Family systems theory views families in their entirety as an organism. Families form systems or entities that are much more than the individuals who comprise them. Every family has its own rhythm and flow, and family members develop particular ways of acting and reacting with each other and with the outside world. These specific patterns of interaction between family members give each family system a particular equilibrium and style related to such areas as expectations (spoken and unspoken); how feelings are expressed (or not); how conflict is managed (or avoided); how family issues are communicated in the world outside the family system; and what roles and responsibilities family members are assigned—consciously and unconsciously. These dynamics shape the personality styles and behaviors of each family member. Change in any part of the system creates ripple-effect changes in all parts of the system. Think of a mobile hanging from the ceiling in a child’s room: when one part moves, all of the other parts move in response to it. When one family member is overly responsible and controlling, this shapes the behaviors of other family members. They typically respond by becoming somewhat less responsible. The equilibrium of the family system shifts as each member changes and adjusts accordingly. When a parent struggles with chronic pain (or addiction or any other serious chronic condition), his or her parenting is affected. Virgina Satir was a social worker and psychotherapist who was a seminal figure in the developing field of family therapy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her original work regarding family roles was adapted by Claudia Black and Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse in the 1980s to describe the roles taken on by children in dysfunctional family systems. The framework they developed applies to many families, but especially those wrestling with momentous challenges such as addiction, trauma, physical and/ or emotional violence, depression and other forms of psychiatric illness, physical and developmental disabilities, and chronic pain or serious physical illness. These roles and their related behaviors represent unconscious psychological survival strategies that children use in order to cope with the stresses within their family. While each child in the family generally assumes a primary role, the roles themselves are far from set in cement. Family members can take on aspects of different roles, or migrate from one role to another over time and psychosocial stage of development. These roles are attempts to bring greater consistency, structure, and emotional safety into family systems that are experienced as unpredictable, chaotic, or frightening. They include, Hero, Lost Child, Mascot, and Scapegoat. The Hero is the hyper-responsible child present in virtually every dysfunctional family. Usually, though not always, the hero is the oldest child. Children who assume this role are high achievers, getting excellent grades in school and excelling in sports and/or other extracurricular activities. Their behavior is exemplary—they comply with the rules and provide a model that parents, teachers, and coaches wish others would follow. Accordingly, the Hero elicits outsized approval and praise from both parents and outsiders. The family Hero reduces tension in the family simply by doing everything “right” and deflecting attention away from the family’s challenges. The Lost Child generally comes from the middle of the birth order, surrounded by older and younger siblings. This role is defined by the absence of a distinct role within the family system. Lost children avoid bringing attention to themselves, preferring to stay below the family radar. They often isolate, withdrawing from family and social activities to escape, and tend to distance themselves emotionally through immersion in television, computers, video games, or reading. Family members tend not to worry much about this child because he or she is quiet and appears content. As a result, it’s not unusual for family members not to notice that the child isn’t participating and seems withdrawn or even depressed. The Mascot is almost always one of the youngest children in the family, and most frequently is the youngest. The Mascot’s function is to be cute and humorous. By being cute, adorable, and/or funny they protect themselves from negative attention and distract others from the stress and dysfunction in the family. Since the Mascot tends to be the youngest, the family usually views the child with that role as the most fragile and vulnerable, and tends to be especially protective toward him or her. The Scapegoat role is usually adopted by a middle child, often the second oldest. The Scapegoat is the antithesis of the Hero; the designated black sheep of the family. Who did it (whatever “it” is)? Chances are, it was the family Scapegoat. And chances are even better that the Scapegoat will be blamed for it, even if he or she didn’t do it. The Scapegoat’s role is to divert attention away from family’s systemic dysfunction by acting out in ways that draw significant negative attention to him or her individually. In doing so, the Scapegoat unconsciously concretizes the family’s problems and accepts the blame for them, while simultaneously giving expression to the family’s frustration and upset. The Scapegoat’s acting out can take manifold forms, such as marked oppositionalism and rebelliousness against authority at home, in school, and/or in the community; poor academic performance; aggressive or violent behavior; and involvement in thrill-seeking or other high-risk and potentially self-destructive activities. Not surprisingly, the Scapegoat is the child most likely to have problems related to truancy, school suspensions or expulsions, arrests, sexual promiscuity, teen pregnancy, and substance use/abuse. Usually, the Scapegoat’s angry, defiant, “Fuck you, I don’t give a shit” outward appearance masks considerable pain. This child is frequently the most emotional and sensitive, though he or she has learned to fend off inadequacy, hurt, and rejection by employing defense mechanisms that keep these feelings of vulnerability at a safer distance. This blog post is an excerpt from Some Assembly Required – A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain by By Dan Mager, MSW; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).