Understanding our Family Roles

How the particular roles we play in our family systems affect our relationships

In order to address the mental health of an individual, we must also address their family dynamic. The same goes for Substance Use Disorder (SUD) treatment: we cannot hope to achieve successful recovery without taking into account the role of the family system in shaping substance abuse practices. Understanding family systems is a critical part of providing support and care for individuals who are struggling with their mental health or with substance abuse, and as therapists, counselors, or healthcare professionals we must have a sound knowledge of the theories that ground research into these areas if we hope to be successful.

History of Family Systems Work

The father of family therapy, as I have written about in the past, is Salvador Minuchin. In 1967, Minuchin began his career at the Philadelphia Child and Guidance Center working with young women who were hospitalized for anorexia. As he worked with these patients and their parents and siblings in family therapy, he began to notice patterns in the structures of the families he saw frequently:  enmeshed mothers, absent fathers, a child at the center of the family, and a child at the fringes. [1]  In 1974, he published his book, Families and Family Therapy, which documented his notion that family structures – such as the one he was seeing repeatedly in his work with anorexia patients – were integral to therapeutic practices. [2]

Subsequently, Jay Haley and Cloe Madanes introduced the notion of strategic family therapy, which addressed the hierarchy of families and how it affected therapy. [3] Carl Whitaker, a proponent of network therapy, also contributed to family systems theory by introducing the notion of dynamics among individuals. [4] Teacher and social worker, Virginia Satir, known as the mother of family therapy, proposed that the family was a microcosm of the larger world. She famously stated that, “if we can heal the family, we can heal the world.” [5] Her emphasis on how the coping strategies of individual family members became the root of problems within the family system expanded the applicability of this theory into the broader realm of community and cultural studies.

The latest research on family systems positions them within larger concepts of well-being and growth.  For instance, symbolic interactions, choice, and social exchange are all highlighted as crucial elements for those who work with families in therapy. [6]

Notable Family Roles

A primary component of family systems theory is the concept that individuals often play specific roles within a family structure. As Minuchin observed, many of the families he saw regularly followed a similar pattern, and distinct categories of roles were established in family systems theory to better understand how individuals were being affected by the overarching structure of the family institution. The work of Sharon Wegscheider Cruse in particular has outlined four notable family roles: the Hero, Scapegoat, Mascot, and Lost Child. [7]

The Hero

This role is often (but not always) filled by the child who takes center stage within the family as the golden one or star. Capable, helpful, socially accepted, and very visible, the role of the hero requires the individual playing it to serve as the anchor for the other members of the family. Often, the Hero is filled with anxiety, as they feel required to assume this role.

The Scapegoat

In opposition to the hero, the Scapegoat (often but not always played by a child) is the problem. This individual creates conflict that must be resolved or does bad where the hero does good. Often, this member of the family appears different or behaves differently from the rest and exudes a great deal of anger.  They become the point of blame when family cohesion is not achieved, making them the scapegoat.

The Mascot

The Mascot is the member of the family system who is often lighting up the room, being the center of attention, making people laugh, or performing in some way. Rather than using their pain to lash out, as the Scapegoat does or feeling pressure to perform perfectly like the Hero, the Mascot diverts attention away from their issues by making themselves the joke or the star of the situation and deflects through performance.

The Lost Child

Finally, the Lost Child is the member of the family system who seems almost invisible. This person is often quiet and well-behaved and doesn’t step over the line or challenge anyone else and therefore gets little to no attention. This role is often reinforced by the reliance of other family members on the Lost Child’s willingness to stay behind the scenes.

Though real-life families are, of course, far too complex to slot into such clear-cut categories, this family system theory benefits us as therapists and counselors by allowing us to understand how these universal roles come into play in shaping trauma, mental health conditions, and substance use. Being able to address how feeling stuck playing a role within a family system may create stress for an individual or cause them to lose sight of their identity outside that role is a key tool in helping the entire family through recovery.


[1] Minuchin Center for the Family. (2021) Salvador Minuchin, MD. https://minuchincenter.org

[2] Good Therapy. (2017) Salvador Minuchin (1921-2017). June 6. https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/salvador-minuchin.html

[3] Niolon, R. (1999) Strategic Family Theory and Therapy. Psychpage. December, http://www.psychpage.com/learning/library/counseling/strategic.html

[4] Edwards, B.G. (2019) 10 Essential Elements of Car Whitaker’s Theory and Therapy. Psychology Today. August 24. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/progress-notes/201908/10-essential-elements-carl-whitakers-theory-and-therapy

[5] Darya. (2015) Virginia Satir. The Virginia Satir Institute. October 21. https://virginiasatir.co.uk/2015/10/21/virginia-satir/

[6] White, J.M. et al. (2019) Family Theories: An Introduction. SAGE Publications. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/family-theories/book258231

[7] Wegsheider Cruse, S. (2022) https://sharonwegscheidercruse.com

Sign up for our newsletter

At your side whenever you need us.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our team here at Heather R Hayes & Associates. We are just one phone call away. 

Heather Hayes & Associates is your trusted ally for navigating the complex world of treatment and recovery options for substance abuse, mental health issues, and process addictions.

Contact Us
Media Inquiries

Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc, offers experienced, trained professionals with clinical oversight, providing discreet and compassionate services in any situation.
Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc. is committed to providing the highest level of care without compromise, and we are not employed by, nor do we receive any form of payment or compensation from, the providers with whom we consult for placement or referrals.

Contact Us