Big Families and Small Ones: What About the Roles?

Over the last four weeks we have examined the four roles children assume when they are raised in a home with an emotionally absent parent.  Psychology seems to have a predilection for models of four; in this case the hero, rebel, lost child and mascot.  In healthy families, children’s behavior flows across all four roles. But in these families, children will adopt one of the roles and live by its parametes more than any other.  It’s as if they become rigid with the chosen role and lack the ability to see another method of dealing with life.

One of the repeating comments I’ve received is the question “What about my family?  We have fewer or more than four children.  How does this apply to us?’

If your family has fewer than four children, they will usually double up on the roles.

One child in a family may adapt any role but they are usually the hero. There are more first borns and only children in ‘Who’s Who’ than any other birth position. It seems reasonable that an only child, surrounded by adults would work overtime to succeed – to meet the expectations of the parents.  In being the hero, they become little adults before their chronological age puts them in adulthood.

However, the second most likely role for only children is the rebel/scapegoat. This outcome is also reasonable – children faced with the demands of a home with out emotionally engaged parents may give up, act out, and defy every suggestion, rule or demand made of them.

When there are two children, these two roles are also most commonly adopted.  But the roles of these children are often flavored with the other two roles.  So the hero often additionally adopts the lost child role – it’s hard to succeed unless you’re studying, working, and putting in the time – usually away from home.  In this situation, the rebel will often adopt the mascot role.  So they’re rebelling but with a bit of humor thrown in.

When the family consists of three children, each will adopt one role, except for one child who will double up.  The most common example of this family is from a popular sitcom from many years ago: Happy Days.  Richie is the hero, Joanie, his younger sister is the lost child (admit it, you have to think to remember her name). But the Fonz is the third young person in this family (even though he’s not born to the Bosley’s).  He’s the rebel – living in a way that is totally antithetical to their values.  But his humor is what makes him tolerable to all of them.  So he’s the rebel coupled with the mascot.  Obviously, this is entertainment so the fit isn’t perfect, but the family dynamics show these principles.

When there are more than four children, roles are repeated.  How it works out is determined by age spread between the siblings, family dynamics and family expectations.

For example, when there is a significant spread between the age of the first child and their nearest sibling who is the oldest of a ‘younger group’, the oldest child is usually a hero.  But in that group of siblings, the roles are distributed as above. For example the oldest child is 4 when the sibling is born and then four children in four years: the oldest is the hero usually and then the younger four take on all four roles.  Needless to say the two heroes in this family will not likely get along – they’re too much alike. Although this is often not true for rebels – they may get into trouble together.

Another factor in this model is multiple births.  A client of mine was the youngest of three and when she was four, mom had triplets.  The oldest child was the hero, the second was the lost child who moved away and my client was the rebel who has a wicked sense of humor.  Understand that this is a family of doctors, so when my client decided to beome an IT person she was seen as a failure.  The triplets were an entity unto themselves and the roles all showed up in that grouping of three.

I have consistently encouraged you not to look at your families, and yet I know some of you have ignored that recommendation.  It’s natural to want to see where we fit into a model.  Please remember that I have provided the simplest of information in these posts.  If it fits, that’s great.  I hope it helps you understand your family and friends better.  But don’t try to force anything. This is one of many models of family dynamics.  It’s one I understand and helps me work with my clients.  But it’s not the be-all or end-all of models.

Thursday we’ll look at pairing and relationships.  What works and what creates challenges.

As always I look forward to your comments and questions.  It’s been an interesting dialogue and I look forward to your opinions.


About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in adult children, healing, Louise Behiel, recovery, self help and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Big Families and Small Ones: What About the Roles?

  1. Heidi says:

    Exactly. Thank you.

  2. I can definitely see some of this in my family. Another great post, Louise!

  3. gingercalem says:

    Eating up this info. So interesting and true!! Thanks, Louise.

  4. Joan Leacott says:

    I can see the permutations are fascinating and endless. I look forward to more. Thank you for the insights, Louise.

  5. Jennette Marie Powell says:

    Thanks for going over this! It makes sense that an only child with an emotionally-absent parent would take on the hero role. Looking forward to your Thursday post!

  6. You are right about not being able to fit everyone into these four molds. I still can’t fit one of my brothers into these. And there are multiples in the extended family…just two that don’t fit all the roles (one would be a rebel and the other a lost child, but I don’t see evidence of the other two in them).

    It’s still great information to have to help with character building. Anything we can use to make them more three-dimensional helps a lot. Thanks, Louise! (now if WP likes me today and lets me post this….)

    • WP did like you today. and it did get posted. Kristy it is also possible that their chosen roles as young people didn’t work, so they figured out a way, with a partner or a friend or someone else to adapt a little better to their circumstances. Remember once we’ve done the work, we aren’t locked into these roles but can move through as appropriate.

  7. Karen McFarland says:

    As I’ve said before, this is very interesting stuff Louise! And I can see the reason why you wouldn’t want us to be burdened with placing ourselves in these personalities. But it’s hard not to when you see certain traits you know? lol Can’t wait for the next post! Thanks Louise! 🙂

    • Glad you’re enjoying Karen. The big thing for writers is this is another system to help round out characters and make them more real. and yes, seeing certain traits it’s easy to jump into a decision.

  8. Mary E. Coen says:

    Great article Louise. As a mother of three children it is reassuring to understand patterns of behaviour. It is important to lovingly embrace what is, yet when we are emotionally invloved our ego can take over as we place expectations on children to conform. Like you, I consciously work to evolve. It is a continuous process rather than an end goal. You might like to check out my website On site, I share my love of cookery, fashion and mythology. I love the ‘Goddess’ as a metaphor for consciousness and I will soon be adding a Goddess personality quiz which ties in with Carl Jung’s identification with archetypes. You are very welcome to visit, Louise. Keep up the good work:)

  9. I love reading about family dynamics, Louise. This is fantastic info that I know I’ll be using in my characters. 🙂

  10. Thank you very much for this information and for the reminder that we should not be looking for our selves here. I am and can’t help it. That being said, the idea that roles can be doubled up makes sense.

    Thank you so much for doing this work!


    • thanks for stopping by Jen. I think it’s normal to look for ourselves a bit. But we have to remember that none of us is ever only one role. we get locked into one as a way of being in the world and can adapt to the world in those parameters. glad the double up roles make sense,

  11. abundancetapestry says:

    Hi Louise,

    This is my first time on your site and I have found the first post that I read intriguing. I will have to read the other posts in order to understand more. But I am already guessing who is playing which role in my family. Interesting stuff!

  12. abundancetapestry says:

    Hi Louise,

    This is my first time on your site and I have found the first post that I read intriguing. I will have to read the other posts in order to understand more. I am already guessing who is playing what role in my family. Interesting stuff!

  13. iamnotshe says:

    I’m with Jen on this. I think we can play all the roles, but there are primary and secondary roles. I know i felt like the lost child, but i was “humorous” so i tried to be a mascot, but i did the rebel bit too. The underlying feeling to this day is the lost child. Not so much as a grown up … however, now that mom is dead, i feel lost again (in a different way).

    So much for NOT looking at myself. I’m human, 😉 xo melis

    • I think we can play all the roles but when we come from these closed families we tend to respond in a repetitive way. my role was the hero. I responded to every situation to see how I could make the situation better, improve it or solve it. always. you see that’s how I defined my worth – was in making things better. if I couldn’t help out, then I had no value. and I wasn’t deserving of love. but that’s just me. your mileage may vary.

  14. Always fantastic information. Thank you Louise 🙂

  15. Family dynamics are fascinating. I LOVE that you used the Cunninghams to demonstrate the roles! I never would have thought about Fonzie being the rebel AND the mascot. Thanks for yet another fantastic post!

I'd love to hear from you. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s