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Family Therapy: Family Stress Roles

When there’s no stress in a family, members of the family feel free to be themselves, to take on different roles in the family or group. There’s fluidity in the way family members relate to each other. But when a family becomes stressed or traumatized, they start to come from a stress-driven or fear-driven place instead of the way they normally interact. Members of the family start to behave differently; people begin to relate from a stress-driven state of mind, and to interpret each other’s behavior and words from a different mindset. Everything is now filtered through feelings of stress and fear. People become more rigid, stuck, locked into family roles.

Family Stress Roles Are Passed Down
Unfortunately, families often get stuck in these anxiety dynamics generation after generation. People and families suffering in these stuck long-term roles often are the ones that come for family therapy. The roles become family relationship “habits.” Each member of the family often also takes on the same role in whatever group he/she becomes part of, for example, at work, in social groups, in romantic relationships, and with their own next-generational families. Professionals in family therapy have written about these roles, using various names for the roles. Again, the assignment of roles is unconscious—it’s not done on purpose, and the family usually doesn’t even recognize that the assignments are happening. The roles can be called:
1. Caretaker Role: Inappropriately, this role is often given to a child in the family, who is expected to be the “go-to” person when anyone needs help. As the child gets older, he/she takes on the role more and more. The great thing for caretakers is that they feel very competent. The downside is that they feel burdened with everyone’s problems. The caretaker becomes increasingly competent and everyone else cedes their competence more and more. In the long run, no one benefits.
2. Distancer Role: This role should be assigned to the children, but it’s often taken by one of the parents, who stays wrapped up in the newspaper or soap operas or sports when the others in the family are dealing with emotional problems or conflicts. The great thing for distancers is that they have no anxiety. They are always at peace, leaving the emotional stuff to be dealt with by everyone else. The downside is really for everyone else, who gets no help from the distancer and who feels abandoned.
3. Identified Patient Role: This is the person, often the youngest child or sometimes one of the parents, who feels the emotional pain for everyone but either is too young to have the power to do anything about it or (in the case of a parent) doesn’t feel up to the task. This person feels weak and is seen as weak. He/she often becomes ill and/or suffers from nightmares. Identified patients hold the pain for the family. The benefit to the family is that, unconsciously, they can leave all that to the identified patient.
4. Outcast Role: This person actually experiences the most anxiety in the family. People in this role are “pulled” to go against the taboos of the family, sometimes so much that the family decides they don’t want to have anything to do with them. They may use swear words in a religious family, take drugs in a family that believes swearing is wrong or sneak out at night when everyone else is asleep. They seem extremely “bad” to the rest of the family. Strangely, the benefit to the family is that so much energy is focused on being upset at the outcast role person that the rest of the family doesn’t have to deal with whatever problems the family is really dealing with as a whole. This person is a “scapegoat” in the family. These people often have so much anxiety that they push it down; they shut down all their feelings and become numb to everyone, including themselves.

Healing Stuck Family Stress Roles
The secret to healing is to become more fluid, to move around the roles instead of staying stuck in the one we’ve been used to playing. For example, the Caretaker can decide that they don’t need to solve a particular problem this time and leave it to someone else to deal with. The Distancer could move in and listen to someone who’s upset about something and try to help. Identified Patients can think about what they can do about a problem, a part they can take in the solution. And the Outcast can let him or herself feel their own fear, sadness, and pain—and also the sadness, fear and pain of others.

For more information on family roles and family therapy, see .

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