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With Christmas on the horizon, many people will be feeling as much dread as excitement as they face the prospect of spending more time with their family. Birmingham psychologist Dr Mike Drayton offers a few timely tips.

Earlier this week I received a letter asking me if I could offer any help to a very troubled family. The parents were drinking in the last chance saloon, and were at imminent risk of having their two children taken into care.

On the one hand they are a close and loving family, on the other hand they are the parents from hell. Mum and dad have repeatedly got involved in fights, both verbal and sometimes physical in which the children have been exposed to both physical and certainly emotional abuse.

On meeting the family I was struck by the entrenched role that each family member was stuck in. Dad was the easy going, somewhat irresponsible joker, who never really takes things seriously. Mum was the opposite. She would look after the kids, do the shopping, cooking and cleaning and sort out the bills and so on.

One son was the mothers confidant, an ‘adult child' who would share her responsibilities as well as her annoyance with the father. The other son was the scapegoat, blaming himself for all the families problems.

From time to time, Mum would feel put upon and Dad would feel nagged and they would fight. Not just a little row but really fight, usually with one of them ending up wounded in hospital and with the children in short term foster care. They weren't bad people at all, just trapped in roles that they themselves had learnt as children.

I think we all find ourselves stuck in various roles both in our families and our work lives that seem to stifle and constrain us and stop us from moving forward.

If we grow up in a psychologically unhealthy family there is a real danger of us developing negative roles that we can become trapped in. These roles are comfortable and familiar and are often most prominent when we are under stress or in a crisis situation where our unconscious ways of coping that we learnt in childhood seem the easiest and most natural ones to use.

Most good enough families encourage positive development where trust, love and honest, open relationships thrive. In psychologically unhealthy families where one parent is abusive, alcoholic, absent or damaged in some other way, then unhealthy roles abound; especially in the children. Children are great and will usually try their best to compensate in some way for the failings of their parents.

The hero role is taken up to try and solve the problems in the short-term, by deflating the situation feeling that the issue has been dealt with. In reality the problem will probably still exist and the heroes will constantly find themselves fighting against it, taking on needless responsibility and feelings of inadequacy. These roles usually fall into one of the following types:

The scapegoat believes that they are the cause of all the family difficulties. Such children often feel guilty and ashamed. These are very difficult feelings to cope with and can result in the child becoming withdrawn or aggressive. They are often lonely and have trouble fitting in. These characteristics often carry over into adulthood.

The lost child will daydream and will simply ignore the stress withdrawing into a safe personal world in which no one can disturb them, isolating themselves from any close relationships.

The mascot or joker, becomes a distraction, entertaining and distracting others. They can get in the way of family members facing up to reality and solving the problem. Again, this characteristic is often seen in adults.

We may not always want to stay in our family roles, but the pressure to conform is twofold: coming from other family members and from our own beliefs about ourselves. If you want to introduce change, work out what the advantages are for yourself and others of everything staying the same.

It often feels more comfortable to stay in the same role; even if you dislike it you feel in control because its familiar. If you want to make changes, you need to acknowledge your own feelings about that: both fear and excitement.

What are you attached to about the current situation? Do you have a feeling of being put upon, but like feeling needed? Do you have a feeling of being patronised but like being free from responsibility? Be honest about your own complicity in your role.

If you want the family to see you in a different light, try making gradual changes. If you're tired of being the lost child, introduce the idea that you're really quite aware and switched on (an intelligent film, an article from the Stirrer, you've seen, a news item that's caught your eye).

If you don't want to be the mascot or joker, ask questions instead of performing all the time, bring other people into the limelight.

You don't have to make an announcement or force a confrontation. By behaving differently, you force other people to react to you differently. You control their behaviour not by telling them to change, but by controlling yours.


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