Common Family Roles and Their Evolution Over Time

Published August 20, 2020
Two men with two kids looking at picture book

Throughout the years, family roles have changed drastically. What was once deemed the norm, in terms of family roles, is no longer what's considered typical today.

Family Roles

A family role is the position one has within the family household. One's role encompasses how much power the individual holds within the family system and their responsibilities, as well as their impact on other family members. Family roles range on a scale from unhealthy to healthy and impact the entire family system.

Family Roles List

Depending on the specific family structure, family roles may include, one or multiple parents (one mother role and/or one father role, two mothers, two fathers, step-parents, a non-biological caregiver(s) or biological caregiver(s), grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and two equal partners (married or unmarried) with or without children. Some healthy family roles include:

  • The nurturer: a parent, caregiver, and/or partner who is empathetic, understanding, and supportive of their partner and/or children (if they have children)
  • The cheerleader: a parent, caregiver, and/or partner who is supportive and encouraging of their other family member(s)
  • The truth teller: one who understands the family system and is able to observe it critically and share their thoughts; if done in an appropriate way, this individual can provide the family with incredible insight

In a healthy family system, in a romantic partnership of adults, both are loving, treat each other with respect, and see each other as equals. In a familial system with a child or children involved, whoever the parent(s) or caregiver(s) are hold the most power, are nurturing, set boundaries and are also flexible, and foster emotional and physical development by creating a safe home environment.

Dad looking after his small son

Role of Children in the Family

Within a healthy family, the role of a child is to be a child, meaning that they hold less power than their parent, parents, or caregiver(s). In a healthy family system, a child's physical and emotional development are nurtured by a parent(s) or caregiver(s). Children may have certain expectations asked of them depending on their unique family system. This may include active participation in family events, sharing their opinion, being truthful, and completing age appropriate chores. In unhealthy family systems, a child may:

  • Take on the role of parent (parentified) on a regular basis
  • Act as a stand in spouse
  • Be forced to seek their own food, water, shelter, and warmth

When a child experiences abuse and/or neglect, they are no longer allowed to be a child. They are forced to put their physical and emotional developmental needs on hold in order to survive. When they do reach adulthood, they may unconsciously regress into a child role because these needs were not fulfilled appropriately.

Essential Roles for Effective Family Functioning

Regardless of who is in the family or how many individuals are in the family, a healthy family displays the following characteristics.

  • Meets everyone's basic needs: food, water, shelter, warmth
  • If there are two partners, both feel physically and emotionally safe with each other
  • In families with one or more children, the family is structured with the parent(s) and/or caregiver(s) at the top making healthy decisions that impact the family
  • Nurtures the child or children's social, emotional, physical, and educational development
  • Is empathetic, loving, and supportive of each other
Young Family having Breakfast

How Has the Traditional Family Changed?

According to Pew Social Trends research, family structure in the United States has changed significantly:

  • In 1960, 73% of kids lived with two parents who were in their first marriage, and by 2014 that percentage dropped to 46%.
  • By 2014, 15% of parents were re-married.
  • By 2014, 7% were unmarried, and cohabitating parents.
  • By 2014, 26% of children lived with single parents.
  • 16% of children live in a blended family household (step-child, step-parent, or half-sibling).
  • As of 2017, there were 1.1 million married same-sex couples in the United States with about 200,000 children being raised within these households. Among those who identify as LGBTQ+, who are under 50 years old, and living alone or with a spouse or partner, 48% of women and 20% of men are raising a child.

How Have Gender Roles Changed in the Family?

Within a family system, gender roles can be impacted by how one identifies, the family's traditions and values, cultural and religious influences, and societal norms. Beginning in the 1960s, gender roles shifted away from what was deemed "traditional" in the 1950s, as more women began entering the work force and sought out higher levels of education. Examples of gender roles shifting away from the 1950s notion of the "typical" family including the following:

  • Same-sex couples raising children and expressing gender norms according to how each unique individual identifies
  • Opposite-sex couples raising children and expressing gender norms according to how each unique individual identifies
  • Both parents in the workforce and raising children, while sharing the responsibilities

Today, about 62% of married partners share the notion that both partners will work and equally share child care and household responsibilities. As of 2012, 27% of women have higher levels of education compared to their male spouses.

Woman in her kitchen holding a baby while talking on the phone

List of Different Reasons for Changes in Family

Family roles can change if the family experiences a structural shift due to:

  • A traumatic shared or individual experience
  • A chronic illness
  • A death
  • A divorce
  • A remarriage
  • An illness or injury
  • A birth
  • Career changes

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional family roles can surface when the needs of the family or an individual within the family aren't met. These roles may come up for many reasons including a pervasive dysfunctional family pattern, a traumatic experience, an illness, a death, a chronic condition, a divorce, or any other major familial or individual shift. Dysfunctional family roles include:

  • The caretaker: otherwise known as the enabler: an individual who tries to resolve the issues of others without offering them a chance to resolve it themselves
  • The identified patient, and in some circumstances the addict: the family may focus their energy towards "helping" this person and in turn avoid their own individual and familial issues
  • The lost child: a child who blends into the background to keep themselves emotionally and/or physically safe
  • The scapegoat, and in some circumstances, the identified patient: known as the trouble maker or truth teller, this individual has learned that negative attention is better than none at all and helps the family continue to avoid their core issues
  • The mascot: tries to smooth everything over quickly with humorous distractions; this allows everyone to avoid dealing with a more serious core issue(s)
  • The hero: is looked to in order to make the family appear healthy, despite there being some serious core issues; may also be a parentified child

What Is Changing in Family Roles?

Family structures and roles have steadily shifted over time to adapt to various sociocultural changes, as well as each unique family's needs.

Common Family Roles and Their Evolution Over Time