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The Roles Adult Children Play in Dysfunctional Families

Updated on February 16, 2017

Communication Can Be Very Difficult

Dysfunction can lead to a breakdown in communication.
Dysfunction can lead to a breakdown in communication. | Source

Dysfunctional Families Have Traditions and Roles.

Healthy families have their own set of traditions which are carried on through the generations. Traditions are also a part of the legacy set for Dysfunctional Families as well. The difference is that healthy families are promoting a bonding and positive experience for family members while unhealthy dysfunctional ones promote fear and disconnect from others. As an adult, one goal that can be set to break from these traditions is to identify what is healthy for a relationship. By doing so, you can begin to identify the unhealthy roles your family members play. Each has their part in perpetuating the traditions of the family.

Dysfunctional Families Have a History

Growing up I knew some of my family history. I knew my grandpa was an alcoholic and that his wife died at an early age leaving her husband with several children to raise. I know my dad's parents were divorced. I still have no idea why. Looking back I can see there were gaps in the history of my family. As I learn more, I begin to understand the complexities of my family. If you find yourself lost and confused because of family dysfunction, then I recommend you start by looking at the history of your family. There is much you can learn in the genealogy and tradition surrounding your family. You may be wondering just what does it mean to be in a dysfunctional family. There can be varying degrees of it and this page will help unravel some of those questions. I'll share some of my own experiences as well.

Unraveling the Dysfunction

In this article, I want to help unravel some of the complexities of the dysfunctional family.

We will be looking at

  • the roles adult children play with their parents
  • the roles of adult children play with their siblings
  • how birth order contributes to these roles
  • how triangulation works within the family
  • how to break the cycle of dysfunction

As A Child You May Not Recognize The Signs

When I was little, I felt that I had the ideal childhood. I spent summer days riding my bike around town and played with my sister and friends. My parents, while not very affectionate, spent time with us and took us to the park or on vacations. I did not feel unloved or unwanted. It wasn't until a few years ago that I found out about some of the abuse that happened. Much of it happened when I was too little to remember, but in putting the pieces together I could see why there was not much affection. My mother was distant and her codependent relationship with my younger sister began developing in these formidable years. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I began to see the bigger picture. Some of the dysfunction in my family took years to develop and things shifted as I entered adulthood.

Your Feelings Have Value

Dysfunctional Families frequently can devalue the feelings of a child.
Dysfunctional Families frequently can devalue the feelings of a child. | Source

Classic Saturday Night Live. This video sums up a lot of how I feel in my family, and it helps me to laugh at the situation.

Your Birth Order Can Influence How You Interact With Your Family

What is your birth order?

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What is Birth Order?

The order in which the children of a family are born is known as birth order. This order can influence the dynamics of a family, but it is not a definitive answer to why you play the role you do. Firstborns for instance may take on a parent role to younger children in the family. They are often viewed as more mature and responsible. Firstborns are often perfectionists.

These characteristics can also be applied to an Only child. Only children may also take on a parenting role that is focused on caring for a parent. Sometimes they take on the role of husband or wife emotionally for one or both parents.

Middle children can often be neglected emotionally or become the apple of a parent's eye depending on the dynamics. Middle children typically are the comedy relief of a family due to the need for attention,

Youngest children are seen as the baby and are often treated as such. They are not held to the responsible level that older children are. Many times they are the golden child. This may seem like a good position to be in but it puts the child in a very dysfunctional position that often leads to poor coping skills as an adult.

As an adult, we often continue in the role that was developed in childhood.


What Are the Roles?

As an adult, do you find yourself in one of these roles?

  • The enabler- in this role do you find yourself encouraging or helping dysfunctional family members continue in their roles? Do you find yourself rescuing them from the consequences of their behavior? Are you a people pleaser who has a hard time saying no? These are indications that you may be an enabler.
  • The addict- in this role you may find that you are drawn toward addictive behaviors or people. Are you in a relationship with an addict or find yourself using substances? Do you drink or smoke to excess? Sometimes the adult child becomes an addict in order to cope with the dysfunction of family.
  • The golden child- in this role you become the champion of the family. The child who can do no wrong can be a dangerous position. The golden child risks developing poor coping skills. When life gets hard, they find they cannot cope with the stress because they have not been taught to handle it in a healthy way. They have been elevated to a position where responsibilities and realities of life are foreign. Life can come crashing down hard if the roles change, as they often do.
  • The clown-the clown is often the joker and is the butt of many jokes. Do you find yourself laughing when people make a joke at your expense? Do you take the events of your life seriously? If you push aside your feelings in order to make others feel good, you are using maladaptive coping skills. While it is an asset to have a great sense of humor, it can also be a character flaw to think of everything as a joke.
  • The parent-the adult child who finds themselves in a parenting role will mimic the role of an enabler. Growing up the parentified child finds that they are the emotional crutch of one or both parents. They end up taking care of either their parents or the other children in the house. The adult child often feels an overwhelming responsibility for the well being of the family.
  • The target- the adult child often feels that any problem in the family is their fault. This is often due to the fact that a parent places the problems of the family on the shoulders of the target. The target is the opposite, in many ways, from the golden child. The Target can do nothing right and is often abused. As and adult, the target often has an exaggerated sense of guilt and has a low self esteem.
  • The lost child- and adult lost child may feel neglected and abandoned. Growing up, the lost child slips through the cracks. They are often ignored. Their needs are neglected and they continue to feel a sense of worthlessness into adulthood.

What are your rights as an individual?


One characteristic of a dysfunctional family is presence of triangulation. Triangulation refers to the relationship between 3 or more people. In my case, for instance, my sister will not address any problems we have directly. If she has to relay any information or her displeasure over something related to me, it will be communicated to me through my mother. This leads to continued pressure from my mom to get along with my sister and perpetuate her enabling behavior. Mom wants to fix the relationship. She has been drug into the middle of the conflict through the triangulating behavior of my sister. Relationships are meant to be one-on-one, but in a triangulated relationship a third party is brought in. Communication breaks down, and the third party is used.

What Now?

Begin to break away from the dysfunction by being open and direct. You can do this in a loving way without yelling. You begin to set healthy boundaries and clearly express them in your family. Statements like:

Do not speak to me that way. I will not allow you to continue and will (walk away, hang up the phone) if you continue to do so.

If you have something to discuss, I would appreciate if you would talk to me directly. If you have a problem, come to me.

Don't forget the biggest one of all---NO!

No amount of manipulation or guilt should coerce you into doing something you do not feel comfortable with. Learn to say no. You can start to build healthy boundaries this way, and you begin to love yourself by doing so.


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    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      17 months ago from Philippines

      I love this article. Your list is very relatable, and your conclusion - to set boundaries with love, is a great recommendation.

    • JanieceTobey profile image


      4 years ago

      I've always found how birth order contributes to our personalities to be an interesting subject. You gave some great tips on improving your relationships with others!


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