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Exploring Family Roles and Their Impact on Relationships- Hero, Scapegoat, and Lost Child

Understanding family roles provides a unique window into how our earliest relationships shape us. Looking closely, we often see patterns that repeat across generations, influencing how we relate to others as adults. Today, we'll examine three roles: the hero child, the scapegoat, and the lost child. These insights draw heavily from the work of Pia Mellody and Terry Real, particularly Real's 2023 RLT 2 workshop on family dynamics.

The Hero Child: A God with Strings Attached

In many families, the child who excels in their endeavors is often placed on a pedestal by their parents. These children are seen as having everything under control and are the source of their family's pride. They often take on various roles, such as being a confidant, a substitute spouse, or even a parent to their own parents. They comfort, take care of, and often play the peacemaker. At first glance, this might seem empowering, but as Terry Real explains, it's a "slave god position." The hero child has power, but it's contingent on them playing by certain rules and having no needs of their own (Real, 2023).

Real emphasizes that this role can be incredibly damaging, especially when a parent says, "Honey, you understand me better than your father does." Such statements overburden the child and entangle them in adult emotional dynamics that are inappropriate for their age. This false empowerment leaves hero children competent, strong, and logical yet struggling with dependency, vulnerability, and joy. They often don't allow others to care for them, keeping their own needs tightly locked away.

Real (2022) further discusses the trauma of being made into the family hero, "the light all others depend upon", highlighting that this role is often a form of trauma. He invites those struggling with grandiosity to reflect on their childhoods: "No one asks to be groomed for grandiosity—it happens to them, through false empowerment, and they generally take it in by modelling a grandiose parent".

The Scapegoat Child: Power Wrapped in Rebellion

Contrary to the hero, the scapegoat is often seen as the "bad" one—the family problem, always in rebellion or needing special attention. While overtly shamed, they are covertly empowered. "You have a lot of power, but only if you stay bad," Mellody (1989) notes, highlighting the twisted form of empowerment these children experience. They are the ones who act out, reflecting the family's dysfunction back at its members. They express the unvoiced truths, saying with their actions, "You're going to pretend everything is okay? Watch me show you it's not."

With hero children being slave gods Mellody (1989) describes Scapegoats as slave demons as in that they have a lot of power as long as they stay "bad" or difficult. Scapegoat children are honest, emotionally potent, and often creative. They see deeply into the core of issues yet struggle with feeling like impostors. They are frequently self-sabotaging, caught in a cycle of shame and defiance that keeps them from recognizing their true worth.

In a conversation on Peter Attia's (2023) podcast "The Drive," Terry Real, who considers himself to be a scapegoat, shares his experience: "The scapegoat child is the one that wants to bring to the surface all of the pathology and the truth that's being denied and suppressed. And they usually do that through action rather than verbs but they express the family pathology and get punished for telling the truth." Interestingly, Real says that he became a professional truth teller, a quality which makes him such a pioneer within couple's counselling.

The Lost Child: Invisible and Independent

The lost child seems neither compliant nor defiant; they simply disappear within the family drama. They are often labeled as irrelevant or independent, with the assumption that "they're fine" overshadowing their deep need for attention and connection. This role can lead to what Real describes as a tendency towards love addiction—particularly if the child withdraws because they are doing well and, therefore, attract less parental concern.

These children feel abandoned and not deserving of attention or care, perpetuating their sense of isolation. Their covert and overt shaming fosters a belief that they are fundamentally irrelevant, pushing them further into the shadows of family life.

Implications for Relationships and Healing

Understanding these roles isn't just about diagnosing problems; it's about opening pathways to healing. Real advocates for "relational recovery," where individuals in relationships work to recognize and heal these ingrained patterns. This involves honest communication, a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, and building mutual respect and empathy.

Breaking free from these roles requires acknowledging them without judgment and understanding their origins. Therapy, especially frameworks like Relational Life Therapy (RLT), can offer valuable tools for individuals looking to change these dynamics. Transformation begins with awareness and is sustained by emotional honesty and relational repair, as illustrated by Terry Real.

In conclusion, the journey towards healthy relationships begins with understanding the roles we were given and deciding which parts to keep and which to let go, whether we identify as the hero, scapegoat, or lost child. This isn't easy work, but it's perhaps some of the most important work we can do—not just for ourselves but for the relationships that define our lives.


Attia, P. (2023) The Drive podcast episode. Available at: []( (Accessed: 2023).

Mellody, P. (1989) Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives. HarperOne.

Real, T. (2007) The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work. Ballantine Books.

Real, T. (2022) Us: how moving relationships beyond you and me creates more love, passion, and understanding. New York: Goop Press/Rodale.

Real, T. (2023) Relational Life Therapy Workshop on Family Dynamics, RLT 2.

All images by Kelly Sikkema

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