Making Family Roles More Fluid

As you may have noticed–:)–around the holidays, entrenched family patterns get really powerful. I think that that’s partly because we automatically drop into  family patterns in our family relationships  even more than usual. That’s to be expected– when we were kids, the same things happened over and over, and we reacted similarly over and over, until the whole family—kids and parents together—unconsciously created a rut as deep as a canyon. And it’s really hard to climb out of a canyon!

Entrenched Family Patterns

In family therapy, it soon becomes clear that, whether we’re talking from the point of view of the “child” in a family or the parent, most of the time people come only from their own experience of what’s happening, their own point of view. “My mother never trusted me—after the age of 12, my daughter always shut me out.” “Beginning when he was 14, my son hated me and did the opposite of anything I told him—something changed when I reached puberty; my Dad criticized everything I did.” Etc., etc. You get the picture. Often, the family patterns that started at a certain point in the family’s life become routine and entrenched.

Entrenched family patterns often start because each person is interpreting the other person’s actions, without checking out if the interpretations are true. We don’t know we’re doing it, because we’re assuming we know what’s going on with the other person—and we’re basing our own actions on our assumptions. That’s what creates emotional pain that can last a life-time.

Changing Family Relationship Patterns

As I said, we usually get stuck in our own interpretation of what’s going on, which creates stress and anxiety, emotional pain and even sometimes physical illness, especially around holidays—with family rites come automatic family patterns. I see this in my relationship counseling practice all the time. But how about looking at it from the opposite point of view? I think of it as moving over to the “other side” of how someone is behaving to get at what might really be going on.

Critical Dad?

For example, with the Dad above, who seemed to criticize everything you did when you reached puberty, you might want to imagine into Dad’s life when he reached puberty. Was his family poor and he had to go to work in a factory? What might that have been like for him? Did he enjoy that or did he have other dreams that were thwarted? Did he have to go to night school and work at a drudge job for years to get where he is now? If all that’s the case, why would he be constantly on your case? Could he dread the idea that your life might turn out to be as hard for you as it was for him? Might he want a better life for you? How would you react to him knowing that?

Hateful Son?

Another example—the son above, who seemed to hate you, Dad, and did the opposite of everything you told him. Maybe you can feel into the “other side.” Think back before he became a teen. Was he getting good grades in school? Did you and he do things together? Did he sometimes show you projects he’d done? What was your response? Did you praise him or encourage him to do more? Could it be that he thought, by suggesting what more he could do, or by asking why he’d gotten a “B” on a test, he thought you didn’t think he was trying hard enough, and he started feeling not good enough? Could he have given up on trying to please you? How would you react to him knowing that?

Mother and Daughter Conflicts

In family therapy and relationship counseling in general, I try to help people move around in family roles, to become more fluid in their point of view. You can try it on your own with the mother/daughter problems above—do your own conflict resolution. Or think about your own family and try it!

By the way, this method of going to the “other side” for conflict resolution works for all kinds of relationships and groups, not only for families. I’ve done conflict resolution in businesses as well.

Relationship Counseling

If you’d like to know more about how I work with family dynamics, relationships and individuals, check out my Family Therapy, Relationship Counseling and home pages, or contact me.

Wishing you a free and joyous life,





Getting Stuck and Unstuck in Family Roles

Family Roles


When families or groups are stressed, certain roles automatically tend to emerge and are unconsciously “assigned” to specific members. In families, these roles are passed down from generation to generation, and most people, once we’re assigned a role, we’re stuck with it the whole time we’re growing up—and often for the rest of our lives. This powerfully affects all kinds of relationships: love partnerships, parent/child relationships, work relationships, and peer group relationships.

What Role Did You Get?


The stress-roles that tend to show up in families and groups can be divided into four major types: distancer, caretaker, identified patient, and outcast. All the roles have their place and are great in their own way. The problem is getting trapped them.


This is the easiest role, and the one that children should get, but unfortunately usually don’t. When there’s anxiety in the family, this person’s mantra is, “it’s not my problem; I don’t have to do anything about it; it’s theirs to deal with. Then they go out and play golf or read the paper or watch TV. It’s a “no worries” kind of role.


This role has its advantages and burdens. This person is assigned the duty of mediating conflicts, solving problems, taking care of everyone—or at least specific people—emotionally. They are the “go-to” person whenever somebody has a problem. If you were assigned this role, you became very competent and self-confident. However, you tend to be surrounded by people that seem incompetent and pretty soon, whatever group you’re in, it’s always your job to take care of everything and everyone. You also tend to take over whenever there’s anxiety or a problem and don’t trust others to take care of themselves or to do what needs to be done. I’ve written some case examples on my website EFT Case Studies page. For specifics, see my page on Family of Origin roles and a case study on someone in the Caretaker role.

Identified Patient

This is a very anxiety-filled role. It’s often assigned to one of the younger kids in families or to people in a group with low rank and power. They feel the anxiety of the family or group, they feel the need to solve the problem, but there’s little or nothing they have the power to do to solve it. So they’re constantly anxious, have nightmares, and often have lots of physical pain or even become ill. The positive part of this role, though, is that these people are very sensitive and are aware of others feelings. I’ve written some case examples on my website EFT Case Studies page. For specifics, see my page on Family of Origin roles and a case study on someone in the Identified Patient role.


This is a horrendous role to get. In families and groups, this person is perceived as being different—in a wrong kind of way—from the rest of the family, the one who doesn’t fit in, the “bad” one. No matter what they do, their behavior is interpreted as wrong or inappropriate or “sinful.” After a while, they see themselves that way, too, and start acting out destructively, to themselves or to others. A lot of self-hatred happens here. People in this role tend to be very depressed or really angry. The positive part of this role is that these people often see what’s going on under the surface and see how the family or group is failing to resolve the problem. For an example, see my website EFT Case Studies page. For specifics, see my page on Family of Origin roles and a case study on someone in the Outcast role.

There’s Hope

 The hope is in role fluidity: moving around among the roles instead of staying stuck in one of them. This helps both the individual, other people in the group, and the family as a whole. There are many ways to do this. Here is just one example for each role: Distancers could help the whole family or group if they were to engage with someone who feels anxious and try to help. Caretakers could say to themselves, “it’s not my problem; I don’t have to do anything about it; the others can handle it this time.” Identified Patients might try to notice what they can do to feel better about something or what part they can play in resolving a conflict, etc.  And the first job of Outcasts is to notice who does accept them and in what ways they do fit into a group.

There are many more examples. I give specific case examples on my website on the EFT Case Studies page.

EFT is really helpful in dealing with emotional blocks and fears around moving out of your habitual role into the freedom being able to take on whichever role is most useful in a situation. Family and group therapy is useful to actually practice moving around fluidly.

Wishing you a free and joyful life,