The way we are raised, our family values and our childhood roles and experiences create a huge impact on our future lives and relationships.
“If we are to understand the underlying issues in our marriage, we need a working knowledge of the dramatic structure of the family we each grew up in particularly the roles we assumed and how we came to occupy them.” ~ Augustus Napier in The Fragile Bond
The roles that Dr Napier refers to have to do with the functions that were assigned to us in our families, usually by our parents when we were very young, sometimes even before we were born.
It’s important to realize that we didn’t choose these roles ourselves and that we were given ongoing feedback that was designed to ensure that we performed in accordance with the responsibilities that were inherent in them.
The roles were designed to support the principles and values that governed the (both spoken and unspoken) “rules” and requirements of the family. Through a system of punishment and reward, we were all taught to honour the family code by adhering to behaviours and attitudes that were specifically designed for us personally.
Here are some examples of childhood roles that get played in families:
1. The peacemaker’s job is responsible for keeping the peace by being an intermediary, a go-between, and mediator, to pacify those who are irritable or angry in the family.
2. The parental child is a miniaturized adult. Parental kids are not only drafted into the practical aspects of running a household but usually assume responsibility for the parenting of younger siblings and/or under-functioning parents. They grow up acutely aware of others’ needs, usually to the exclusion of their own.
3. The marital child fills the vacancy left by the physically or emotionally absent parent. They become a surrogate spouse attempting to fill their parent’s needs for friendship, companionship, and emotional support. In extreme cases, their relationship can become sexualized.
4. The helper acts as an assistant to the parent who may be physically or emotionally overwhelmed. As a result of all the helping they do, they are missing out on many of the playful aspects of childhood.
5. The dependent child is held in an extended and exaggerated child-like position, taught by their parents to feel helpless and weak.
6. The abandoned or invisible child is physically abandoned by one or both of his parents. Or they may be physically present but not able to connect to the child in a way that builds a trusting, secure bond.
7. The unwanted child believes perhaps correctly that they are the result of an unplanned pregnancy and not wanted.
8. The criticized child can’t seem to do anything right. Frequently, one parent is angry with the other and that anger is misdirected at the child or the criticism could arise from feeling jealous of the spouse’s love.
9. The betrayed child may have confidentiality violated when they confided something personal to a parent only to have their private conversation revealed to other family members, or a parent may favor a sibling. The betrayed child frequently experiences difficulty in trusting that others are dependable.
10. The clown’s job is to keep things at home light and funny by making jokes and distracting others (usually one or both parents) from feelings of sadness, depression, or grief.
11. The hero makes good grades, excels at sports, gets elected to student council and in obvious ways is a credit to the family. There is, however, a serious downside to this type of childhood roles that involves feelings of loneliness, guilt, insecurity, all of which are intensified by the obligation to rescue the rest of the family from painful feelings that they are unable or unwilling to face. The hero often feels that she can never do enough to be truly loved.