Dysfunctional Family

A Dysfunctional Family unit can encompass many different types of families plagued by factors that create a negative family environment that is not conducive to raising children to be emotional balanced adults.

Every family has its fair share of problems and the occasional conflict between family members.  No family is perfect and there are no exceptions to this rule. 

However, for some, it goes beyond normal levels of problems and the occasional conflict.

There are different kinds of dysfunctional families such as families with substance abuse, emotional and mental health issues, child abuse and neglect.  It may include families who are religious fundamentalist.

When you are raised in a dysfunctional family environment it can have a profound impact on your childhood and continue to affect you later in life as an adult.  As a child you may have been abused by the words, actions (or lack of) and attitudes of your parents or caregivers.

You may have been systematically victimized and traumatized and try to escape your past by substance abuse or you may find yourself in a dysfunctional relationship, having children and repeating the patterns of your childhood.

A dysfunctional family unit is one where the interaction between the children and parents are unnatural and strained.  This usually occurs when a family member, usually a parent, has a problem that impacts and has a negative effect on other family members.

As a result, the other family members adapt roles as defined by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse. Wegscheider-Cruse identifies and defines common typical roles that emerge from a dysfunctional family affected by alcoholism. 

However, this can be applied to other negative aspects such incestuous families and domestic violence.

The Enabler

The Enabler: This family member can be seen as the martyr for the family.  They are typically responsible for most, if not all domestic duties such as child rearing, cooking and cleaning.  They try their best for protect the family and most important they play a vital role to help hide and conceal the family’s problems from the outside world. 

This role is usually assumed by a parent.  For example, a mother who finds out her husband is sexually abusing their children may provide her daughter with oral contraceptive to prevent an unwanted pregnancy and thus shame on the family.  However, a child may also assume the role of the enabler.

The Hero Child

The Hero:  This family member can be seen as the over-achieving perfectionist.  This role is usually assumed by a child who may be an excellent student with a great academic record, performance and achievement. 

They make the family look good and it is comforting to the parents that they are excelling, as it makes them appear as functional parents. To the outside world they appear well-adjusted and mature. 

They have a compulsive drive to succeed, and as adults they can be workaholics.  However, these children (or adults) despite their ‘success’ and great accomplishment are prone to feelings of inadequacy and failure.

These feelings of inadequacy and failure may manifest into depression or other psychologically difficulties. 

As adults, they may also suffer from stress related illness and can be extremely judgemental, controlling and rigid

The Scapegoat Child

The Scapegoat Child: This family member can be seen and often labeled as ‘the problem child’.  They are often perceived as the child that’s acting out, saying and doing things that no one else would dare say or do. 

They usually struggle academically and participant in delinquent and criminal behavior.  They may experiment in drugs and alcohol.

Male children are prone to aggressive outburst (but so are females too) and female children are prone to sexual promiscuity.

Ironically, the scapegoat child is the most emotionally honest member of the entire family. They are usually the most caring and sensitive and therefore, the one who hurt more easily. 

As a consequence of their sensitive nature, they are first to seek counseling or some sort of recovery therapy as they are usually the first ones to have some sort of emotional crisis.

The Lost Child

The Lost Child:  This family member may be seen as the aloof, shy, isolated and independent by the outside world. They can be described as the ostrich with its head buried in the sand or the invisible child.

They avoid the family chaos by escaping into books, television, hobbies, computer games etc. 

They prefer isolation and to be alone. 

They often have difficulties forming relationships. The lost child may indulge and find comfort in alcohol, drugs, food and shopping.

The Mascot Child

The Mascot Child.  This family member is seen as very sociable and entertaining.  We have, at some point in our lives, met this kind of person; the life and soul of a party. 

They may come across as humorous and hyper-active.

They are often mistakenly perceived as the fun-loving and happy-go-lucky kind of individual or even a clown. This is merely an act and a thick mask to conceal their deeper pain, suffering and emotional wounds. 

The Mascot child usually has a difficult time when dealing with serious issues and will ‘laugh-it-off' or pass it off as a joke.  It is also difficult for them to identify and express their true feelings.

It is not uncommon for children of dysfunctional families to carry their roles into adulthood.  It is also possible to assume more than one role at different stages of their lives.  The roles can be assumes simultaneously or alternately.

You are invited to read other pages on this website related to the dysfunctional family as follows:

Signs of a Dysfunctional Family

Domestic Violence and Women

Male Victims of Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence and Children

Help for Domestic Violence

Incestuous Families

Abusive Fathers

Abusive Mother

Single-Parent Families

Children of Single Parent Families


Wegscheider, Sharon. Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. 1981. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

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