by Phyllis Larkin, Psy.D.
What is my role now?
Moving abroad creates internal and external stressors that can’t be understood by those we love in the States. And those we love in the U.S. have stressors we cannot understand because we aren’t there. This lack of shared experience causes incredible emotional upheaval in most families. Add an aging parent with health or financial problems and things can get explosive. Old family dynamics will likely resurface with a vengeance. Siblings can revert to their 8-year-old selves and parents are likely to become emotionally childish also. If it’s like everyone is reading lines from a play, they are! Every family has its own script, and every member plays a role. In healthy families, everyone plays all the roles depending on life's circumstances. We all are human, we all make mistakes, we all feel lost, we all have humor, we all get hurt, we all need support.
Knowing your roles and strengths can help you be of service without feeling overwhelmed. Here is a list of typical family roles I have adapted from Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse.
Identified Patient: An aging parent living in a constant state of chaos, they feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with problems and difficult feelings. As a result, they become overly dependent, may burn bridges through angry outbursts, lie about their health and/or finances, and manipulate those around them in an attempt to get the help they need. They may isolate themselves and can become secretive to prevent their children or spouse from knowing the truth of the situation. They may blame others (scapegoat/caregiver) for their problems. This creates negative effects for the entire family. Their role is changing from one of power to one of dependency. All other roles in the family are changing as a result of the aging parents’ declining health.
Hero (Savior/Messiah); The family hero is your typical “Type A” personality: a hard-working, overachieving perfectionist. Through achievements, the hero tries to bring the family together and create a sense of predictability. This role is usually taken on because the hero fears failing or being controlled by others. They seek to give hope and stability to the rest of the family by being the “Rock of Gibraltar.” Unfortunately, the driving need to “do everything right” tends to put an extreme amount of pressure on the hero, leaving them highly anxious and susceptible to stress-related illnesses. Other family members will often resent this person for having too much power and control over decisions and finances. Heros and scapegoats often trade roles within the family as the hero becomes exhausted and needs help. Heros need to be taken seriously, but this prevents them from being fun. If they can learn to say no and accept imperfection, they can accept the help they need, relax and have fun.
Caregiver/Victim/Enabler/Secret-Keeper: The goal of this role is to provide care and safety for the identified patient. While most often a spouse, this role can also be taken on by an adult child. In order to “protect” the family, enablers convince themselves that there isn’t a problem, or that they alone can take care of it. In order to diminish the seriousness of the situation, they make excuses for others behavior. Warm, loving, compassionate and fiercely loyal, they have lots of information about the reality of the identified patient’s situation. This person feels overwhelmed by the identified patients secrets, but can’t tell anyone for fear of betraying someone they love. This can result in appearing clueless, apologetic, avoidant, indecisive, or controlling. They are often blamed for the problems of the identified patient, and then react with anger and control to protect themselves and the identified patient. Caregivers, they often sacrifice their own health to care for others. They are loyal, responsible, and fearful for the wellbeing of those they love. They are great problem solvers if they can accept the reality of the situation and accept help from others without controlling the process. They can be counted on to follow through and need to maintain firm boundaries so they don’t get exploited or exploit others.
Lost Child/Loner/AWOL: Shy, withdrawn, and sometimes thought of as “invisible” to the rest of the family, the loner can feel unable to express feelings and is often lonely. They don’t seek attention from other family members, especially when a crisis is present within the family. A typical perception is “At least we don’t have to worry about Harry.” Lost children put off making decisions, have trouble with forming intimate relationships, and choose to spend time on solitary activities as a way to cope with feeling judged and unimportant. Good listeners (because they don’t share their opinion) and often creative, they can come up with unique solutions to family problems. They are often resented for not “showing up;” however, they are also not asked to show up and are often kept “out of the loop.” They can be excellent negotiators and can feel needed at times of crisis if they are asked. If they can learn to speak up and share their opinion they can be a good resource for caregivers.
Mascot/Clown: In trying to deflect the stress of the situation by supplying humor, they aren’t taken seriously. Fragile, vulnerable, and needing the approval of others, mascots are hiding deep pain and fears of inadequacy. Providing comic relief is a defense against feeling pain and fear that is overwhelming. Mascots often grow up to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, food or work. Mascots can also be helpful in bringing lightness and humor to difficult situations. Hard working and responsible, they can also help the family express difficult emotions, and become leaders in times of stress.
Scapegoat/Black Sheep: Blamed for the family’s problems because they act out the hurt, rejection, and shame of the family, the scapegoat offers the family a sense of purpose by providing someone else to blame. “If only Jack would get his act together!” Their behavior expresses the family’s collective frustration, anger, and failure through impulsivity and risk-taking while shielding the identified patient from blame and resentment. If the family is focused on the black sheep, they aren’t focused on the identified patient or the caregiver. When scapegoats get older, males tend to act out, while females may run away or participate in troubled relationships. Scapegoats can become truth-tellers, identifying the obvious problems and helping the family come to grips with the new reality of the identified patient’s failing health. If the black sheep can help the identified patient in concrete ways and be recognized for their positive contribution, they can relieve some of the burdens on the caregiver. This role has the most power to change if they can learn to speak the truth without anger or manipulation. They can finally feel good by being good and taking appropriate risks. They can become good leaders and be helpful to the hero if allowed.
It very important to realize roles tend to be rigid; however, if one person changes their lines, the other players have to change their responses. Roles in healthy families are flexible and interchangeable. Changes are most likely during times of crisis and stress. Your power resides in your truth when it is expressed with grace and dignity and when listening to the reality of your loved ones. You may be far away, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a resource for those you love.