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Dysfunctional Family Roles Part 3: Are You a Lost Child or A Compulsive?

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified 

The Lost Child

Aliases: “The Quiet One” “The Shy One,” “The Independent” 

The “lost child” is the family member who retreats from family dysfunction due to feeling overwhelmed. They can spend a lot of time alone, pursue singular interests, and/or struggle to establish or maintain relationships with others. The lost child is rarely seen as a stressor in the family (unless they develop a compulsive coping mechanism; see #6, below).  For example, a person may struggle to maintain a job because they need to play hours of video games in order to cope with family dysfunction. 

A lost child might appear as if they do not care about their family, but they do. They simply cannot tolerate the emotional turmoil that comes with interacting with their family. They avoid conflict at all costs, as they tend to shut down or check out when things feel difficult. Some lost children might feel that they are a burden to their family, so they stay away in order to avoid causing the family additional stress. 

If you are a lost child, try these methods to embody a healthier role:

  • Practice engaging with people outside your family unit during times of conflict in order to feel more comfortable with managing conflict in relationships. 
  • Learn coping mechanisms that you can use when conflicts or stress occurs in the family so that you are able to manage overwhelming emotions and remain engaged. 
  • Engage with family members in times that are not stressful or tense as a way to strengthen your family relationships. As your relationships improve, try being present with family members in times of stress and conflict in order to address and resolve issues.

The Compulsive 

Aliases: The Alcoholic, The Drug User

The compulsive is a family role that is often discussed in substance use treatment. This is the person who struggles with addiction or compulsive behaviors and is often the focus of the family’s attention. The compulsive can share many traits with the scapegoat, as they are typically identified as the “problem” in the family. On the outside, it looks like compulsives are causing stress in the family, but in fact they may be acting out or struggling emotionally because of preexisting family dysfunctions.

  The main difference between the compulsive and the scapegoat is that the compulsive specifically struggles with a compulsion or an addiction. This compulsion or addiction may involve illegal drugs, medications, food, gambling, pornography, or other compulsive behaviors. Remember, compulsions and addictions occur in the family unit and impact the entire family.

If you are the compulsive, try these methods in order to embody a healthier role:

  • Seek treatment. You may need professional help to manage your addiction before you’re able to change your role in the family. Treatment can take many forms, such as outpatient therapy, inpatient rehabilitation, and community support groups. 
  • Build a support system outside of your family unit. This support system might be better able to provide you with the emotional support that you need to manage your actions and  learn different methods of coping. 
  • Establish and maintain firm boundaries with your family members in order to meet your needs. These boundaries will not only help you but will create opportunities for your family to address their own issues as opposed to focusing solely on you.  

Family therapy can help you identify and change dysfunctional family roles.  Symmetry Counseling provides family therapy in Chicago addressing parent/child conflict and sibling conflict. Schedule your appointment today!


McClanahan, K. (2019, October 30). 5 Unhealthy Family Roles in an Addict’s Life. Retrieved from

Schafler, K. The 6 family roles in addiction. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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