks are in good working order, development is strong even in the face of severe adversity.

If these major systems are impaired, before or after the ACE, then the risk for developmental problems is much greater. This is particularly true if the environmental hazards are prolonged.

The research currently states that even the negative consequences of toxic stress from ACEs can be buffered with the support of caring, competent adults and appropriate intervention and support.

What It’s Like Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Home:

Dysfunctional families tend to be unpredictable, chaotic, and frightening for children.

Children feel safe when they can count on their caregivers to consistently meet their physical needs (food, shelter, protecting them from physical abuse or harm) and emotional needs (noticing their feelings, comforting them when they’re distressed). Often, this doesn’t happen in dysfunctional families because parents don’t fulfill their basic responsibilities to provide for, protect, and nurture their children. Instead, one of the children must take on these adult responsibilities at an early age.

Children also need structure and routine to feel safe; they need to know what to expect. But in dysfunctional families, children’s needs are often neglected or disregarded and there aren’t clear rules or realistic expectations. Sometimes there are overly harsh or arbitrary rules and other times there is little supervision and no rules or guidelines for the children.

In addition, children often experience their parents’ behavior as erratic or unpredictable. They feel like they have to walk on eggshells in their own home for fear of upsetting their parents or unleashing their parent’s’ rage and abuse. For example, children in dysfunctional families often describe feeling anxious about coming home from school because they don’t know what they will find.

In dysfunctional families, adults tend to be so preoccupied with their own problems and pain that they don’t give their children what they need and crave – consistency, safety, unconditional love. As a result, children feel highly stressed, anxious, and unlovable.

You feel unimportant and unworthy

Quite simply, dysfunctional families don’t know how to deal with feelings in healthy ways. Parents who are dealing with their own problems or are taking care of (often enabling) an addicted or dysfunctional partner, don’t have the time, energy, or emotional intelligence to pay attention to, value, and support their children’s feelings. The result is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Children experience this as my feelings don’t matter, so I don’t matter. Obviously, this damages a child’s self-esteem and causes them to feel unimportant and unworthy of love and attention.

Children in dysfunctional families don’t learn how to notice, value, and attend to their own feelings either. Instead, their focus is on noticing and managing other people’s feelings – their safety often depends on it. Some children become highly attuned to how their parents are behaving so they can try to avoid their wrath. For example, a young child might learn to hide under the bed whenever mom and dad start arguing or a child might learn that consoling mom after that argument earns her mom’s affection. So, children learn to tune into other people’s feelings and suppress their own, which can lead to major problems later in life.

In addition to ignoring a child’s emotional needs, parents can also damage a child’s self-esteem with derogatory names and harsh criticism. Young children believe what their parents tell them. So, if your father called you stupid, you believed it. As we get older and spend more time away from our parents, we begin to question some of the negative things we were told as children.

However, it’s amazing how much of it sticks with us even as adults. The emotional sting of hurtful words and derogatory messages stays with us even when we logically know we aren’t stupid, bad, or unlovable.

Why Is There Major Dysfunction in Some Families and Not in Others?

The specific reasons for major family dysfunction are as numerous as the families that experience it. The following categories may help you understand more about why your family was majorly dysfunction.


When a parent or guardian is addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or anything else, the family suffers. Codependence can change the way you relate to each other, causing family members to focus on the addiction and the addict – and not on the suffering of their children. When the addiction is severe enough, it can eat up all the family’s financial and emotional resources. Even the most mentally healthy people are extremely challenged when there’s an addict in the family. Those who have even the slightest mental health issues tend to become sicker.

Family History of Dysfunction

People tend to learn their parenting styles from their parents or other caregivers. If their parents abused them, they may abuse their children. Or, they may go overboard the other direction, being unnecessarily lenient. They may manipulate each other and their children as their parents did. They may not truly understand how to teach their children in healthy ways.

The good news for people who grew up in a dysfunctional family is that they can learn better ways of parenting. They can deal with the issues they still carry as adults and learn how to love, appreciate, respect, and deal with each other on a less emotional, erratic way. All they need is the willingness to do the work it takes to overcome those issues and find someone to teach them better ways to parent.

Life Situations

It’s hard to imagine having a life that doesn’t include some stressors. In fact, psychologists know that a certain amount of stress can be healthy, pushing you to keep reaching for greater things in your life. However, when life’s uncontrollable circumstances jeopardize your family’s security and well-being, the stress can cause family members to lash out at each other in frustration. We all want to have a happy, peaceful life. The reality is that isn’t always easy. When this happens, children often become overlooked.

Medical Problems

Physical illness alone does not cause family dysfunction. However, it can make life much harder for everyone concerned. Parents sometimes rely on their children to do things they would ordinarily do for themselves, causing them intense anxiety and sometimes depression. If one child is ill, the other children may feel neglected as you focus all your energy on helping that one child.

You may not have had any control over the illness that puts such strain on your family, but you can control your actions, learn to use the resources available to you, and meet your children’s needs. Medical problems present a tremendous challenge, but with the right help, you can keep your family functioning well.

Mental Illness

Biology plays a major role in many mental illnesses, but the behavior problems that are usually a part of psychological problems make family life much more challenging. People with untreated mental illness can cause discord in a family that would otherwise be highly functional. With treatment, people with mental illness can be great parents. They can contribute positively to their families as children.

What Are Some Of The Characteristics Of A Dysfunctional Family?

So, what is it like to live in a dysfunctional family? For many adult children who grew up in a dysfunctional house, they may have no grasp on what is dysfunctional about their families. The follow list of characteristics of a dysfunctional family may help some of you to recognize your family in the following:


Addictions can be a contributing factor to family dysfunction, but they can also happen as a response to the dysfunction in the family. People in dysfunctional families don’t have better coping skills to deal with the tension of living in a family that doesn’t meet their needs. As a result, they may turn to alcohol or drugs to make themselves feel better, if only for a moment.

Constant Criticism

Criticism runs rampant in a dysfunctional family. Sometimes, the criticism is blatant, with parents picking on everything the child does, says, or is.

Other times, it’s subtler, as parents use sarcasm, teasing, or put-downs in a sneaky attempt to say something negative without making themselves look cruel – it’s a definite balancing act for psychologically manipulative parents.

Communication Problems

Poor communication may be the single most telling characteristic of a dysfunctional family. While other, bigger problems may run rampant, they have the possibility to be better managed with healthy communication.

In a dysfunctional family, adults don’t listen to each other or their children. Rather than address the person they have a problem with, they go to other family members to be heard without of dealing with the problem directly.

Parents and siblings become bitter, passive-aggressive, and distrustful, all due to their inability to communicate directly with each other.

Excessive Attempts to Control

Dysfunctional families are often characterized by a parent’s excessive need to control their children and/or the other parent.

If they had a more relaxed and accepting attitude, they could encourage their children to be the best version of who they are rather than manipulating them to live their lives only to appease their parent.

Lack of Empathy

It would be a mistake to believe that your child does is perfect. In a healthy family, corrections are directed at changing behavior rather than making the child feel badly about him or herself. In a healthy family, parents love their children unconditionally even if they don’t like their behavior. In fact, it’s this unconditional love that helps them work with the child constructively.

When parents show empathy for a child’s challenges, they teach the child to care for others as well as themselves.

Lack of Privacy and Independence

Parents in dysfunctional families tend to mistrust their children so much that they constantly invade their privacy. Certainly, there may be times when a parent needs to know what’s going on with their child so that they can respond appropriately.

However, parents in a functional family find out through honest communication rather than room-raids and harsh interrogations.

Children in a dysfunctional family aren’t given the opportunity to be who they want to be. They aren’t allowed to make their own decisions, develop preferences that are different from their parents’, or have friends their parents don’t enjoy.

They’re expected to be just like their parents in every respect rather than developing their unique personalities.


When a parent is a perfectionist, they put incredible pressure on the other parent and the children – not just to do their best, but to do the impossible. Perfectionism is not only unrealistic, but toxic to family life. It is a constant source of negative emotions for everyone involved. It wrings the playfulness out of young children and makes it harder for them to learn. Their self-esteem suffers, and they feel incompetent, worthless, and inadequate.

What Are The Dysfunctional Family Rules?

As Claudia Black said in her book It Will Never Happen to Me, alcoholic (and dysfunctional) families follow three unspoken rules:

1) Don’t Talk To Anyone. We don’t talk about our family problems – to each other or to outsiders. This rule is the foundation for the family’s denial of the abuse, addiction, illness, ad infinitum.

The message is: Act like everything is fine and make sure everyone else thinks we’re a perfectly normal family.

This is extremely confusing for children who sense that something is wrong, but no one acknowledges what it is. Children often conclude that they are the problem.

Sometimes they are blamed outright and other times they internalize a sense that something must be wrong with them. Because no one is allowed to talk about the dysfunction, the family is plagued with secrets and shame. Children, in particular, feel alone, hopeless, and imagine no one else is going through what they’re experiencing.

 The don’t talk rule ensures that no one acknowledges the real family problem.

When the root of the family’s problems is denied, it can never be solved; health and healing aren’t possible with this mindset.

2) Don’t Trust Anyone  Children depend on their parents or caregivers to keep them safe, but when you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you don’t experience your parents (and the world) as safe and nurturing.

And without a basic sense of safety, children feel anxious and have difficulty trusting.

Children don’t develop a sense of trust and security in dysfunctional families because their caregivers are inconsistent and undependable. They are neglectful, emotionally absent, break promises, and don’t fulfill their responsibilities.

Additionally, some dysfunctional parents expose their children to dangerous people and situations and fail to protect them from abuse.

As a result, children learn that they can’t trust others – even their parents – to meet their needs and keep them safe (this is the most fundamental form of trust for a child).

Difficulty trusting others extends outside the family as well.

In addition to the don’t talk mandate, the don’t trust rule keeps the family isolated and perpetuates the fear that if you ask for help, something bad will happen (mom and dad will get a divorce, dad will go to jail, you’ll end up in foster care).

Despite how scary and painful home life is, it’s the devil you know; you’ve learned how to survive there – and disrupting the family by talking to a teacher or counselor might make things worse.

So, don’t trust anyone.

3) Don’t Feel Anything. Repressing painful or confusing emotions is a coping strategy used by everyone in a dysfunctional family.

Children in dysfunctional families witness their parents numbing their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, pornography, and technology. Rarely are feelings expressed and dealt with in a healthy way.

Children may also witness scary episodes of rage. Sometimes anger is the only emotion they see their parents express.

Children quickly learn that trying to express their feelings will at best lead to being ignored and at worst lead to violence, blame, and shame. So, children also learn to repress their feelings, numb themselves, and try to distract themselves from the pain.

The Dysfunctional Family and Shame:

Shame is pervasive in dysfunctional families

It’s the feeling you have when you think there’s something wrong with you, that you’re inferior or unworthy.

Shame is the result of family secrets and denial and being told you’re bad and deserve to be hurt or neglected. Children in dysfunctional families often blame themselves for their parents’ inadequacies or for being mistreated or ignored.

“It’s my fault” is the easiest way for their young brains can make sense of a confusing and scary situation.

As adults, part of healing from a dysfunctional family is unwinding the feeling of shame and recognizing that our parents’ shortcomings were not our fault and don’t mean we’re inadequate or unworthy.

Dysfunctional Family Roles:

The Dependent:

We generally characterize the Dependent as the focal point in the greater spectrum of dysfunctional family roles.

As they slide farther down the scale and lose themselves in substance abuse or other dysfunctions, the family’s trajectory alters course. Family members change their behaviors, whether willingly or unwillingly, to accommodate the Dependent’s lifestyle.

For some, this means enabling. A family member may find themselves lying to family friends, or cancelling obligations to bail their loved one out of a jam. Other family members react more harshly, sometimes even cutting off all contact with the Dependent.

At either extreme, this changes the whole of the family dynamic.

Naturally, the Dependent faces the most obvious struggles in getting healthy. In fact, some might even say they benefit from the existence of such a clear-cut role. They often needn’t do much soul-searching to arrive at the conclusion that their behaviors must change. (Obviously, there are exceptions, and not all Dependents succeed in recovery or even attempt it.)

The Dependent will still need to identify certain behavior patterns if they wish to achieve a full recovery.

At the onset, however, the problematic aspects of this particular dysfunction will appear far more tangibly than those stemming from other dysfunctional family roles.

Enabler or Caretaker:

This family member (often a child) tries to keep the family going despite the presence of addiction and other dysfunctions in the family. The Enabler and Caretaker works hard to protect the problem of family members from others and the consequences of their behavior.

Also known as the Enabler, we can identify at least one primary similarity between the Caretaker and the Dependent: the bulk of their daily lives seem to revolve around drugs and alcohol.

Common behaviors of the Caretaker may include posting bail after an arrest, making excuses for their addicted loved one’s behavior, and looking after the Dependent’s basic needs when intoxication prevents the Dependent from doing so themselves.

Caretakers generally suffer from codependency, which affects their relationships with all members of the household. They often facilitate—and sometimes encourage, whether purposefully or not—all dysfunctional family roles. Heaping praise upon the Hero, enabling the Problem Child’s behaviors, falling prey to the Mastermind’s manipulation, etc.

We usually think of the Caretaker as a spouse or parent.

In some cases, however, the chemical dependency or dysfunction of an adult in the household may necessitate that one of the children step up to fill this role. In such cases, the Caretaker may fit the roles of both Hero and Lost Child.

They work to keep the family together, but grow up feeling as if they never got to experience a true childhood. This may lead to feelings of bitterness and resentment. Fear and inadequacy also tend to characterize the Caretaker, especially those who blame themselves for the Dependent’s suffering.scapegoat or trouble-maker – the family member who breaks the rules – not only society’s rules but the rules laid down by their controlling parents.

They become sick or weak, or they become angry and rebellious. Either way, their well-being is sacrificed to the needs of the family.

The lost child or the quiet one – the family who never gets in trouble but always keeps quiet and unobtrusive. They an unusual amount of time alone, avoiding their family and its dysfunctional ways. Usually has poorer social skills than others in the family, because they rarely practice interacting with others.

The Problem Child:

You do not often see the Problem Child on the roster of dysfunctional family roles as they pertain to addiction and dysfunction. Perhaps one explanation for this might be the assumption that the Problem Child and the Dependent are usually one and the same. Indeed, one particularly rebellious child sometimes influences the whole of the family dynamic, leading the rest of the household to respond by filling the rest of the categories.

And as one may presume, this rebellion does often include the use of drugs and alcohol.

However, the Problem Child may also arise in response to the dysfunction caused by a Dependent.

Sometimes a Lost Child becomes tired of feeling neglected and decides to act out.

In some cases, the Problem Child acts as an inadvertent Caretaker, enabling the Dependent by diverting attention onto their own misbehavior.

Occasionally, though not necessarily in a majority of cases, diversion may even act as the Problem Child’s primary intention.

The latter case presents us with a rare example of a time in which the Problem Child will also play the role of Hero, depending upon which family member’s viewpoint we apply to their behavior.

Most experts in addiction and family dysfunction apply this description to the Scapegoat. This would make our inclusion of the Problem Child appear redundant. But as you will see below, we might make at least one important distinction between these two seemingly identical dysfunctional family roles.

The Scapegoat:

Many define the Scapegoat in the same manner as we defined the Problem Child above, particularly in regard to those who draw attention away from the Dependent’s behavior. They characterize this as an effort to protect their addicted family member, possibly out of feelings of guilt or shame. But in Not My Kid: A Family’s Guide to Kids and Drugs—which precedes Wegscheider-Cruse’s book by about five years—authors Beth Polson and Dr. Miller Newton define the Scapegoat as a family member who often does nothing to earn their role within the family’s dysfunction.

In this take on dysfunctional family roles, the Scapegoat suffers misplaced blame for the behaviors of others in the family.

Rather than a Problem Child who diverts attention, this definition casts the Scapegoat as an individual who generally exhibits relative stability and emotional health compared to the rest of the household. Nonetheless, they may receive blame for the Dependent’s behaviors if even tangentially connected to them.

“How could you allow this to happen?”

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

In some cases, they may even receive blame for events in which they did not participate by any action or inaction, and in fact did not even know about until they found themselves drawn into the conflict as a wrongly accused culprit.

The Scapegoat will sometimes grow to believe others’ perceptions of them. The guilt with which they have been unjustly saddled will characterize future relationships by causing frequent feelings of inferiority and self-loathing.

By contrast, some Scapegoats who recognize their unfair treatment may struggle with trust issues. And due to the complexities of human behavior, some Scapegoats will find themselves regularly torn between both extremes.

The Mastermind:

Much like the Problem Child, the Mastermind may fail to appear on most addiction-centered breakdowns of dysfunctional family roles due to the sheer assumption that the Dependent usually takes up this mantle.

We associate the Mastermind with manipulation and opportunism, traits sometimes employed by Dependents to hide or facilitate their continued use.

From the standpoint of the Caretaker, and occasionally the Scapegoat, the Dependent most certainly fills this role.

The Mastermind, however, sometimes occupies a much more complex space within the overall family dynamic.

Some Masterminds put on the façade of other dysfunctional family roles at will, depending upon the aims they seek to achieve.

Usually, however, the Mastermind simply observes the behaviors exhibited by the rest of the family, using them to their advantage.

They may use the diversions of the Problem Child or Scapegoat to engage in their own misbehavior.

Or they may take advantage of the Caretaker’s enabling nature to fulfill desires that might otherwise be denied to them.

We should clarify that, while the above description casts the Mastermind almost as a villain, they don’t always act with nefarious intent.

Sometimes, in the wake of the chaos caused by competing dysfunctional family roles, opportunism may seem the only way to meet their needs.

Take, for instance, a child who provides emotional support to a Caretaker simply to receive affection in return. This act fits the Mastermind role, as their intention revolves around their own emotional well-being rather than the Caretaker’s. But, while perhaps opportunistic, the behavior is still quite understandable.

All dysfunctional family roles, when broken down to their core, are merely different ways of seeking validation, or attention.

The need itself is not symptomatic of dysfunction, but rather a fundamental part of human nature. It is only the behavior used to fulfill this need that we may call dysfunctional.

The Hero or Golden Child:

The Caretaker might make excuses for the Dependent, but the Hero is ultimately the one who does the best job of bringing esteem to the family. Heroes work hard to demonstrate responsibility, seeking achievement in any form possible. Younger Heroes will often find numerous extracurricular activities at school, while working in their free time.

The family may rarely see the Hero due to the sheer amount of time they spend adding to their roster of accomplishments.

Despite outward appearances, the Hero suffers as much internal strife as any of the other dysfunctional family roles.

Due to their hard-working lifestyle and extreme perfectionism, Heroes suffer high levels of stress. The constant struggle for achievement, the drive to set themselves apart from the family’s dysfunction, essentially becomes its own addiction.

Much like the Caretaker, the Hero often develops major control issues. They seek validation by trying to control the world around them. To some extent, they may succeed in this.

But as each accomplishment fails to provide true inner peace, they respond by working even harder. Eventually, the Hero may take on too much or spread themselves too thin. This leads to extreme feelings of guilt and shame when the Hero finally takes on a task they cannot accomplish, and must come to grips with failure.

Relationships between the Hero and other family members sometimes become volatile.

The Hero may resent the Dependent or Problem Child, blaming them for the family’s struggles. They may even blame the Caretaker for allowing this to happen. In many cases, the Hero feels stuck in their lifestyle simply because nobody else is stepping up to the plate. They may feel as if the family’s burdens rest upon their shoulders.

Left unresolved, these inflated feelings of self-importance may lead to a difficult life of constant overwork.

The Mascot:

All of these dysfunctional family roles share one thing in common — regardless of their outlook on the situation, they usually take the Dependent’s addiction seriously. The same can be said of the Mascot; however, you wouldn’t necessarily see it upon first glance.

The Mascot often cracks jokes or finds other ways of trying to provide entertainment. They do so in an attempt to alleviate the family’s stress, although sometimes this may backfire. Particularly insensitive jokes or immature antics will sometimes test others’ patience. When their jokes are poorly received, this often only heightens their fear and causes them to double down with more humor. On such occasions, the Mascot may briefly switch roles and become the Scapegoat.

Eventually, when things calm down, they return to their role as the family jester.

Much like the Hero, the Mascot’s outward appearance masks deep-seated insecurities. They use their sense of humor as a defense mechanism to put off dealing with pain, fear, or any other sort of emotional discomfort that might cause them trouble. As a result, these feelings remain unprocessed and unresolved.

Mascots find themselves in a state of arrested emotional development, unable to cope properly with negative emotions. Their sense of humor becomes their most defining characteristic, and they fear that any failure on their part to maintain it may result in abandonment.

And so while their antics may gain them some popularity (both inside and outside the family), this popularity feels cheap.

The Mascot becomes isolated within a sea of people who enjoy their company, yet don’t really know them as anything other than a walking laugh factory.

The Lost Child:

Each of the above dysfunctional family roles manifests through action. The Lost Child stands apart, in that we characterize this role primarily by inaction. Those who fit into this role try hard not to rock the boat. They may never mention the Dependent’s behavior, perhaps even going out of their way to avoid family discussions about it. Introverted and inconspicuous, the Lost Child may take this role by choice. Many times, however, the Lost Child is as their title implies – someone whose needs were simply neglected, lost in the bedlam of family drama.

Since we characterize the Lost Child by their neglected needs, they may easily fit into many of the other dysfunctional family roles. A Lost Child who gets fed up and angry with their role may wear the mask of Problem Child for a day, simply to take the spotlight for a short period of time. The Hero may identify as the Lost Child if they feel the rest of the family does not acknowledge their achievements.

Sometimes the Lost Child plays the role of Scapegoat, disappearing from the family’s radar until they become entangled in a family dispute against their will. Usually, however, the Lost Child simply stays out of the way. In a dysfunctional household, the Lost Child feels it safer to remain neither seen nor heard.

Even when the Lost Child assumes their role by choice, they may still resent the family for their neglect.

Lost Children often grow up feeling ostracized, lonely and inadequate. They assume their neglect must result from some sort of personal failing.

That something must be wrong with them, or else they would receive the love they deserve.

This lack of esteem may lead to dangerous behaviors later on, such as self-harm or a tendency to become involved in abusive relationships.

Immediate Reactions To Dysfunctional Families:

While a child is living in a dysfunctional family, they experience immediate effects of the situation. Some of these include:

  • Social Isolation
  • Being withdrawn
  • Developing behavior disorders
  • Feeling lonely
  • Feeling cut off from their feelings
  • Being extremely self-critical
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Developing mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression)
  • Having difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings

The Lasting Impact of Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family:

The impact a dysfunctional family can be overwhelmingly and lasting. Some of the effects include:

  • Difficulty with emotional or sexual intimacy
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Trust issues
  • Poor communication skills
  • Clinginess in relationships
  • Oversensitivity
  • Obsession with perfectionism
  • Feelings of abandonment or isolation
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness

We can’t choose the family we’re given. But children of dysfunctional families can overcome leftover feelings from a bad childhood with a new adult perspective.

Healing From A Dysfunctional Family:

The task of healing from growing up in a dysfunctional family can feel insurmountable. No doubt, you’ve experienced at least a few negative effects of living through a hell of a childhood and many people find that these effects feel ever-lasting. They’re not, but it can be tremendously hard to even know where to begin healing. Here are some tips that may help you heal from growing up in a dysfunctional family. Please remember:

You Can’t Change Someone Else:

No matter how much you beg or plead, most adults don’t or are unwilling change their core personality and behaviors. This is a biggie, because most of us want to have a healthy relationship with our families, but you’re only capable of controlling who YOU are. Imagining our parents or family as we want them to be is called magical thinking, and it’s an ineffective coping mechanism.

Eventually, you will reach a point during which you believing a parent when they say they’ll change. If you can’t reconcile this, you’ll be disappointed often. You simply can’t continuously seek approval or acceptance from someone who never has met those needs you needed met.

If a dysfunctional parent who won’t change is harming your life with destructive behavior, it’s OK to keep your distance or cut off ties altogether.

See also Estrangement.

Remember this: blood is not thicker than water.

You should only allow someone to be a part of your life if they exhibit good, consistent actions. You have every right to set boundaries to protect your well-being.

You’ll never get it back, so stop trying

Feel Your Feelings:

Feel all your feelings. You are allowed to have all of your feelings. It will take practice to get back in touch with your feelings and realize their value. But you can start by asking yourself how you feel and telling yourself that your feelings matter. You no longer have to be limited to feeling shame, fear, and sadness. You also don’t need anyone else to validate your feelings; there are no right or wrong feelings or good or bad feelings.

For now, just let your feelings exist.

Talk about your feelings and experiences. You can break down shame, isolation, and loneliness, and build more connected relationships when you share your thoughts and feelings with trustworthy people. Acknowledging and talking about your problems is the opposite of staying in denial. It opens the door to solutions and healing.

Trust others and set appropriate boundaries. Trust can be a scary thing, especially when people have let you down in the past. It takes time to learn to trust yourself and who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Trust is an important component of healthy relationships, along with healthy boundaries that ensure that you’re being treated with respect and your needs are met.

It’s All Over Now:

You can never go back in time and change your childhood.

So why do we continue to try to change it?

Many people believe they can make up for the past by trying to salvage an irreparable relationship in the present. But they often cannot and it’s a difficult pill to swallow.

You’ll always struggle with reconciling your past with your present, but it’s the personal power you grab a hold of today that will make that reconciliation seem more plausible, IF you consider that a safe option for you. If your family is toxic, you don’t need to feel a bit of guilt for estrangement and maintaining your boundaries.

Don’t Do As You Were Taught:

When you dwell on your pain, resentment, and anger from your childhood, you may be taking it out on your own family.

Worse yet, the time you spend obsessing over the past takes away the time you could be building a healthy future with your kids.

While you should be open with your spouse about your past before you get married, your family doesn’t deserve to continuously relive your pain for you.

Having a family of your own is a small, but powerful way you can redeem your childhood.

By providing your children with a loving, stable, and safe environment to grow up in, you’re putting an end to a cycle of dysfunction. You know you can’t rewind your childhood and totally get rid of the pain and trauma. But you can heal some of the pain by watching your marriage and children thrive now.

No, Really, Let It Go:

The great thing about growing up is you gain perspective, insight, and autonomy, and with this comes a capability of better coping with your bad childhood.

You’re certainly more susceptible to making bad choices when you’ve been robbed of a healthy framework by which to live your life. But now, as an adult, it comes down to you. You may feel angry, cheated and bitter, but your attitude doesn’t have to project that.

What happened in your childhood wasn’t your choice, but what happens today is.  Once you realize how empowering taking back control can feel, you’ll find more peace in the fact that your parents can’t control your life any longer.


Forgiveness doesn’t have to be the last step in your healing process. Some experiences are just too painful to ever forgive, and it’s OK if you’re never able to fully forgive your family.

If you are able to forgive someone in your family, do it on your own terms, and make sure whoever you’re forgiving has accepted responsibility for their wrongdoing and is working toward making it better, too.

Often, the most effective way to heal from a dysfunctional family is to seek therapy.

You’ll forever be connected to your childhood experiences, and that’s something you have to endure. But your ultimate success and happiness is something you’re responsible for. When you grasp this, you’ve already won half the battle to healing.

Additional Dysfunctional Family Resources:

Adult Children of Addicts offers some of the very best advice you can get, as many families with addiction closely mimic those with an addict in the family.

See The Problem and The Solution