Before we review the five basic childhood roles in depth, there is another list that is important to mention, and that is Claudia Black’s Three Golden Rules for Adult Children of Alcoholics: 1. Don’t Talk. (If I don’t talk, I don’t get yelled at, ignored, hit, etc.) The child is also reminded to keep the family’s secrets regarding addiction or other problems. This reinforces the denial within the family. This “don’t talk” rule keeps a child believing that his or her family is okay, but at the same time keeps him or her at a high level of constant stress and hyper-vigilance. Pretending the elephant in the living room is not there, even when it is getting bigger and creating more problems, gets harder and harder. The rule of silence dominates the two remaining rules in terms of its long-term influence on the child. 2. Don’t Trust. (If I don’t trust, then I won’t be disappointed again when my father doesn’t show up for my sixth baseball game in a row, or when my mother promises to help with my homework but is passed out on the couch from taking too many pills.) With this lack of trust comes a huge fear of abandonment, which I will discuss in more detail later. With the lack of trust, the child unconsciously begins to assemble his or her own often rigid rules for living in an attempt to be safe and in control. 3. Don’t Feel. (If all I’m going to feel is hurt, anger, and fear, I’ll just “numb out” and not feel anything.) Sometimes the term used for this is psychic numbing. It is not uncommon for adults in treatment for addiction to have not only fear of risking feelings, but also the inability to identify feelings and an unclear view of self. All of the above rules certainly leave a child from this family unprepared for a healthy intimate adult relationship. In working with adults who grew up in addicted homes and with addicts who have children, I always tell them that there are two things children need:
- They need love.
- They need answers.
They are more likely to get love from at least one parent than they are to get answers. Children see all these crazy things happening in their homes, and no one comes back and explains what it means. Dad, in a drunken state, punches his fist through a wall; Mom takes the kids to live at her mother’s for a week, then goes back home; a bicycle is run over in the driveway and is thrown away, and no explanation is given. Usually the child sees Mom and Dad angry and thinks somehow it’s his or her fault. With no answers to life’s daily questions, children slowly learn to rely on themselves and trust no one. Their shame, low self-esteem, isolation, fear of abandonment, and tolerance for inappropriate behavior are all affected by this. While childhood roles were originally talked about in relation to adult children from alcoholic homes, they are actually applicable to every family. The intensity of the roles may vary, but the roles are always present. Think of childhood roles as a framework, like many others—as a tool to elicit important therapeutic, traumatic, and family insight, as well as to gain an understanding of the rules of survival or coping for a given patient. Every child has two basic needs:
- The need to be safe
- The need to get other basic needs met (physical affection [hugs], approval, attention, love, not to be discounted; represented by a box
The Five Childhood Roles
1. The Hero
This is the child who is performance oriented, who goes fast as a means of avoiding feelings, and in this way feels safe. The hero child wears the family badge of honor, as if to say, “Look how good I’m doing; there can’t be anything wrong with my family.” Hero children get their needs met through approval for their accomplishments, present a good image for the family, and usually don’t cause trouble. While appearing often as the “looking-good kid” or as “nothing going on here,” inwardly the hero child often feels unworthy or inadequate and fearful. Hero children play the role of the imposter with the combination of an increased ego and decreased self-esteem. They are prone to anxiety and depression. Their greatest fear is of doing something wrong. They tend to feel overly responsible for the family, and have a need to be right, but at the same time they don’t always trust their own perceptions. Despite their notoriety, they feel very isolated.
2. The Lost Child
This is the child who unconsciously learns that the only way to survive is to be invisible and “blend into the woodwork.” Lost children are quiet, are nonassertive, may or may not perform well in school, and have little expectations of family. Everything is centered on the need to be safe, but they are getting no other needs met. Often feeling ignored by parents or siblings, they may choose to create a world of their own. Lost children are less likely to seek help even as adults, and because of the lack of dialogue with others, struggle with identifying feelings, much less risking them. They may also be more prone to sexual identity problems.
3. The Mascot/Placater
This is the “peace-at-any–cost” child who will do anything to avoid anger or conflict. Mascot/placater children are getting the need to be safe met. They are often Mommy’s or Daddy’s little helper. They will also take on the role of comedian to defuse a potentially volatile situation. If they predominantly play the role of comedian, they may not be taken seriously by family or peers. They may demonstrate a lot of caretaking features early on, and in an addicted household, they may pattern their behavior after the enabling parent. They may end up marrying an addict in their adult life. Mascot/placater children’s other needs are being met because they often receive appreciation for the help they give. They do not cause trouble, and may be mediators in the family. Mascot/placater children operate under an incredible level of fear, and often make decisions based on fear rather than what is best for them.
4. The Scapegoat
This is the child in the family who is basically blamed for everything, who is the black sheep or the troublemaker. If Joey is the scapegoat in his family and a glass breaks in the kitchen, by the time it hits the floor everybody yells “Joey did it,” even though Joey is not at home. It’s debated whether children subconsciously choose their role(s) or the dynamics of the family place a child in a particular role. I believe it varies and is a combination of both. Scapegoat children never really feel safe since they are getting “hammered” every day verbally or physically, but they are getting some needs met in terms of attention, although the attention is generally negative. The scapegoat is usually the child who is most honest about what is really going on in the family. The scapegoat is often the means in the family to divert attention from the real problem (for instance, Dad’s addiction). There can be a lot of self-destructive behavior and self-hatred in these children, but they are often the first to seek treatment.
5. The Hyperactive Child
When talking about these children, I feel the need to separate them into two categories: those with disabilities and those without. Children with disabilities like AD/HD, disorders of written expression, and so on, have hyperactivity in large part as a result of their disability. However, there is a second group of children without disabilities but with hyperactivity who unconsciously choose this role as an attempt to be safe and get needs met. By going fast, hyperactive children do not have to slow down and feel, which unconsciously offers a way to feel safe. Also, by always being somewhat mischievous without being malicious, they demand attention, which they get. In talking about the above five roles, you will notice that there are two roles where children only get one of the two basic needs met. These are the lost child and the scapegoat. The lost child has some feeling of safety, but gets no other needs met. The scapegoat feels little or no safety, but gets some attention or other needs met, albeit mostly in negative ways. These are also the two roles where children tend to leave the family at the earliest age and turn to peers, looking to fill those needs not met by the family. Unfortunately, what they find outside the family are other lost children and scapegoats, and a much-increased incidence of addiction. When looking at childhood roles as an adult, it is important to note that you may have had one or more than one role, or your roles may have changed. There are some common patterns. I often see the pattern of hero and mascot/placater. This is common among impaired physicians and other professionals. When I hear patients identify themselves first as lost, then as hero, I am quick to ask them at what age they became the hero, and in what niche they found themselves. I have a friend who was a lost child and grew up in his church, but at age sixteen he found he had a real talent as a speaker, and he quickly stepped into the role of hero. It is not unusual for patients to identify themselves with all five roles. Children with chaotic families, where they try each role in an attempt to be noticed or accepted, and afterward, in adult life, they continue to be like the chameleon lizard, changing colors to be the person a particular situation or person requires without a truly clear sense of self. The role(s) that are still present are often a part of the fabric of who they are. They will not likely change that completely. But most things in recovery are about progress, not perfection. It is a willingness to work on making positive changes in these roles that is essential. That being said, the following is a list of areas to work on to make positive changes specific to each role.
Focuses for Changes in Childhood Roles
1. The Hero: Hero children’s greatest fear is often doing something wrong, and they are extremely self-critical. They must work on allowing themselves their own humanity. In other words, they must work on humility. Another major area of work for the hero child is to become a good listener, and that means slowing down as well. Most hero children use intellectualization, talking a lot, and going fast as ways to “stuff” feelings. One of the best ways to slow down and work on talking less is to be silent in group process, except to express a one word feeling of either hurt, fear, or anger. As mentioned previously, the way to become a better listener is to practice being silent until a person is completely finished talking and then respond by saying only “I hear you.” A final area of work for the hero child in recovery involves taking a parent or other family member off a pedestal. You can see this same dynamic in several of the other childhood roles, and it is an attempt to create an idealized family rather recognize than the reality of life at home. Typically, a child will put a parent on a pedestal and associate the words right, perfect, and strong with him or her. Then that parent becomes an unconscious daily focus for the child, who attempts to be as “perfect” as the parent is. This is a recipe for failure and creates poor self-esteem, often despite outstanding performance in school, sports, or other areas. Identifying this dynamic is important in recovery, since in this world of pedestals there is no room for God. When these children get in trouble, even God does not surpass perfection, so it is not God’s face they see, but that of the person on the pedestal. The crux of the matter is that the person on the pedestal must come down before the adult child, who is beneath them trying to climb up, can come down. By taking the parent off the lofty, unrealistic perch they have stood upon since the person’s childhood, the person in treatment gains a tremendous sense of relief and may have the primary stumbling block to both surrender and spirituality for this hero child removed. 2. The Lost Child: When helping lost children in recovery in the inpatient setting, it is crucial to first understand that they may have difficulty identifying feelings as well as risking them. Particular attention must be paid to these patients to ensure that, although they are typically compliant and don’t cause problems in treatment, they are not allowed to slip through treatment without working on their painful issues. Within their family of origin, lost children often feel discounted and of little value, and tend to operate from a place of low self esteem. Lost children often will not voluntarily seek outpatient therapy, but instead will present in crisis in an inpatient setting with addiction or depression or both. In addition to having the highest rates of addiction, lost children and scapegoats are the two most common roles seen in inpatient adolescent psychiatric hospitals. Helping lost children first and foremost requires making them feel safe and cared about in their environment, whether inpatient or outpatient. They must come to understand that they unconsciously took on a role, or were forced into a role by the dynamics of the family, and their only solace was some sense of safety they got by creating a fantasy world that was theirs alone. The lost child is not the person that his or her dysfunctional family script has depicted. Lost children are often good students, and as adults may end up in professions such as acting or writing because of their creativity. In treatment, I make lost children a promise to care about them, and I explain the importance of journaling and how writing things down helps make them real. Lost children need continued individual therapy and support groups to have a safe place where people affirm them and identify with their emotional pain as they work on their recovery. 3. The Mascot/Placater: Mascot children are often the comedians in the family, and may drift into adulthood with little change. They may have a tendency to stay stuck in this childhood role and be slow to take on the responsibilities of adult life. Like all children from dysfunctional families, they fear intimacy and have had little modeling on how to express their true feelings or be vulnerable. They tend to be followers, not leaders. For mascots to become emotionally responsible for themselves and to lose their fear of abandonment, they must work a daily recovery program, with commitment to doing it someone else’s way. They must realize that people can be there for them, not just when they are laughing, but when they are not okay. On the other hand, children who act primarily in the placater role tend to operate from an incredible place of fear, doing anything to avoid conflict or anger. They often pattern their helping and caretaking behavior after the spouse of the addict in their family of origin, and it is not unusual for them to marry an addict. Placater children are prone to anxiety and depression. With an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and an oversized conscience, they tend to be extremely hard workers, and are often found in the helping professions. Helper children need to work on control issues, which are based on a fear of being vulnerable, and on learning to be responsible to people, not for them, as well as giving up the need to be right. They often need individual therapy, and may also need medical treatment for depression when it is indicated. Like hero children, they have an incredibly hard time asking for help, and, like most children in dysfunctional families, must learn how to be good to themselves and have fun. They are prone to enmeshed relationships and need to work diligently on having their own space and claiming their own identity. The only true cure for placater children’s overwhelming anger and fear of people is spiritual. The mascot/placater combination children are capable of a full range of emotions, and humor can serve as a positive attribute in their lives. Anytime there is a lot of repressed anger beneath the fear, as is often the case with this family role, Gestalt or experiential therapy, with family sculpting or other techniques, can be extremely helpful when done by an experienced professional. This can include doing family sculptures or other forms of role playing, use of a batanka bat to physically express repressed anger in a safe fashion with the encouragement of the patient community, guided imagery, and so on. 4. The Scapegoat: The scapegoat’s road to recovery is a difficult one, just as with the rest of the childhood roles; however, this role does have one unique feature as it relates to addiction. Scapegoat children in the dysfunctional family tend to leave the family sooner, usually to get their needs met from peers because their needs are not being met at home. They leave the home situation physically, feeling like the victim of the family and angry and bitter about their role growing up. Unfortunately, this is the same role addicts play unconsciously in their active addiction. Therefore, treating adult scapegoat children usually means making them aware of when they slip back into the role of victim or feeling bitterness in their addictive thinking. They are prone to blaming others for what’s wrong and to carry resentments, which are the number-one cause of relapse. I help scapegoat children through written assignments dealing with their resentments, but more importantly, with the hurt beneath their anger. The adult scapegoat often still suffers from a lot of self-loathing and may be self-destructive in his or her life choices, either consciously or unconsciously. A part of scapegoat children has never understood why they were the “bad seed,” and their heart has always felt, despite their resentments, that there must be something wrong with them, so they are filled with shame. Structure and authority are usually difficult for scapegoats, and it is not unusual for them to have had legal problems by the time they get to treatment. In treatment we focus on daily tools of recovery, surrender, and slowing down. Scapegoat children are often easy targets for bullying, as are lost children. Although trust is difficult for them, because of their ability to take risks, in recovery they are capable of finding a way of thinking that is positive and spiritual through a twelve-step facilitated program. 5. The Hyperactive Child: In order to receive the maximum help in recovery, adults who were hyperactive children must first address any underlying untreated disabilities such as AD/HD, dyslexia, disorders of written expression, and so forth. Next, by far the most important step is to slow down and begin to follow a routine or structure, one day at a time—just what a twelve-step facilitated program recommends. Going fast has been a way for hyperactive children to both get attention and not have to feel emotional pain within them. The hyperactivity will have subsided in some of these children by adulthood, but the fear of abandonment, low self- esteem, shame, trust issues, and fear of intimacy are still left in place. Hyperactive children often have a good work ethic, but may struggle with taking this to an extreme of not being good to themselves. Also, boundary issues often need to be a focus in treatment. In the absence of a severe disability that is untreated, hyperactive children may do well as adults in the business world, unless addiction surfaces. For counselors, social workers, nurses, physicians, and other professionals, a working knowledge of childhood roles can be extremely helpful in understanding the underlying motivations behind behaviors. For each of us as human beings, understanding our childhood roles can be a source of validation—without fault or blame placed anywhere—for who we are, of recognizing the origin of some of our patterns of thinking and behavior, and of a way to go about working on recovery. This blog post is an excerpt from Finding a Purpose in the Pain – A Doctor’s Approach to Addiction Recovery and Healing – by James L. Fenley, Jr., MD; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).