The Family Hero – It’s Not All Good

The Hero or Responsible Child is the first of the learned behaviors of children who grow up with an emotionally absent parent.  When one parent is not providing emotional support to the family and the other parent is focused on that absence, the children are often left to fend on their own. Often the oldest, but not always, this child learns to handle life and all its realities regardless of their ago.

There are many scenarios where this happens.  This identification started with adult children of alcoholics, and it’s obvious that an alcoholic parent is focused on the booze and not the family.  In most families, the alcoholic’s spouse is focused on his/her drinking.  How much money is being spent, how much time is being wasted in the bar and the risks of drinking and driving. And usually, all those pretty young things in those damn dirty bars.

Other instances include a home with a mentally ill parent, a workaholic parent (whose partner resents the hours at work), any family with an addiction in one of the parents, or a ‘do-gooder’ parent who volunteers more than she is home and whose partner hates it.

So the children, although they have adults in the home, learn how to cope without much of their parents’ attention. Certainly they learn independence and self-reliance in a way that other children do not.

The Hero or Responsible Child learns that someone has to take charge.  While they may not be making decisions (although they may be), they are working to make the family succeed.

These children share a variety of characteristics:

  1. They succeed – by hard work and diligence, they are good students, hard workers, and/or star athletes .  Sometimes they’re all three.  Whenever you see a super star teenager, ask yourself if they’re over-compensating for something at home.
  2. They are overly responsible.  They understand about cause and effect and consequences and they make the ‘right’ choices all of the time.
  3. They’re the shining star of this family.  They’re the kid that other parents compare their children to as a role model.
  4. They usually continue to succeed all through life.
  5. They are work horses, getting more done than most other groups of people.  They’re the ones we talk about when we say “If you want a job done, give it to the busiest person you know.”
  6. They always follow through, regardless of what is asked for them or what is going on in their life.
  7. They have trouble having fun, although they don’t know it, because they define many of their activities (volunteer, familial or community) as ‘fun’.
  8. They take care of others, with or without that person’s permission.

Heroes value themselves for getting things done.  They perceive themselves as high energy people who are organized and efficient.  Those identifiers are true, but the Hero usually takes on too much an doesn’t understand about down time and relaxing.  What else would be expected?  This child has always been rewarded (with praise or money) for working so hard and taking charge.

Ironically, this is often the hardest role to break away from, because the rewards become intrinsic to the Hero’s self-identification and self-worth.

The hero becomes used to tackling problems that are beyond their level of maturity or skill set, so it’s no wonder they often end up married to…you guessed it, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc etc.  Or they become the workaholic adult who claims he/she is doing all this for the family when in truth, it’s driven from their self-concept and self-image.

Again, don’t start diagnosing anyone in your life – but feel free to do more research if this rings a bell for you.

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
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50 Responses to The Family Hero – It’s Not All Good

  1. Painfully good post, Louise. Brings up a lot of old stuff for me. Bet you’re a great therapist.

    • thanks Alicia. Sorry to hear this was one of your coping tools. Funny how we can almost kill ourselves being responsible, a hard worker, a good employee, etc etc. this is my role and I have to be aware because I can slip into it in certain situations. be well and take care.

      • Julie Rowe says:

        You’ve got me nailed, Louise. A car accident put my father in the hospital for months when I was a young teen. Mom was overwhelmed and guess who picked up the slack.

        I know the definition of the word “no”, but damned if I know how to use it.

      • Julie, I’m so glad you stopped by. The challenge for we heroes is to learn to identify what we want for ourselves and for our lives and then to give ourselves permission to chase it. A therapist once told me that I should be as selfish as I could imagine – because even at that, I would barely make the midrange of selfishness. Of course that was back in the day, before I did all the work to put that role behind me.

  2. Emma Burcart says:

    Oh, wow, this is so spot on! This used to be me, in part. In my mom’s house I was always alone because she was a workaholic. Luckily, I had my dad’s house to get love and attention. But I have a few friends who fit this description to a T. And they lived in two parent homes. This is so important for us to read as adults so we can learn how to move through this and find the balance of being ourselves.

  3. Glad you can identify Emma. This is my role and it’s a hard one to change – because of all the applause we get for succeeding. .I’m glad you had your dad’s house for the love and attention you needed. You are lucky to have had him.

    moving thru this role into a full life is important and it does result in balance.

  4. Diane Capri says:

    Two things, Louise. First, this is a good post for fiction writers because it gives us good insight into character motivation. Second, what’s the downside of being the “hero”? Sure, workaholism, but that really doesn’t kill you and often makes your life a lot better than the other options. Marrying dependent types so you can rescue them. What else? And how does our hero-type keep the good and deal with the negative? (Okay, so that’s three questions! LOL! Maybe I should make an appointment. Is the doctor in???)

    • I’m going to deal with the downside in another post, Diane. These are too long as it is, but I will come back to your question. I’m planning that for after the series and then we’ll look at the issues for each of these roles.

  5. Ginger Calem says:

    Really great post, Louise. I could identify with it in many ways. I agree with Diane — super info for our fiction writing.

  6. Michelle Beattie says:

    Interesting post, Louise. Does it never happen the opposite way, where the child becomes indifferent. If the parents don’t care, why should I?

  7. Oh dear, that’s me! My dad was in the army and consequently our family consisted mostly of me and mother. My mother suffered through frequent and extremely painful attacks of the bladder infection, cystitis, which meant I was either left to my own devices or instructed to do whatever chores had to be done. When my sister, 9 years younger than me, came along I was expected to take over many household chores. At ten years old I cooked, cleaned, did laundry and shopped just as if I were an adult while my mother cared for a difficult baby and went through several bouts of depression on top of everything else. Now I have reached the age I am, I understand myself far better and if anyone thinks me selfish for doing the things I do – too bad. I think I’ve earned some down time!

    • You had the quintessential childhood of a family hero, Vicki. I’m with you – now that we know what was going on and why we react the way we do (I still have to sit on my hands when a group needs work done), I deserve some down time, damnit, and I’m going to do things my way. yay for both of us

  8. Fantastic post Louise and so on point! 🙂 Great info…

  9. Very insightful post, Louise! I always learn so much when I read your blog. My oldest sister tends to fit the bill on this one. However, I’m not so sure it was just one parent that was absent for her. She and I only share the same mother, but her father was abusive and mom remarried. My father was emotionally distant, and for awhile there both he and mom were absent while pushing the middle sister to be a singer. They were always gone to different gigs and concerts. So that left me and big sis to hang out together. A lot. With your explanation of the “hero” I can see how she developed many of her qualities. She sacrificed quite a bit back in those days. I think I might send her a card now just to say thank you for being my sister. 🙂
    Thanks for posting this Louise!

  10. Another great post Louise! You’ve gotten some awesome comments and I like Diane’s questions. Yes this does help profile our characters. But it also connects in a personal level. Thanks you Louise. 🙂

    • I actually wrote a series of columns for my chapter newsletter on this material, Karen, relating it to fiction. I think the better we understand people, the more likely we are to write strong characters. at lest that’s what i’m hoping.

  11. As always, good info! Like Diane said, this info is fantastic for creating fictional characters, as well as thinking through what we ourselves might be dealing with. This is a background I see a lot in romance fiction, and it makes sense. We expect our romance hero/ines to be heroic, yet have hangups and emotional baggage – and what better reason than an absentee parent, or one who’s trying to compensate for another? Thanks for sharing your wonderful insights!

  12. Great post, Louise. Thanks for sharing this info!

  13. Kecia Adams says:

    Hi Louise! I found this post fascinating because I am right in the middle of drafting my next book and have been having trouble “getting into” the male lead character because he’s so stiff and responsible. But this described him to a T and painted a little more humanity for him. And of course the female lead is a disaster! 🙂 The course of true love…

    • Next post will include a little deeper look at this role, so hopefully you’ll find more info of use to you then. hero’s work hard, see life as serious and are afraid to let go – of control, situations, life in general.

  14. mm pollard says:

    Great post, Louise. I see my childhood in the post, but not me as an adult. I’m eager to see the downsides you mentioned.


    • thanks for stopping by. No one person is ever completely one role, but in these families, children seem to more deeply adopt one role or another. And we can put them behind us, although usually it takes some conscious effort.

  15. Darn it! You keep telling me I can’t identify these people, but I totally know who this one is! (hint: it’s not me)

    I am so loving this series. Thank you for putting it out there for those of us who maybe didn’t know we needed it.

    • Glad you’re enjoying these blogs, Tameri. Funny how we can start to see people in these descriptions. Not something I recommend but it’s pretty common, since these roles are fairly universal.

  16. fascinating post, Louise. I’m with the rest: great understanding for fiction characters and especially for Real Life.
    I think you said 4 character types? Wouldn’t that be an excellent overlay for a story? – to have all 4 battling each other with the traits they learned in childhood.

  17. Holy cow! I think that might be me! Hmmmmmmm.

    Very interesting post, Louise. The next book I’m going to tackle writing is going to deal with some of these issues. I’ll be shooting you over an e-mail with some questions if you don’t mind? Or maybe I’ll just interview myself, now that I realize some of these scary things about me.

    No. I’ll just ask you. That’ll be more fun! (See, I know how to have fun.)

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  18. I love reading your posts. Like everyone else, I learn so much! It would be interesting to have someone evaluate my weird family to see what personalities my siblings and I are. 🙂

  19. thanks so much kristy. No one is ever as clearly a role as described here, but I’ll bet by the time you’ve read all four you’ll see predominant traits in some of your sibs. Most people do. Families always make the best fodder for characters, don’t they? sometimes you just have to kill them off.

  20. Finally got a chance to stop by, Louise. Wanted to read this post because this was my role in my family of origin. I am the youngest of four (the oldest took the “class clown” role), but I took on this role in our family where my mom had early onset Parkinson’s disease and my dad was an alcoholic. I liked to cook (hate it now), and I was cooking all the family meals when I was around 12, including the whole Thanksgiving dinner! As you know, I’m having trouble quitting the day job to write full-time because it’s just so hard for me to give up work even though I still have plenty on my plate. I know the downsides of this role all too well! Thanks for the insight.

    • Carol Thanks for stopping by. You are living proof that it’s not always the oldest one who copes by ‘getting the job done’. I had to do lots of cooking when I was a kid and started hosting Christmas a few years after I got married – big elaborate meals for 30+ people. (and I took orders for custom deserts for everyone). LOL

      Like you I don’t care to cook anything these days. My kids tease that I should replace my stove with counter space.

      I did the really brave thing and quit the day job to get my private practice and my writing going. didn’t sell and didn’t make enough to survive. but I knew it would happen if I worked harder, so I did. Nothing. nada. Too funny. I finally gave up and got a job. Ironically that time totally changed my feelings about debt and credit. (it became okay). Very weird but it became okay.

      good luck on the decision to quit the day job. Know that as a hero, you’ll come out okay – even if okay looks different than you think it should.

      talk soon

  21. Hmmm, the post I thought I wrote last night seems to have disappeared. That’s what I get for trying to do it after 10pm. LOL. But, I gotta tell you, Louise, you got me. I’m the oldest. My parents were teenagers. My dad was at least suffering from clinic depression (though to this day neither parent has acknowledged this). So yeah, I was the responsible one. “This is often the hardest role to break away from, because the rewards become intrinsic to the Hero’s self-identification and self-worth.” So true. I drove myself into the ground again trying to be everyone’s hero and am trying to come back up out of that hole I keep stepping into! Thank you for this reminder. At least I am learning to climb out of the hole faster. :/

    • Oh Lynette, I hear you and the pain of your experience. And it is hard to break away from for just the reasons you say – the rewards and the accomplishments become intrinsic to who we are.

      At one time in my life, before I started working on this I was working full time in a management position that required me to fly across the country and work in Toronto Wed and Thursday every week. I left Calgary at 4 PM on Tuesday and flew home at 5 on Thursday. each flight was about 4 hours.

      While doing that I also did a long distance degree, completing 20 courses in 22 months; I continued to volunteer in a couple of agencies, ran my husband’s business and mothered three kids.

      I get tired typing that out but it is how I lived. I could always get one more thing done – simply by doing it. Worse, I thought everyone else was disorganized, lazy or unwilling to get the job done! I know – crazy. what can I say?

      You know i’m sure I saw a post from you late last night. I’m going to look around and see if I can find it.

  22. Reblogged this on Step On A Crack…Or Break Your Mother's Back and commented:
    Louise Behiel of the blog,
    Journey of a Thousand Miles

    is a therapist and an author who writes about issues that directly
    affect me as an Adult Child of Alcoholics.
    I am lucky to have found her and her blog.
    I have been looking at my role in my family,
    I have been looking closely and more clinically
    at some of my acronyms:
    PTSD and OCD;
    both earned the hard way;
    As the child of alcoholics.
    I will be posting soon about my past and my discovery
    My own Journey of a Thousand Miles.
    I find this post about the Hero Child dead on.
    This post by Louise Behiel directly relates to my
    I hope you cannot relate.
    If you do,
    I hope you find it helpful.

    Peace, Jen

  23. Wow! What a blessing to have found your blog! I am a psychology student at Penn State University and I can see from the titles of your most recent posts…I have a lot of reading to do! I am excitted!


  24. Thanks for stopping by. I’m honored that you have shared my post on your blog. Here’s hoping you can find the help you need here. Love your poetry – it’s so honest and so refreshing.

    well done.

  25. dogear6 says:

    I very much could relate to this blog as I was the family hero. My father was workaholic and my mother stopped her life when he was gone.

    In 1994 I wrote a mission statement and statement of principles, in which I said that I wanted my life to be an example to others, but that did not mean I had to do everything for them. People had to take responsibility for their lives.

    Every few months, I pull it out, look at it and decide that nope, no changes. That’s how I know the year I wrote that. My life has changed in fulfillment of my mission statement, but not the principles themselves.


  26. Heidi says:

    I’ve forgotten a lot of this from a study a long time ago. At the time, I think I was so dysfunctional that very little of this could get through. Seriously in denial about my life and being an alcoholic just made anything blurry. I’m the responsible child, who became invisible. The Hero was the baby and the Mascot/Rebel was my younger brother. Easy to see how it all ‘fit’ and became super difficult. My father was absent unless we wanted to be with him by becoming athletes. We all tried.

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