Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dysfunctional Family Roles, Part I: The Spoiler

In two previous posts, I discussed how children act out certain roles in their family of origin in order to try to emotionally stabilize parents who are emotional unstable. Doing so also has the effect of maintaining dysfunctional relationship patterns so that the family operates in predictable ways (family homeostasis). In my July 15 post, It’s the Relationship, Stupid, I mentioned the family systems role of avenger. In my post of September 11, If at First You’ve Never Even Tried, Fail Fail Again, I mentioned the savior role.

The concept of children acting out specific roles to stabilize family homeostasis was first described by psychoanalyst Sam Slipp in his 1984 book, Object Relations: A Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment. I subsequently enlarged his little catalog of roles to include, among others, the role of spoiler. This role is the basis for the problematic behavior of individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

The basic problem in the "borderline" family - to make a complicated and highly variable story tremendously oversimplified - is that the parents in such families see the role of being parents as the end all and be all of human existence, but deep down they hate being parents or see their roles as parents as an impediment to their future personal fulfillment.

This leads to a pattern in which the parents go back and forth between hostile overinvolvement  or abuse, and hostile underinvolvement or neglect.  The double message inherent in this pattern in turn leads the children to perceive a message from their parents that roughly translates into, “I need you, but I hate you.”  The overinvolvement or underinvolvement polarity may predominate in a particular family, but if you wait long enough, the other extreme rears its ugly head.

How can the child remain central in the parents’ life - even if contact seems very limited – and still provide them with an easy justification for taking their anger out on the child so they do not have to feel guilty about it? Spoiling behavior is the perfect solution, and it is ingenious.

Spoiling behavior was first described by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who though it had something to do with primitive envy of the mother’s breast. I personally think Melanie Klein's explanation verges on psychotic, but she was describing a very real pattern of adult behavior.

Not the kind of spoiler I'm talking about

The spoiler child refuses to grow up, remains dependent in some way on the parent or a parent surrogate, and ruins everything the parents try to give. A child might start to lose or mistreat valuable designer clothes, and then demand both replacement of the expensive gifts and more of her mother’s time. Nothing the parent does or says is ever good enough. The “child” – and this continues well into adulthood - will figuratively piss all over everything the parent does for them. The parents’ motives are consistently misinterpreted and they are constantly accused of being selfish, overly-demanding, stupid, or downright evil. They are treated with utter contempt.

This treatment of the parents is a form of invalidation. The child is, in effect, doing to the parents exactly what the parents have been doing to the child. Spoilers never become independent of their parents because they never really function as competent adults.  At the same time, their outrageous and scandalous behavior gives the parents a much needed excuse to vent their often unacknowledged hostility at their offspring.

The spoiler role is difficult to maintain, and the child needs to continually practice it with lovers, spouses, and of course therapists.

In an upcoming post I will discuss some of the other major family systems roles, including a review of the two I already mentioned in the previous posts: savior, avenger, defective, go-between, little man and monster.


  1. hi
    could you please help understand how to help a child who is 4 yrs old and has become the protector of his mother ? yes there is domestic violence but not to the point that it can not be over come.there is no danger to the children phsically nor the mother any more, but the little boy still hates and acts as his mums protector if any one attacks her even verbally. what is the best way to treat this child when the domestic violence has stopped and the parents are getting help for themselves

    1. Unfortunately, I can't give you specific medical advice about a child and family I haven't evaluated.

      However, I can say that, in general, it is perfectly normal for a child to be protective of a parent like that. If the parents fix their relationship, stop abusing one another physically and verbally, and establish appropriate boundaries, the child will in most cases readily give up the "parental child" role after a time.

  2. It appears possible, even likely, that these roles can be combined and fused for certain children, simply because the behaviours get the biggest bang for the buck from the parents... So I wonder if the Spoiler-Scapegoat would be the role from which an adult female possessing traits of comorbid BPD/NPD would spring forth? If not, what might the roles be that might hypothetically instill such personality disorders for a female?

    1. Hi anonymous,

      Actually, once someone qualifies for a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, the average number of additional personality disorders for which they will meet the criteria is 1.6! And they can be ANY of the other personality disorders.

      So yes, you're absolutely correct. Depending on family dynamics, any child can exhibit traits for several different family roles, or can even switch from one to a completely different one, depending on the family's apparent needs at any particular moment.

      Also, btw, there are more and more males with BPD, and more and more females with narcissistic personaltiy disorder, due to ongoing changes in gender roles in our culture.

  3. My wife fits the spoiler's always about her mother. She copied what here siblings did. Move away go to college. They returned home. She had to move back to the home town. Became a teacher like her mother. Taught at the same school her mother had. Taught the same grade as her mother. Wants to retire in administration like her mother. She gets real jealous if she thinks her brothers are getting more attention from her mother than she is. Guilty her mother into inviting her along. Her mother doesn't disagree with her that I have ever witnessed. Actually told me to just tell her what you think she wants to hearas relationship advice.yikes. my wife manufacturers crisis especially and dumps them on her mother.she gets her mother to write some of her college papers. She asked me to read a book and write a paper on it. I said have your mother do plate is full. She practices on me, but I always felt she needs to say some stuff to her mother and in away I thought her mother wasn't going to give her the opportunity to do it. A part of the time she is like waving me in her mother's face like saying see this is a real parent. But she is smart she has figured out ways to get me to change my mind and she is just wear down. It is kinda funny. I the good trustworthy parent get the anger and rage. And the bad parent gets to do stuff and take care of her. That's the opposite. She let me take care of her but never raged at her mom.

  4. In another post, you say these:
    "The three reactions they shoot for in their targets are a sense of anxious helplessness, a sense of anxious guilt, and overt hostility."
    And in a comment elaborating on it:
    "In fact, secretly BPD patients hope beyond hope that they will FAIL at making others uncomfortable. My post about the spoiler role explains in general terms why they do all this - [link to this post]"

    How does this post explain those 3 things in particular as "goals" of the BPD person? I don't really understand how it does. Trying (and hoping to fail to get) elicit hostility, I can see, but where does seeking "anxious helplessness" or "anxious guilt" fit into this role?

  5. To over-simplify, folks with BPD are faced with unstable parents torn between anger over having to take care of children, and guilt over not wanting to, leading to a pattern of hostile overinvolvement alternating with hostile under-involvement. In order to stabilize the parents, they make them angry when they feel too guilty and guilty when the feel too a angry. Making the parents feel helpless can be used for either goal or even both at the same time. The person with BPD is conflicted over the spoiler role because, in a nutshell, it ain't fun.