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,