The 5 Types of Children from Toxic Families
Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, a family therapist and former founding chairperson of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, discovered that children who come from dysfunctional families learn to take on certain roles in order to cope with toxic behaviors in their household. The roles she mentions isn’t a way to place labels on people. Instead, she came up with them to illustrate how alcoholism affects their childhood and what traits and habits they carry into their adulthood. Children who come from a background of alcohol or drug abuse often experience a turbulent and unpredictable upbringing that can make them feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it. As a result, they learn to cope with their family’s toxic behaviors by playing certain roles to alleviate the sadness, humiliation, or anger they may feel.
Family dynamics that include other compulsive behavior, such as gambling or overeating, overly strict and religious attitudes, narcissism, and physical, emotional, or sexual abuse may also affect children to take on the same roles. People are layered and complicated and you may find that you have played more than just one role if you come from a chaotic upbringing. Psych2Go shares with you the 5 types of children from toxic families:
1. The “Hero” or “Responsible Child”
The hero or responsible child is often wise and mature beyond their years. They are self-sufficient, perfectionistic, and over-achievers. Typically ambitious and constantly striving to be better and successful, they often seem composed and look like they have it all together. In reality, though, they suffer silently and carry the burden of sadness from their parent’s toxic behavior.
They are afraid of becoming like their parent, so they learn to be the exact opposite. If the hero has a narcissistic parent, they are often that parent’s favorite child. The narcissistic parent often inflicts abuse onto them, whether it’s physical or emotional. As a result, the hero relies on performing well in order to feel and receive love.
2. The “Scapegoat” or “Trouble Maker”
The scapegoat or trouble maker is often angry and defensive. They tell the truth by acting out the family’s problems that are usually denied at home. The scapegoat is often the child that toxic parents are the most ashamed of. They come off as rebellious, distrustful, and cynical, but beneath their hard exterior, they are the most emotionally sensitive. The scapegoat has been hurt and damaged by their abusive parent and can be self-destructive.
They often get in trouble in school because that’s how they learn to get the most attention and are typically leaders within their social groups. But because they have many walls built around them due to fear, the relationships they have with others can often be superficial or shallow. Scapegoat children vary from one another, but typically, they are either the loud, rebellious type or the one easily picked on.
3. The “Lost Child” or “Dreamer”
The lost child or dreamer is a role I strongly identify with. They are often invisible in their family and try to cope with their family’s struggles by disappearing and focus their attention on reading books, daydreaming, or watching movies. They rarely get in trouble and because everyone sees them as a good kid, it’s often assumed that they also have a good, healthy life at home. The lost child is typically very shy and enjoys having a lot of space and solitude. Others may even view them as loners. Because they withdraw themselves from others, they struggle with developing important social skills and relationships with others, and often suffer from low self-esteem.
4. The “Mascot” or “Class Clown”
The mascot or class clown is another role I can strongly identify with. Typically known as “the cute one,” they are always ready to lighten the mood by cracking jokes or putting on an entertaining show for others. Often, the mascot feels powerless from the family’s dysfunctions and tries to cope by breaking the anger, tension, and conflict with fun and humor. Behind the mascot’s cheerful demeanor, they usually suffer from anxiety and depression.
Mascot children often struggle with low self-esteem issues and can exhibit workaholic tendencies to make up for their insecurities. They have a friendly disposition and enjoy being kind, giving, and reliable individuals. People often describe them as “overly nice.” Mascot children enjoy helping others with their problems because it’s a way to distract them from their own. They also find it painful to ask for help when they are suffering, so instead, they put on a brave smile for the world.
5. The “Enabler” or “Caretaker”
The enabler or caretaker is typically the addict’s spouse, but it can also be a child. The enabler often makes up excuses for the addict’s alcohol or drug problems and denies that they exist. They are the martyr and good at masking the family’s downfalls and dysfunctions, making sure that the public sees that they’re a happy, well-rounded family. They listen and console the addict and encourage other family members not to force negative consequences onto the addict for their problems. It’s painful for the caretaker to come to terms with what happens behind the scenes. As a result, they don’t know how to cope with addict’s problems, so they put on a convincing show for the world to see, hoping one day it’ll become a reality, and not just an act.
Do you identify with one or more of these 5 types? We understand that this is a difficult topic to discuss, but we’re here to listen without judgment and want to offer support. Please leave a comment down below.
Want to say hello or send a personal message? You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. ♥
If you enjoyed this article, then you may also like 10 Ways to Deal with Toxic Parents or 8 Common Characteristics of a Dysfunctional Family from Psych2Go.
Burney, R. (1995). Roles in Dysfunctional Families. Joy2MeU. Retrieved February 15, 2018.
Dysfunctional Family Roles. (2014). Out of the Storm. Retrieved February 15, 2018.
Martin, S. (2017). How Addiction Impacts the Family: 6 Family Roles in a Dysfunctional or Alcoholic Family. Psych Central. Retrieved February 15, 2018.
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3 and 4 right here 🙋♀️
Thanks for reading and sharing, Anja. Sounds like we’re both similar. I’m sorry to hear that you come from a toxic family as well. I hope things get better. ♥
Throughout my years of being alive, I’ve felt like I’ve been at least a little bit of all 5, but more recently it’s definitely the Class Clown.
Hi Suzy, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts with us. I definitely know what it’s like being able to identify as the Class Clown. That’s who I currently am as well when I try to cope with family struggle and toxic dynamics in general. I hope things get better, really and truly. ♥ Making others laugh when you’re ready to collapse isn’t a great feeling at all.
I identify to both 1 (Hero/Responsible) and 3 (Lost/Dreamer) 😀
Hi Gioseppe, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts with us. I, too, can also identify as a Lost Child and Dreamer. I’ve met people as well who can identify as the Hero. I’m sorry to hear that you come from a toxic family and hope things eventually get better. ♥
Lost child/ mascot.
I’ve made it a point to live 6 hours away from family. Being an introvert extreme, I rarely go out except for errands. However, I’m getting better and have started to travel outside the country where I don’t know anyone.
When I do visit family, I’m the mascot. Being the goofball or odd one. Wearing happy socks, bringing weird gifts ( lock-pick tools and instruction w/locks for my brothers birthday).
Unable to pick my own social locks.
Hi Brant, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts with us. I’m glad to hear that you’ve started traveling more. It can be incredibly freeing and such a valuable experience. I used to travel a lot growing up and wish to do more of it in the future.
I know what it’s like being the goofball or odd one. I’m very much an odd one in my family and often feel alienated because of it. When I struggle with toxic dynamics in my family, I tend to mask them in front of others and try to laugh things off, even though I may be suffering silently.
I hope things get better, really and truly. I recently moved out and it puts a lot of things in perspective for me. Let’s keep moving forward together. I wish you the best of luck. ♥
I have a bit of all of them except Care taker. I have too much resentment for that one.
Hi Brandi, thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts with us. I completely understand having resentment for the Caretaker. Often, children don’t play that role, but there are a few who do, unfortunately. I’m glad you don’t make up excuses for someone’s toxic behavior. I hope things get better for you, really and truly. Let me know if there’s any specific content you’d like to see more of. ♥
Hey I’m Ben, Im 16, I get number 1. My dad was physically and psychologically abusive, I feel bad for admitting it but I sometimes miss him, he was funny and we liked the same stuff, he was wise and he had great stories, if he wasnt so crazy I would’ve really liked him. Recently Ive been feeling some crazy stuff, and I think my dad is the only person who understands and can answer my questions. I’m scared I might become a bad person.
A couple of the descriptions remind me of my brother, pretty cool. Kinda feel like I understand him a little better.
I’m a mix of 1, 2 and 3. Thanks Dad, I’m not damage at all. 😒
Hi Mrs. Carnevali, I’m sorry to hear that you can identify with many of the traits. I hope things get bettter, really and truly. ♥
WROTE quite abit but this website sucks. It auto Refreshed and absolutely gone.
I’m abit of everything. It’s an angry repressed world which you’re not allowed to feel so.
Hi Ruff, thanks so much for reading. I’m so sorry that you wrote a lot and it ended up being deleted if the page refreshed. We are currently working on our site to make it more efficient for you guys. I would’ve loved to hear what you had to say. I’m sorry as well that you are able to identify with most of the traits, growing up in a toxic family is hard. Anger and repressed feelings are something I grew up with, too, in my environment. I generally suffered silently for the most part before I recently began standing up for myself. I hope things get better for you, really and truly. If there’s any specific content you’d like to see more of, please be sure to let us know. ♥
Number 1 and number 3 are so accurate it hurts.
I can identify with scapegoat (loser) and dreamer but not because my parents and home life were toxic. My parents, brother and I were affected by the toxic people in the toxic small town (pop 2500) I had to spend my childhood living in. My mom and brother are hero (mom) and hero/enabler (brother) and my dad gets to join me as a scapegoat (bitter). We’ve all escaped, thankfully. I still struggle with feeling inadequate and the fear of showing any weakness. It’s hard to convince yourself that the world isn’t full of predators.
I am, surprisingly, all of these at once. The hero, the scapegoat, the lost child, the mascot, and the caretaker. Thanks you for making this. Although my mother doesn’t believe our family is dysfunctional and abusive, I’m glad that someone can relate and share.
I identify strongly with 3, but I didn’t think I came from a toxic family… though, on reflection, it’s far from perfect…
I relate to all of them except the trouble maker and I can se my friends and siblings in them to. So I think this is something everyone is struggling with and that there are nothing as a “perfect family”. There are the ones that’s less functional and more functional.
I also want to say that im my family addicts where never a problem, both my parent just happened to be really sick (physicaly), they where still loving and caring, but the economy became a problem since they could not have a proper job, which took it’s toll on the family.
My sister has traits of 1 and 2, but was more 2 rebellious as a kid and 1 nowadays. I’m more 3 and 4, but was only really 4 with close friends. over time and distance i was able to get better with the debilitating shyness and crawl out of my shell. i still have a bit of social anxiety, but not nearly as bad as i did.
1 and 4. Definitely worried about being like my parent. I learned to be self-sufficient enough to move away from family, putting lots of distance between us (From the USA to New Zealand). No one knew what was going on at home because I made a lot of jokes and got the perfect grades. Did 4 years of therapy to deal with my anger and anxiety. I’m still a work in progress but I’m a lot better than I was.
I never really thought about it, but I really identify with the “hero”. I was always the favorite child even though my divorced mom would never admit it; she always expected a lot from me because I was doing great in school compared to my elder sisters. Being the “responsible child” is a real pain in the ass, especially when it comes to making mistakes. The good child out of all siblings isn’t supposed to make mistakes, that’s why my mistakes were always the most frowned upon
1 and 5 here. It’s crazy how this explains it perfectly
1 and 3 here, especially 3. Totally the good kid for most of my life, it messed me up more than I realized.
I was the lost child/dreamer . Still am to be honest
i’m a solid 3 and a bit of 4
2 and 4 here
what happens with larger families? or families with mental illnesses passed onto the kids? Can there be hybrids? Can roles change over time?
[…] you enjoyed this article, then you may also like The 5 Types of Children from Toxic Families or 6 Side Effects of Toxic […]
me 3/5 but especially the lost child
I’m definitely a lost daydreaming child, although this has worked in my favor now in terms of my hobbies and art.
Hi Pranvi, it’s great to hear from you again! 🙂 I can definitely see you are very artistically inclined and creative. I’m glad you’re able to take an optimistic spin from the situation. ♥
I honestly feel like I’m all of these, and I don’t know how to feel about it.
I definitely identify with 1. Being from a family centered around an alcoholic and trying to prove to the world that we were a perfect family, I always strived to be the best at everything to prove there was nothing wrong with me. There was also a ton of pressure put on me by family members to make them proud and be good at everything I tried, so that may have also played a role.
Wonderful article! Anyone relate?
I identify with number 1, and let me tell you it is not fun having high functioning anxiety
One and three……
wow i almost got excited that I could relate to so many of y’all. then I remembered that it’s because we all come from toxic families. how depressing.
I identify with the dreamer role a lot. I spent A LOT of time thinking in which ways I could have been better. When I see people, everywhere, I automatically assume they are better than me in every way. Every time someone new talks to me, I immediatly become extremely polite. I felt broken, demented and defective my entire life, and this the way I feel right now. Many blessings and thanks for this beautiful artiche.
I don’t agree that the Scapegoat always acts out. The Scapegoat may be told that they are acting out, when in fact they are trying desperately not to set anybody off. But whoever assigned the Scapegoat role needs somebody to push down and punish so they can feel strong. So the Scapegoat gets it in the neck even if they are lying flat on the floor begging to be told how to not be punished anymore. Their beseeching and pleading may be reframed right in front of them as snotty, sassy behavior. And punished.
I was definitely number 1
like the Nirvana song On A Plain. “the black sheep got blackmailed again, got to put on the zip code” the lyric never made sense til i learned about narcs
1 and 5 describe me perfectly. Wow.
I strongly related to 1 and 3 but never really thought that i have a toxic family. However, the more i read into what makes a family toxic the more i realize that my family might actually be toxic. Up until now i thought toxic traits for families were like neglect, drugs or abuse but after reading multiple sources i found that it actually has a lot of subtle traits that even the kids might not take as toxic while it negatively impacts them throughout their childhood.
Is it possible to show or have characteristics of these types even if the family isn’t dysfuntional or toxic?
OMG! I’m 58 years old and only now realizing I was and am #3. I have siblings that were the other two and my dad the caretaker. He passed 2 years ago and now mom’s true self us coming out. What a life changing revalation.
I’ve been all of the above. My parents were divorced. My father saw me as the golden boy my
Mother as the problem child. I was sent to private schools from 7. Got expelled twice. Have been in recovery for 27 years and have learnt (the hard way) that some of us can never overcome the wounds, but we can learn to love ourselves and manage the damage.
Good luck to all those that have the courage to face these scars. It’s not easy and some days can be dark … but it’s so worth it.
Is it possible to be a little of all of them? I’m the oldest and became a parent figure to all including parents. Now that I’m a single mom and no longer footing the bill they have abandoned me. I appear the rebellious scapegoat, honest, too honest they say, no one wants to hear that, loud, tough exterior, but the most sensitive. I also have many of the other qualities listed in the other categories. My siblings are narcissists. What I did to raise them doesn’t even exist in their minds. They’ve written me out of their memories and the abusive parents are heros. I was the oldest, most physically abused and emotionally. I also have seen them for the monsters they are. I just stopped coordinating my mom’s care and helping her because she tears me down all the time and told me I make my daughter miserable. There’s more. I was also in foster care as a teen but ran away to work 3 jobs drop out of high school to raise them and help her because my father was useless. I’ve seen him beat her to a pulp.
I see my siblings and myself here. The golden child and the scapegoat, however i identify with the shy, quiet and reserved child, i am also the youngest and the only girl in the family. My mother is a Narcissist and my father enables her. There is no much of my childhood that i have blocked out.
1 and 3…
One of the reasons I aspired to be a psychologist was perhaps to get a better understanding of myself. I essentially didn’t come from a toxic family, but my parents often had marital conflicts, amongst which I felt distant and well as responsible. Things changed, understandings developed, however the personality was already shaped by then.
Scapegoat as a child , lost and dreamer
at my teenage years
i do have this kind of siblings.. having a toxic parents isn’t really helping as we grow up.
I’m an INFP and identify as a “Scapegoat” and “Dreamer”. When I was a toddler and my mother (ISFP, modest and humble) was pregnant, she and my father separated and she moved back home to live with her overbearing parents and raise us. Me, being the older brother of an asthmatic sister by 3 years was expected to set the example and more often shouldered the blamed for things whereas she was the baby girl in the family and could do no wrong – even as we got older. My sister and I are opposite personalities. I had a hard time in school and got in trouble, not because I looked for it but for daydreaming and prompting negative attention from classmates and inciting teachers and was more of a loner. I squeaked by with barely passing grades. My sister had a thicker skin and could be headstrong (esp at home), but she got good grades and had friends. She played sports, and was always well liked by her teachers and coaches. I’ve always had anxiety and have had few long-term girlfriends as a result (sometimes single ain’t always a bad thing lol)…..just some key examples.
I’m an INFP and identify as a “Scapegoat” and “Dreamer”. When I was a toddler and my mother (ISFP, modest and humble) was pregnant, she and my father separated and she moved back home to live with her overbearing parents and raise us. Me, being the older brother of an asthmatic sister by 3 years was expected to set the example and more often shouldered the blamed for things whereas she was the baby girl in the family and could do no wrong – even as we got older. My sister and I are opposite personalities. I had a hard time in school and got in trouble, not because I looked for it but for daydreaming and prompting negative attention from classmates and inciting teachers and was more of a loner. I squeaked by with barely passing grades. My sister had a thicker skin and could be headstrong (esp at home), but she got good grades and had friends. She played sports, and was always well liked by her teachers and coaches. I’ve always had anxiety and have had few long-term girlfriends as a result (sometimes single ain’t always a bad thing lol)..
I can see me in all 5. Growing up I was mostly the hero, good grades, very little trouble, and something of a lost child, always reading and very shy. Until high school, then I was the family scapegoat. Still am to this day, while my brother (the naughty one with discipline issues in childhood) became the hero and to this day won’t talk to me unless forced; I did everything opposite of my parents (even drinking my coffee black because they liked it with cream and sugar) except addiction that I did very close to them.
Im a scapegoat. May you please me how to fix myself. Because I can’t deal with my attitude anymore. It’s really destroying me.
I am definitely a “trouble maker” and a “dreamer”. People think I can be very intimidating and mean but I only do it because I don’t want to be stepped on and treated like shit by peers like I have been by family (and past peers).
I also have a bad problem with maladaptive Daydreaming. It seems like it’s the only thing that brings me “reliable happiness”. It won’t leave me or “change”. It won’t choose someone else over me. It’s nice to dream up some situations where people actually care.