Dysfunctional families and chronic illness…they go together like, well, mash potatoes and sauerkraut. Which is to say they really don’t mix together too well. I’ve heard it said by someone experienced with seeing patients enduring serious health conditions on a regular basis that nothing bubbles up tense family dysfunction like an ongoing illness.


I couldn’t argue; it was completely true. As such, we’re exploring here a little more in depth what we already talked about here which is how your unique family role impacts your chronic illness. (You can read part one where I describe the roles more in depth.)


Families and Chronic Illness: How the Role You Had in Your Family Makes a Difference

Going through the list, if you’re the star child/hero child, you will most likely be believed for your chronic illness since your parents view you in such a positive light. But on the unfortunate side, you may be in denial yourself of your own medical condition since denial was the default mechanism you used to cope with a dysfunctional family. Not to mention, some of your health problems could have stemmed from the stress placed on you from your family and they may mistake your rest for a lack of drive which perhaps wasn’t evident in your youth.


As most of us know, chronic illness is not as cut and dry as arriving at your diagnosis. It took multiple factors to arrive at the point you are now- which includes not only physical factors but emotional ones as well. Have you examined ways that are helpful to cope with your drive towards perfectionism?


Or perhaps as a star child, you were praised so highly by your family that your sibling(s) felt neglected and have decided to turn against you which can also take its form in turning their backs on you in your illness. Think of the situation with Joseph and the coat of many colors and his brothers as a prime example. (You can read his story in full here for context and what his story can mean for us in our struggles here.)

The scapegoats of the family are probably the ones who will most likely not be believed out of all the roles in a dysfunctional family system. Why is this? Remember from above that scapegoats will actually tell the truth about the dysfunctional family and later may be called out for being “crazy” or “exaggerating the situation.”

I can from firsthand experience see this as true from watching the life of my husband who I could tell relatively soon after our initial meeting was the scapegoat of his family. His story is a common one amongst scapegoats: he was abused in his youth and told the truth of what was occurring behind closed doors by telling his biological father of the harm he was receiving at home. His father was rightfully angry and tried to take custody of him. Child services then eventually became involved which is when his mom intercepted with the remark, “You better tell them that you lied or else your siblings will all be sent to separate homes and you’ll never see them again.” Of course being young and not knowing better, my husband in his youth lied to child services saying that it was all made up. Ever since, his mom has tried to paint him as the boy who cried wolf. Why? Because it serves the interest
of the dysfunctional parent to do so. If he was actually seen as credible, he would be a legitimate eyewitness in addressing what really happened behind closed doors. After that, it becomes so hardwired into the brain of the dysfunctional parent(s) that they believed the lie they created. This can, in turn, transfer over to chronic illnesses. Of course the scapegoat would be making up their health condition! They exaggerate the truth, just like they did throughout their childhood! Says the dysfunctional family.


If this sounds like your life as a scapegoat, how have you coped? Have you needed to distance yourself from your family after your health dwindled? Has your family denied your health condition or diminished its severity, or have you experienced a different painful experience as a scapegoat with your chronic illness? Family Dysfunction (11)

As the lost child, you will have experienced possibly more neglect than your other siblings. This can seem like a blessing and a curse in a dysfunctional family unit. Think of it as the “Kevin McCallister syndrome.” If you remember from Home Alone and Home Alone 2, Kevin wished to be alone and away from his dysfunctional family for Christmas.


And what happened? His wish came true for two years in a row, giving him both the pleasure and the misery of being parted away from his family. As a lost child, just as you are forgotten about, your health condition too, could be forgotten.


Or perhaps your chronic illness receives enough validation, but you still are cast to the side and forgotten in the mix of the rest of your family unit. As a lost child, what have you experienced in the realm of your dysfunctional family and chronic illness? Is your chronic illness forgotten, or have you experienced something else entirely different? 


The mascot of the family typically has a hidden reservoir of pain that’s covered by their facade of humor. You may have a difficult time even admitting your sick. After all, who wants to be a killjoy? Bringing a serious medical condition to a family you’ve tried to rescue through entertainment for years wouldn’t be an easy feat. Have you been able to address the seriousness of the issue and has your family responded with an open understanding? 


If you have a dysfunctional family and chronic illness, do you recognize yourself in any of these roles? What about your siblings? How do you feel like this plays into your life with chronic illness and having a relationship with your family? Why do you feel like families and chronic illness are so difficult?