In any given family the individual members fulfill and act out roles, yet there are differences between healthy and dysfunctional families as outlined below:

  1. While in healthy, functional families these roles are generally fluid, change over time, in different circumstances, at particular events and are age and developmental appropriate, in dysfunctional families the roles are much more rigid.
  2. In a healthy family members are integrated and various parts may surface at different times at no threat to the family system. In functional families the roles are interdependent.
  3. The various roles in a healthy family are parts of every person. Individual members, in particular children, are allowed to grow, develop and integrate these roles in their personality to become a fully functional adult with a full set of skills to develop further during their own independent adult life.
  4. Healthy families in general retain functionality when individual members ‘leave’ the family system through ‘moving out’, starting their own families or even death of an individual member.

By contrast,

  1. In dysfunctional families the roles are almost a form of continuity or stability of the family system, stifling development of primarily the children, though one or more parents may be severely stifled as well.
  2. Members must submerge parts of their personalities and take on a role so they are less of a threat to the family system that must be kept in place. In the case of a dysfunctional family all the roles are characterized as co-dependent.
  3. In a dysfunctional family each member takes a role, and/or is assigned one, to make up the whole which is the family. Rather than a family of fully (yet age appropriate) persons, the family system gears to create just one: the family itself.
  4. In dysfunctional family systems when an individual member leaves, this creates an (almost) irreparable hole in the existing system. When an individual member discards the taken or assigned role it threatens the family stability (such as it is) as there is no-one capable of fulfilling (or willing to fulfill) that role. This is why dysfunctional families are often so enmeshed. The system needs all members to function as a unit, not as a community. (1)

Ideally adult individuals can fulfill all of these roles for themselves and are not dependent on others for either of these though interdependent relationships will nourish self-sustenance capabilities.

Roles in Dysfunctional Families

Reference: Boyd, G. (1992). When you grow up in a Dysfunctional Family. Retrieved from: