Understanding Dysfunctional Family Roles

Understanding Dysfunctional Family Roles

Bill GaultiereBy Bill Gaultiere5 Minutes

Today “spiritual formation” means many different things. Self-help. Learning Bible doctrines. Inner spirituality. Being like a monk. But Jesus’ idea is simply to “love one another” (John 13:34; 15:12, 17).

This is why in our Soul Shepherding Institute we teach that your spiritual formation began in your family as a child. Your relationship with your parents and other family members formed you. If your family was dysfunctional then your inner person, identity, and personality were shaped into an unhealthy role.

Dysfunctional families were first studied in connection with alcoholism. In the 1980s family therapists found that alcoholics typically had a codependent family member who kept rescuing them from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior.

To say that a family is dysfunctional does not mean it’s bad or that there is no loved shared, but that its relationships and culture are organized around sin or problems that are not being resolved in loving ways. Addiction is one example. Others include abuse, mental illness, death, divorce, chronic conflict, child neglect, religious fundamentalism, or an absence of empathy.

In a dysfunctional family, the unholiness or unhealthiness is denied; it’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about. As the prophet taught, “God can’t heal what you don’t feel” (Jeremiah 6:14 paraphrased).

Head knowledge about the Bible, commitments to serve God, and spiritual disciplines are not enough to make us like Jesus if we deny our emotional pain or deficits in loving others well.

If we don’t feel, pray about, and talk through conflicts and hurts in our family then they never get repaired and family members get stuck in dysfunctional roles that can become false self-identities that are crippling.

You may relate to one or more of these dysfunctional family roles:


Relies on alcohol, drugs, overeating, or overworking to avoid pain, conflict, guilt, or emptiness.


Is rebellious or acts contrary to family values and gets blamed for family stress or disappointment. This role perpetuates anger.

Identified Patient

Has problems or needs that may require professional help and the family rallies to support. The needy one may feel helpless or ashamed and other needs in the family are neglected.


Keeps trying to help the Addict or other needy family member(s) and becomes codependent. They rely on caretaking for identity and well being and feeling guilty if not helpful.


The super-achiever, responsible, and “good” person who generates applause and makes the family proud, but feels anxious and unknown.

Parentified Child

A child who takes on responsibilities like running the household, caring for siblings, being a peacemaker in conflicts, or earning money to help the family function better.

Mascot / Clown

Is funny or cute to divert family members’ attention away from pain, stress, or conflict. Often the Clown is secretly depressed.

Lost Child

The child (or adult) who is quiet, flies under the radar or escapes from family stress into media, books, or life outside the home. This family member feels unnoticed or like their presence doesn’t matter. They hide their inner distress and needs.

Often there’s a Lost Child underneath another family role.

The path to healing from a dysfunctional family role begins with awareness.

You need to uncover your family and self-identity dynamics that have been unconscious. By engaging in “love one another” relationships with emotionally honest prayers and healthy boundaries you can discover your new self in God’s presence (Psalm 139: 23-24).

To listen to more Soul Talks episodes about family dynamics you can go back and listen to episodes 123-129.

Copyright ©  Soul Shepherding, All rights reserved. Used with permission.