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5 Toxic Family Roles And Their Consequences

Written by: Chenelle Ellie, LCSW-C, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Scientists in the field of psychology have done countless studies linking dysfunctional romantic relationships with toxic relationships within someone’s family throughout childhood. Have you ever wondered why you experience similar issues throughout each romantic relationship you’ve been in? You may be continuing to act out the same toxic roles when you were a child.

Parents arguing in front of their children inside the house.

The 5 toxic family roles

We all play roles in our lives relating to our occupation, gender, relationship status, or family relation. As a mental health therapist, I see many people who play a specific role in their families. This could be a caretaker, confidant, or leader. I want to explore some of the roles some people play in their family that can result in painful thoughts or feelings about themselves.

1. The Scapegoat

The scapegoat is the family member that is often blamed for most issues in the family. They are often seen as villains in most conflicts. A lot of the time, this is due to the person speaking out against being mistreated or other conflicts within the family. You may be the scapegoat if:

  • You are wrongly made to feel at fault during arguments

  • You have repeatedly been told that you’re too angry (This could just mean that you are rightfully angry for being mistreated)

  • You speak up about an unjust situation and the anger is then aimed back at you (For example, you tell a friend that your mother called you an idiot. When your mom finds out, she aims her anger toward you for telling someone your family’s business and does not take any accountability for calling you an idiot.)

When someone is the scapegoat of the family, this could lead them to start believing that they are always at fault in every situation, even in situations with individuals outside of the family. For example, if you’re in an argument with a romantic partner, you may be prone to automatically thinking that you are at fault because that’s what you’ve been told for much of your life. This could also cause low self-esteem, isolation, anxiety, depression, and creating relationship dynamics where you are always made to be at fault.

2. The People Pleaser

The people pleaser will do anything to appease others, even when it takes away from themselves. This could look like giving your sibling all your money and having no money to go to the movies with your friends the next day. Picture this, your father has announced that he is divorcing your mother and moving in with his mistress. Instead of telling him how angry you are, you choose to tell him how happy you are for him. Because what would happen if you told him how you really feel? He could become upset with you and that would be too painful for you to bear!

People pleasers may also look like caretakers, but we will discuss this role a little later.

People pleasers find it extremely difficult to disappoint others or cause others to be upset with them. They often avoid these situations by any means necessary, which usually results in them repressing their feelings and/or feeling like their loved one’s feelings are the most important. Children who are people pleasers are often seen as sweet, caring, or well-behaved and this is probably so. But their feelings are also important.

Children who are the people and pleasers of the family often grow up to replicate this dynamic in other relationships at work, with friends, and with spouses. Have you ever had a friend that would drop anything and everything for the people they love at the expense of their needs and desires? Or have you ever had a coworker who will take work home, come in early, stay late, or take on everyone’s responsibilities with little recognition and no advantages for all their hard work? Yes, these are usually very good people. But they also lack boundaries. Boundaries allow you to care for others, but not at the expense of your happiness, health, rest, energy, or whatever else brings you joy!

3. The Caretaker

The caretaker is the nurturing family member. You can usually find them in the kitchen preparing food for the family, cleaning, or comforting their loved ones. Again, caretakers are usually very kind people, but if caretakers don’t set proper boundaries with their family, they run the risk of directly corelating their identity with doing for others.

Yes, it’s nice to want to do nice things for others, but when you feel like the only thing you have to offer is how well you take care of other people, you run a very high risk of developing low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety. Think about it, would you rather feel self-worth because you are worthy just because you are who you are? There is no one else like you. There is value in your personality. People would probably enjoy your company even if you weren’t performing a service for them. Or would you rather feel like if you aren’t doing something for someone, there’s a good chance no one would want you around?

Someone who feels like they have to be doing something for someone may look like:

  • The wife only feels accomplished or worthy of love if she is cooking, cleaning, and caring for her husband and children. If she fractures her ankle and is not able to do these things for the foreseeable future, she may feel like she is a burden to her family. Even though 98% of the time, she is doing everything she can to properly care for her family when she is well.

  • The friend who skips class or sacrifices her sleep every time a friend is in need. If a friend asks them to give them a ride an hour away with an hour's notice, the caretaker will do it no questions asked. It’s one thing if the friend was in a bind or if there was an emergency, but caretakers often run the risk of their loved ones taking advantage of their kindness.

4. The Family Member Who is Too Sensitive

Have you ever heard any of the following phrases:

  • You’re too sensitive! It was just a joke!

  • You’re overreacting! No one else has a problem with this!

  • Stop crying! You’re way too emotional!

If so, you may be someone who has been described as “too sensitive.” I hear my clients tell me stories of how their parents used these phrases often. When children are often told that their overreacting, they start to believe that expressing their feelings makes them weak. As a result, they don’t know how to properly express their feelings and sometimes, they don’t express their feelings at all. This can result in the person developing anger management issues (because anger is more respected than sadness in our society), holding all their feelings inside, or often feeling like they are overreacting in any situation, even though that may not be true.

Yes, there are people who are more sensitive than others, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. The most sensitive people have the ability to create music and books for our enjoyment. If they were not able to adequately feel their emotions, we wouldn’t be able to relate to their art. There are also children who are told that they are too sensitive, but in reality, they were appropriately expressing their feelings and their parents have trouble processing their own feelings. When parents have issues processing their own feelings, their children’s painful feelings can trigger them. This results in the parents wanting those feelings to go away to make themselves feel better.

5. The Perfect One

The perfect one is the family member who seems to do everything right. In everyone’s eyes, the perfect one can do no wrong. They may excel at school, have successful careers, are often asked out on dates, or have tons of friends. They may be the family member everyone compares others to.

  • Why can’t you be more like _____.

  • ____ doesn’t have any issues with it, so why can’t you do it?

From the outside looking in, the perfect one may look like they have it made! But in reality, the perfect one often experiences a lot of anxiety. It’s a lot of pressure to feel like you cannot make a mistake. The perfect one often feels like if they make any mistakes, even a small ones, they will let everyone down. Sometimes they even feel like love would be lost as a result. It is a painful experience to feel like your loved ones only love you because of what you’ve accomplished and not for who you are as a whole.

Negative Effects in Adulthood

Children who play these roles throughout childhood often struggle with their identities within relationships as adults. A caretaker may feel like the only thing they have to offer is caring for her family. If a young woman becomes a mother, she may have high levels of anxiety while trying to be the “perfect parent” (which is an impossible goal). These individuals may even continue the cycle of dysfunctional behaviors with their own children (Bray, 1995).

In moderation, some of these roles that you play within your family are natural. There are plenty of people that find joy in caring for their loved ones or making their families proud. Just be careful to examine if these roles take over your whole identity. You are more than the dynamics you play within your family. Identifying the behaviors you would like to change is the first step. Talking to a mental health professional can also help you set proper boundaries and explore other aspects of yourself, so you can live your life to the fullest. If you would like support with creating relationship dynamics that are mutually beneficial, visit to schedule a free 15-minute consultation.

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Chenelle Ellie, LCSW-C, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Chenelle Ellie is a mental health therapist who currently serves the states of MD, VA, DC, and FL. She specializes in working with women who struggle with relationship anxiety and is also passionate about helping everyone get the most out of therapy sessions. Chenelle also hosts a podcast called Conversations with Your Therapist where she gives tips on what to discuss in therapy sessions and education on how to properly set boundaries and creating healthy, thriving relationships.



  1. Bray, J.H. (1995). 3. Assessing Family Health And Distress: An Intergenerational-Systemic Perspective [Family Assessment]. Lincoln, NB: Buros-Nebraska Series on Measurement and Testing. Retrieved from



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