The way our parents responded to us as children was based on factors beyond our control. Sometimes our relationship with family is based pure and simply upon where we are in the birth order. Sure, there are other factors; for instance the way parents relate to each other, including how they meet their own needs — not to mention each child’s unique personality. These factors certainly play a part in how family members interact with each other, however, it is widely recognized among family system professionals that a first born child will be received very differently than a second and so on. And there are specific characteristics that apply to each birth assignment, regardless of the unique qualities or personality of that particular child. In other words, not who we are but the order in which we are born will determine our place in the family and very likely impact us for the rest of our lives.
When our emotional and physical needs are met as children we grow up believing that we have a right to be here and that we are capable, lovable and able to take care of ourselves. But getting those personal needs met depends on how well the needs of the family have been met. Inevitably the needs of the “system” (family unit) will take priority over the individuals within it. The system needs are essential for a family’s functioning and survival and they will be met even if it means ruthlessly sacrificing the well-being of the children. The family unit is most important because it provides a sort of check and balance that stabilizes and holds things together. For instance, if the head of the family is alcoholic, the system’s need for worth and respectability may be compromised. It has to look elsewhere to supply these vital missing ingredients. The firstborn child is the obvious choice. Without any kind of conscious “volunteering” this child may automatically feel the pressure to be the ultra responsible and respectable one in dad’s stead in order to fill the void or make up for dad’s lack. Simply by virtue of being the first child, he or she becomes the family hero, whose job it is to do whatever it takes to ensure that the family is seen as whole and functional. The child’s needs are not considered. They have taken a back seat to the demands of the family unit.
What are the System’s Needs?
The home environment is supposed to be a safe harbor — a place to escape from external stress– a place where family members can relax and be themselves. It should be an enjoyable environment where fun, humor and entertainment can be had. Worth, health, relief and stress-resolve are some of the more important needs that a system has. If the parents do not see themselves as having value and esteem, both individually and as a couple, than the system starts out at a disadvantage, causing the system to have to look elsewhere for its needs. Each family has its own idea about exactly what will satisfy those needs. One family looks to hard work as the way to gain a sense of worth for instance, while another thinks esteem comes through intelligence or being well-educated. But when adults from dysfunction with wounded histories come together and start a new family, they often have no idea about how to meet their unconscious need to “look the part” of functionality and health. Instead they unconsciously look to their children to provide these vital needs. This means that rather than focusing on what’s best for their child, they, in one way or another, expect their children to supply their own unmet needs and then resort to blame when it doesn’t work.
Children are very impressionable. They pick up on often subtle clues from their caretakers and the environment around them and in this way they figure out what is expected of them. Because they start out without a sense of identity they look to their primary caregivers for personal definition. They gain much of this information from their interaction with family. Children are continuously busy interpreting the messages they receive and from these sources they formulate beliefs that shape their idea of self. In other words these interpretations become their self-definition. When a system is burdened with trying to meet its own unmet needs the child gets lost in the shuffle– their needs go unmet and this sends negative messages . One obvious message for instance is “My needs (therefore I) are not important”. Instead of feeling loved and accepted for who they are, children turn instead to their assigned role (based on what the system needs at the time of their birth) to gain a sense of identity, belonging and validity. By the time children are three, four or five years old, their identity, based on their assigned family role is firmly in place. Of course, none of this is conscious. Children have no idea that they are not the role they are playing –nor does the family. They have become absolutely entangled and identified with an often maladaptive, even destructive way of relating to the world around them.
What are the classic “Assigned Roles”?:
It was Virginia Satir that originally recognized that particular roles with distinct characteristics occur in families. She found that these roles often occur by birth order and named and described them accordingly. It's important to remember that roles are unconsciously assigned as children are born into the family, not chosen by the individual child. These roles have nothing to do with what the child wants, nor is it based on a child's best interests or native characteristics. Assignment is an unconscious determination made simply on a combination of birth order and the particular needs of the family at the time of birth. The “severity” to which a role is carried out is depends on the degree of family dysfunction. The more dysfunctional the more pronounced and therefore limiting the roles will be. In more functional families, family roles are less defined. In really healthy families you will find an absence of roles — this is rare. From a hierarchy of system needs, every role is assigned based on the most pressing need of the family at the time of each child’s birth. Let’s start with the firstborn whose assignment most often is to meet the system’s need for worth. These roles are not carved in granite, however. Depending on surrounding circumstances, the order of roles may vary. Sometimes a first child will be the scapegoat for instance. For instance, if there is already a primary hero in the family who might feel threatened by competition, another hero might be forbidden. Or if the first child is female in a family where males are more important … or vice versa, then perhaps the second child will be a hero and the firstborn will take on second born characteristics. Also, when there is more than 4-5 years between children, the roles may start over. In other words if there is two children born within a couple of years and then another child comes along ten years later, the third child may take on characteristics of a first born rather than a typical third born. Twins are interesting. I’ve never met a set of twins that did not know who was the oldest, even if it’s only a matter of minutes. Often the roles will go accordingly, but I’ve also seen it occur, especially in large families that the twins may both play the same role.
Firstborn children, as previously noted, are very often assigned to a “Hero” Position. Characteristics of this role include being the responsible one whose job it is to bring worth to the family. They may attain this by being an achiever; the family's “shining star”. Whatever the family most values will be where this child excels. Often acting as a “little parent”, or parental confidante, these children are scripted to get their own personal needs met by becoming whatever it is their family esteems as worthy. People who have lived their lives in this role often have had to sacrifice their childhood. Eternally grown up, (even at age five) and in charge of taking care of everyone and everything around them, they are often seen as accomplished, capable problem solvers and achievers. The price paid however, is often the loss of knowing how to relax or enjoy life. Their spontaneity and passion for life had to be hidden away because of the overwhelming responsibility they took on. As a result they tend to be highly successful but serious and intense about life. A typical message reported by one “hero” firstborn was; “Dad told me I had to be mom’s little man and that I was to take care of my younger brothers. That meant I got punished if they did something wrong”. It’s pretty easy to guess that this child grew up with a strong need to be always in control of everything and everyone around him.
Second born children often are designated as the “scapegoat” .Their role is to bring the family a sense of health and well-being by becoming the one who is unhealthy or simply “the bad apple”. By becoming the primary problem, scapegoats take the pressure off the family to look for further dysfunction. regardless of what other problems might be going on family members can simply point at the scapegoat and say, “If it weren't for her/him …this would be a perfectly healthy family!” Being the one targeted as being sick, defective or unruly, this “bad seed” acts out the unresolved issues of the family. The degree of acting out will depend upon how much dysfunction there is in the family. The more disturbed the family, the worse this kid acts out. The assigned scapegoat sacrifices their own well-being in order to take on the underlying sickness of the family. By doing so, they, rather than the alcoholic or abusive parent, are targeted as being the problem. Their poor behavior is in actuality often simply a loud proclamation that the family needs help…. Often it is the scapegoat who gets the family in therapy and thus brings about a chance for healing. By acting out the family’s dysfunction, the scapegoat becomes a key, of sorts, for family intervention. Unfortunately more often, the child (and those around him/her) see only themselves as the problem. As one scapegoat reported, “I remember being five years old and wondering why I was so bad — what was wrong with me?” Scapegoats often feel misunderstood and like they don’t fit in. “I spent my childhood looking for evidence that I was adopted because I was SO different than the others … I simply did not belong,” cited one typical second born client. These folks buy into the idea of their badness and often spend their whole life living out a self destructive script, including drug and alcohol abuse, poor anger management and extremely negative relating patterns.
The Lost Child
Third born children are most often designated as the “Lost Child”. This child comes along at a time when the energy of the family is spent. By the time the family has applauded all of the Hero’s achievements and exhausted their efforts trying to straighten out the scapegoat there is nothing left for the third-born child. The message this child gets then is that they are supposed to need nothing — “Just be good, will ya? Be nice and quiet and take care of yourself”. So this child often complies by emotionally withdrawing. As a matter of fact, most of us can recognize a lost child because they are the one whose name you can’t ever quite recall … or you’ll find yourself looking right over them as if they were not there. They are so good at retracting their energy, that they literally seem to disappear. These children are often loners who turn to fantasy through books or computers. Because they have learned not to expect anyone to be there for them, they often repress their needs. This leads to a common complaint of feeling empty inside … “it feels like if you were to thump me I’d ring like an empty barrel”, said one client, a classic lost child. They may attempt instead to fill this void with food, leading to eating disorders and/or unconsciously take on illnesses, such as asthma or allergies in order to get the time and attention they need for survival in a barren environment.
Fourth born children are typically designated as the “mascot”. The primary assigned duty here is one of distraction. Mascots often become the family entertainer or clown, using humor or clumsy antics as a way to break tension when things get out of hand at home. Often, when they are the “baby” of the family, they are treated as if they are too little or too dumb to understand what’s going on in the family. “I felt as if everybody else knew what was going on, except me. I was always trying to catch up and catch on to life”, said one typical mascot. There is often a life time pattern of confusion about how to handle life for the mascot, as a result. The family, buying into a notion that this child is fragile and needs protection often hides reality from them. It’s been well documented that family secrets get passed down and acted out. It is not uncommon for the mascot to live a totally chaotic life, even ending up in a mental institution depending on the amount of dysfunction with which he or she is unconsciously carrying and acting out for the family. Dysfunction tends to “roll downhill”, so to speak, which means that the more unstable the family the crazier this child feels.
If there are five or more children in a family, the roles may start over, depending on factors such as the age difference between siblings. An only child may play each of the various roles at different times depending on the systems primary need of the moment, or children may combine roles. It’s common, for instance, for a scapegoat to take on the role of mascot when there are only three children in a family. Again it depends on the family needs. Role order and description are not carved in granite, however it is surprising how often individuals identify with them. What I have given here is a very brief description, but I hope it will help you begin to explore your own family role. We don’t have to be stuck in these roles forever. By bringing them into consciousness we can begin the process of challenging them and changing the way we relate … to ourselves and those around us.