Do you remember when taking random personality tests online was all the rage? Meyer’s Briggs, Enneagram, and even bizarre Buzzfeed “What Type of Breakfast Food Are You?” quizzes cluttered our social media feeds. I have to admit, I have always been fascinated by differing personalities and took my fair share of these tests (I’m French Toast, just in case anyone was wondering.) There are numerous studies out there that attempt to understand what makes people who they are and try to categorize us into labels and numbers. As fun as it is to take these tests and post our results for all our friends to gush, “Oh, that is so you!” most of them are pretty useless. However, there is one personality assessment in particular that I find to be incredibly helpful as we parent our kids: Identifying the roles that each of our children has in our family.
No matter what your family looks like, every person has a role. Some may be very aware of their position in the family; the over-achiever, the trouble maker, the tattle tale, the sensitive one. Often, we unknowingly categorize our kids, and once we assign them that label, the rest of the family easily picks up on it. It’s natural and normal; most of us do it without thinking. According to many family researchers, there are generally four dominant roles our kids can take on in our families: The hero, the scapegoat, the lost child, or the mascot. Within each of these roles, there is the potential for fulfilling a deep need, a sense of belonging, and a greater purpose. However, there also exists an opportunity to negatively impact how our kids view themselves, our families, and their future relationships for years to come.
It is worth taking the time to study our kids and discover what role they have taken on in the family dynamic. When we recognize their roles, we can capitalize on their strengths, work on their weaknesses, and lovingly attend to their unique needs. As you read through the following descriptions, try and think through which category your children fit into. You may even share this with them and let them weigh in on who plays what role; sometimes, their perceptions and feelings are different than ours.
The Family Hero
Do you have a kid who seems to succeed in everything? The hero is an achiever, a go-getter, and probably your right-hand man. They may be referred to as “the perfect child.” and they generally seem to do everything right. They often perform at a high level academically as well as being involved in many other activities (and they excel at most). They appear to be capable, responsible, and respectful, and they’re diligent and trustworthy. In general, they make the family look good to outsiders. The hero has many strengths and talents, and as parents, we certainly love all the help and relief they bring to the family! But, as with every other role, there are also pitfalls of being the hero child. Their strong drive for achievement can make them feel that in order to belong, they must succeed. They may struggle to articulate their own needs as they are constantly focused on doing what is expected. Due to their own well-behaved nature, they are often rigid, judgmental, and self-righteous—especially towards the troublemaker in the family. Your hero kid tends to put excessive demands on themself. They may base their self-worth and value on their accomplishments. The fear of making mistakes or failing can cause anxiety, loneliness, or sadness.
What they need from you:
As proud parents, we often put too much emphasis or pressure on our hero’s achievements. Because they have always performed at a high level, we expect more out of them and give them more responsibility. It can be easy to overlook their needs because they seem so capable of keeping everything in order. If you have a hero, be intentional to:
- Make sure they know they are loved for who they are, not for their accomplishments.
- Help them to identify what they want and need.
- Give them permission to screw up and make mistakes.
- Encourage and allow them to express their anger or disagree with you.
- Free them from pressure by telling them you have your own interests and your happiness is not riding on their success.
Ah, the scapegoat. This is the child that pushes all our buttons and tests all the boundaries. The scapegoat child is referred to as the “problem” child or “trouble maker”.
While the scapegoat may be the troublemaker, we would be wise to listen to them. These wild ones are the truth-teller within the family. They are brave, bold, and daring. This empowers them to be the ones willing to call out the “elephant” in the room when nobody else will. They express their upset for the whole family. They are often strong-willed and challenge authority – a trait that is both a strength and a weakness depending on its context. It is rarely a secret that family member is the scapegoat, and they feel this brand just as deeply as the rest of us. Knowing they are the “difficult” one can cause them to be continually testing if they are loved and valued. They may seem angry, sullen, and rude. Risky behavior attracts them, and they find themselves regularly participating or drawn to it. No matter how hard we try, the scapegoat simply won’t adhere to the family rules. Underneath the wild and belligerent exterior, these kids often feel deeply rejected, angry, and misunderstood.
What they need from you:
If you have a scapegoat, you are likely exhausted, overwhelmed, and defeated. Their behaviors may terrify you and leave you wishing for an “easier” child. It can be easy to fall into the trap of comparison with your scapegoat child. These kids are desperately needing someone to see past their unruly behaviors and truly look at who they are as people. If you have a scapegoat, drink an extra cup of coffee and strive to:
- Give more positive attention and affirmation and less criticism.
- Avoid getting into power struggles; instead, listen and seek to understand what they are saying and feeling.
- Affirm their feelings and look for the truth in what they are saying.
- Spend regular, positive one-on-one time with them.
- Find constructive outlets for them to use their talents.
- Ask them what they want and need from you.
- Don’t engage in negative talk about them with siblings or other people.
The Lost Child
This lost child is known as the “quiet one” or the “daydreamer.” They appear to prefer being alone rather than with others and can regularly be found hiding in their rooms. They are gentle and compliant. They’re often independent and resourceful. Conflict and confrontation are their greatest enemy, and they prefer to go unnoticed during family conflicts to avoid any anger directed at them. Because of their quiet disposition, they are often told they are “good kids.” They can even be so quiet that you forget they are there. This sensitive and soft-spoken child is at special risk of falling through the cracks and having their needs go unfulfilled. The lost child usually struggles with expressing and identifying their feelings. They may struggle with people pleasing and articulating what they want and need. Oftentimes they struggle with feeling like they don’t matter or belong.
What they need from you:
Your lost child may seem introverted and independent, but they cannot be overlooked or forgotten. Their desire to appease and retreat makes them susceptible to having their needs neglected, especially if they are overshadowed by a hero, or your attention is overspent on a scapegoat. If you have a lost child, remind yourself to:
- Give them plenty of positive attention.
- Be intentional to spend one on one time with them.
- Coach them to think about what they might want and need.
- Invite them to express their thoughts and feelings.
- Don’t put too much pressure on them to be different than they are (more extraverted, more involved, etc.)
- Join them in whatever it is that they enjoy doing (for example, if they are reading, simply read next to them).
The mascot is sometimes referred to as “the clown” or the “cute one” (If you guessed that they are often the baby of the family, you are correct!) These kids are full of energy and fun, part goofball, part caretaker, and all charisma. They are the life of the party and come across as carefree, charming, and lovable. As someone who finds their place keeping things happy and jovial, they assume responsibility for the family’s emotional well-being and feel the need to keep the peace. They try to lighten the mood with jokes and being silly when things get tense. Their fun-loving and joking nature can sometimes make them appear immature, disruptive, and dramatic. Because of their deep-rooted need for people, they are prone to feel insecure, and they feel their worth is dependent on the approval and attention of others.
What they need from you:
You may appreciate your mascot’s fun and bubbly personality, and their inclination to keep things light and cheery may make them seem easy-going or generally content. In parenting these kids, it is important to remember that behind their child-like enthusiasm is a normal teen who still needs responsibility and emotional support (even though they may try and mask emotions with jokes and banter). If you have a mascot, you’ll want to remember to:
- Help them identify and express their feelings, especially sadness/and, or grief.
- Help them identify what they think, feel, and want during times of conflict.
- Support them to believe in their capacity to care for themselves.
- Appreciate their sense of humor and encourage them to use it appropriately, not as a way to avoid conflict.
- Give them responsibilities and hold them accountable.
Understanding the needs that our children have within their family roles is so helpful in cultivating an environment for each of them to truly shine. When we take the time to be aware of how our kids perceive their place in the family, we can be mindful of what they need from us to feel the most loved, accepted, and valued. The sense of purpose and belonging that our intentionality in meeting their unique needs fosters in them sets the stage for a more fulfilling family life for all of us.