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Roles of Children in Narcissistic Families

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Vector of parents arguing in front of three children

Roles of Children in Narcissistic Families

Written by Randi Fine, Narcissistic Abuse Expert

Narcissistic Abuse Awareness and Guidance with Randi Fine

Though there has been much written about the roles of children in narcissistic families, few understand the lifetime burdens these roles place on children, and the scars they leave.

When there is more than one child in a family, narcissistic parents assign each of them different roles. Only one child can be favored at a time, but the roles can be reassigned or switched at the parent’s will. If there is only one child in the family, he or she may have to play more than one role.

The three roles given in narcissistic families are: “golden child,” “scapegoat” and “lost/invisible child.”

The Golden Child

Initially one child is given the role of golden child. He is the parent’s “chosen one.” The golden child is seen as an extension of the narcissistic parent. She lives vicariously through him.

This child represents the parent’s perfect image of herself. He is either physically beautiful or has a talent that the parent finds impressive; something that gives her bragging rights. This child is chosen specifically for exploitation.

The golden child can do no wrong. If the parent finds fault with the child, a perfect reflection of her own self-image, that would have to mean that something is wrong with her. So she elevates this perfect specimen that she created to a level of omnipotence higher than her own. She idolizes him as if he were god-like. But unlike an omnipotent god or goddess who reigns free and unencumbered, this child is her possession.

The narcissistic parent tries to engulf and enmesh with the golden child as if the two of them were one. No boundaries between parent and child are established. This makes it very difficult for the child to separate or form his own identity.

The expectations placed on the golden child are lofty. Whether through physical appearance, social graces or performance, one of his primary jobs is to always make the parent look good. His other primary responsibility is to keep the parent happy.

When the golden child does not live up to his responsibilities, his parent turns on him. Fearing that if he does not play his role perfectly he could easily become the scapegoat child (which, after watching the implications of this role, is not something he wants to be) he quickly snaps back into his assigned role.

The golden child learns from a very early age that his superficial qualities of pleasing and looking good, not his inner qualities, are what make him likeable and lovable. This handicap follows him wherever he goes, permeating every facet of his childhood, adolescence and adult life.

The Scapegoat Child

Life is very different for the scapegoat child. Where the golden child can do no wrong, the scapegoat can do no right. And though only one child at a time can be the golden child, some families have more than one scapegoat child. As I said, these roles can shift.

The scapegoat child is considered a “bad seed.” She is seen as an inferior person. Her primary job is to carry the shame and anger of the narcissistic parent on her shoulders. She is blamed for everything that goes wrong in the family.

The narcissistic parent is unrelentingly critical, cruel, and abusive to this child. Not only is she unappreciated, she is humiliated in front of other family members, often called crazy, and made to feel unaccepted.

Since the scapegoat child is the most truthful, well-meaning, personally sacrificing member of the family she is constantly getting hurt. She remains authentic no matter how many times she is used and abused by her parent.

The narcissistic parent sees the scapegoat child as having no needs of her own, though she is expected to do all the caring. Her entire childhood is spent trying to live up to the expectations of the parent. That proves futile every time. No matter what she does she is never good enough.

Many of her ideas and achievements are worthy of praise but the parent never gives her the accolades she deserves. Her successes are either attributed to someone else or given no worth at all.

The scapegoat child is the most honest member of the family. Unable to repress the injustices placed upon her, she is the one most likely to argue, act out or rebel. Since she is labeled a troublemaker whether her behavior is good or bad, she has little to risk. This child seeks attention. Whether negative or positive it is still attention.

Preferring that the attention be positive, the scapegoat child is tenacious in her efforts to gain admiration from her narcissistic parent. Sadly she never succeeds. She is forever deemed an underachiever or loser. The scapegoat child actualizes these self-destructive labels and the defining mindset follows her throughout life.

The scapegoat child ultimately has more freedom than the golden child does, so in that aspect she fares a little better in life. Because of her lack of enmeshment with the parent, she has a better chance of physically getting away from him and developing a sense of self. The problem is the sense of self she manages to develop will not be a positive one. Deep within, she will always feel like an unlovable loser.

Invisible/Lost Child

The invisible or lost child does not receive praise or blame from his parent. This child is treated as if he does not exist. He is the forgotten one, the neglected one, the unrecognized one. The narcissistic parent is not the least bit interested or aware of this child’s needs. She has absolutely no use for him.

The basic needs of the invisible child are ignored to varying degrees. He may be sent to school with old, dirty, outdated or mismatched clothes. His hair may be unkempt. The parent may fail to teach him proper hygiene. He may not receive adequate medical or dental care. Narcissistic parents who want to conceal the abuse may provide just enough care to keep others from noticing the neglect.

Because the invisible child is treated as if he is a “nobody,” he expects nothing nor asks for anything. He is the quietest sibling in the family because no one is listening anyway. The golden child gets what he wants without trying, the scapegoat child is busy saying “look at me,” but the invisible child’s voice is lost to the parent’s other focuses.

For self-preservation this child withdraws into himself, isolates. He shuts down as if he is hiding from the world, escaping into his own mind. His withdrawal causes him to miss out on healthy social interactions. His friendships are few if any. He never feels as if he fits in with any groups.

Invisible children find it difficult to let others into their private world. They do not develop a healthy connectedness to other people or society. Never having anyone to rely on except themselves, these children become very independent—lonely and isolated, but usually self-sufficient.

Never feeling valuable as a child, he will live life feeling invisible, unlovable and unworthy. Prone to severe depression, the invisible child may easily fall prey to substance abuse, eating disorders and other addictive behaviors.

The three roles—golden child, scapegoat child, and invisible child are given by narcissistic parents for self-serving needs. They are not meant to benefit the children in any way. But these roles are not the only roles children in narcissistic families play. As a way to bring some semblance of order to their chaotic world and ease their pain, children in these confusing families adopt roles of their own.

The four additional roles of children in narcissistic families are:: “hero/responsible child,” “caretaker/ placater,” “mascot/clown,” and “mastermind/manipulator.” Children may adopt one or more of these roles. “Only children” usually take on a variety of roles for emotional adaptation.

The Hero/Responsible Child

The hero/responsible child is often, but not always, the oldest sibling. This child becomes overly conscientious and independent. She assumes the role of responsible parent at an inappropriately young age.

With a perfectionist nature, the hero child strives to achieve the highest level of success recognized as impressive by her family. She is the perfect student, best athlete, or most talented. A shining example of what outsiders assume could only be attributed to perfect parenting, her job is to mask the true dysfunction of her family to the outside world.

Since the hero child relies on outside approval as her compass for success, and her worth is always defined by others, nothing she accomplishes ever feels good enough. Nothing others do is good enough either. She does not like to engage the help of others and tends to be controlling, because she believes no one can complete a task as well as she can.

Proficient at all she undertakes, the hero child suppresses her emotions to a degree that she can no longer feel them. Deep inside, she secretly harbors feelings of insecurity and adequacy. Fearing her true self will be exposed as defective and incapable, she compensates by compulsively driving herself. Never feeling good enough within, true success can never be attained. When one goal is reached, she must strive for another.

Due to her perfectionist nature she tends to be judgmental and critical, both about others and herself. With her primary defense mechanism being denial, she does not take criticism from others well. It exposes parts of her she does not like, therefore is difficult to accept.

As an adult, the hero is likely to continue being successful in all she does, though that success will never make her happy.

The Caretaker/Placater Child

The caretaker/placater child is the family’s emotional rescuer. He manages the ever-changing, explosive moods of his family. His talents are listening, supporting, nurturing, and counseling.

This child has a sensitive, calm and understanding nature. His gentle soul cannot tolerate conflicts, discord, or pandemonium. When family upsets arise or he senses they are about to, he immediately jumps into pacifying mode.

The caretaker asks for no emotional support himself, though as a very sensitive child he needs it the most. He does not know how to get his own needs met so he avoids them and focuses on the needs of his family members instead.

This child is a “pleaser.” His self-worth is defined by what he can do for others. He selflessly gives out love, but does not know how to receive it back. Loving gestures and positive attention directed at him feel uncomfortable, causing him to quickly reverse the roles. He is only comfortable being the giver, not the receiver.

The caretaker assumes the role of rescuer throughout life and into adulthood. Friendships and partnerships become projects. Whatever the nature of the relationship, his job is to fix people; to save them from themselves. These relationships are often one-sided, toxic and tend to become abusive.

As an adult, the caretaker is likely to choose a career in a helping or caring profession since this is where he is most practiced and comfortable. While others will greatly benefit from his compassionate nature, he will always find it difficult to accept and meet his own needs. Easily taken advantage of, he is likely to suffer the “doormat” syndrome.

The Mascot/Clown Child

The mascot/clown is usually but not always the youngest child in the family. This child takes responsibility for the emotional well-being of the family, but in a very different way than the caretaker does. The mascot assumes the job of social director, constantly kidding and clowning around to divert the family’s attention away from its prevailing pain and anger. She is the one the family counts on to lighten the mood and make them feel better.

It appears by her happy-go-lucky attitude that problems just roll off her back, but her resiliency is only a defense mechanism. The mascot deflects the reality of her tragic circumstances and expresses her pain through comic relief. Masquerading as the cut-up at home and class clown at school, she ambiguously expresses her feelings of powerlessness, sadness, anger, and resentment.

She exemplifies herself as an object of ridicule through self-deprecating humor, ditsy behavior, or foolishness. Representing herself as a caricature of a human being, no one (including herself) takes her seriously.

As adults, proficient at mitigating suffering through humor, many mascots become entertainers. Sadly, they will never enjoy the happiness they give others. After a lifetime of repressing their own pain they are likely to suffer from chronic depression. Never having developed an authentic self they will always struggle with feelings of emptiness and loneliness.

The Mastermind/Manipulator Child

Unlike the other three roles, the mastermind/manipulator has no positive virtues. He is sinister, selfish and abusive.

The mastermind controls the family. He is cunning in his survival skills. He copes not through passivity or deflection, but through manipulation.

The mastermind’s manipulations are driven by haughty feelings of entitlement, quite like the narcissist himself. He is opportunistic, callous, and unrelenting when it comes to fulfilling his own needs, though shrewd enough to operate just below the radar.

Recognizing the dysfunction of his family, he uses it to his benefit. This child capitalizes on the weaknesses of his family members to get what he wants. In that pursuit he will lie in wait, create conflict among family members, or pour on insincere charm. He has an innate sense of how to manipulate others, especially those in charge, and get away with it. Family members do catch on to his ploys but are no match for his manipulative abilities.

The mastermind may also be a jokester just as is the mascot, but his humor is more sardonic and caustic than soothing. His sugar-coated, backhanded insults serve to cover up his own feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and lack of emotional safety. Masterminds are well-known for saying, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you take a joke?”

This is a role he will take with him into adulthood--once a manipulator, always a manipulator.

Unless identified, dealt with and modified, the hero, caretaker, mascot and mastermind roles assumed by children in emotionally abusive narcissistic families will become lifelong mindsets. Relationships, friendships, parenting, scholastic endeavors and careers will all be impacted by these dysfunctional adaptations.

Children raised in families with narcissistic parents suffer tremendous emotional abuse. Healthy coping mechanisms are never taught, therefore never learned. In order to adapt and survive in this painful, hostile environment these children must find ways to cope. Unless addressed and altered, their childhood coping methods, always maladaptive, are the ones they will use for the rest of their lives.

This is copyrighted material. May only be shared with permission and proper attribution.

Randi Fine is an internationally renowned narcissistic abuse expert and coach, and the author of the groundbreaking book Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: The Narcissistic Abuse Survivor’s Guide to Healing and Recovery Second Edition the most comprehensive, most well researched, and most up-to-date book on this subject. In addition to helping survivors recognize their abuse and heal from it, this book teaches mental health professionals how to recognize and properly treat the associated abuse syndrome. She is also the author of Cliffedge Road: A Memoir, the first and only book to characterize the life-long progression of complications caused by narcissistic child abuse.


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