The Problem Child – It’s Not All Bad

Posted by in Abuse, adult children, child abuse, Louise Behiel, self help | 27 comments

In every family with an emotionally absent parent, the children learn and adopt one of four roles to deal with the stress and tension in the family.  These roles are the hero, rebel or scapegoat, mascot and lost child.

The previous two posts talked about the Hero – the child who learned to handle the stress in their home by shutting off any knowledge of their wants and needs and becoming a ‘human doing’ – a person who judges themselves on their accomplishments alone.

The opposite of this role is the rebel or scapegoat.  This is the child who gives in to the tension in the home and acts it out.  This is the kid that the neighbors ask “How did such a nice family get a child like that?” Or “How could two kids be so different?”

It is as if this child feels the tension and the anger so deeply, they have to act it out.  They scream to the world “look at me I’m hurting.” And people do look, because this child becomes the visible problem in the family. Common wisdom says “if we can fix this child, the family will be okay”.  Ironically that’s often true, for it is in pursuing help for this child that the deeper problems of the family are exposed.

Rebel behavior can show up very early in life.  And it changes and evolves with age.  But these behaviors are considered common for rebels:

  • Poor performance at school
  • Challenging authority at every turn
  • Alcohol and drug use/abuse
  • Promiscuity
  • Early pregnancy
  • Gang membership
  • Illegal activities perhaps leading to incarceration
  • Angry and may be easily incited to rage
  • Cutting behavior
  • Running away
  • Irresponsible
  • Defiant
  • Underperforming

At some level, rebels look at their family and ‘know’ there is a problem, whether they can vocalize it or not.  They usually have an older sibling who is wildly successful and decide they can’t or won’t compete.  Then they take, what is to them the only road available – one in the opposite direction of the Hero. And that roads leads to many, many problems.

Some therapists feel that this child is the most emotionally honest child in the family.  I don’t know if that’s true.  What I do know is that the earlier these children are reached, and treated, the greater the likelihood of success.

It is also suggested that this child feels the hurt of the emotional abandonment deeper than any other.  As a result of that pain, they lash out to hurt and shame the family.

The acting out of the rebel is interesting to study, for it can vary in its intensity and outcomes.  For example a daughter who’s emotionally absent parent is a minister, may act out by becoming sexually promiscuous.  The child of wealthy parents may become involved in illegal scams and activities. These children will usually find a way to act out that will bring the greatest reaction from their parents and family.  That’s what makes this role so difficult to identify and treat – rebels are behaving in ways they learned in a situation over which they had no control and no real understanding.

Please don’t think for a minute that I’m a bleeding heart liberal who wants to give these folks a pass.  I don’t.  Regardless of our roots, we are individually responsible for our actions.  But I believe it’s important for each of us to understand that ‘bad kids’ don’t usually spring from the gene pool.  There’s a reason for their behavior.  And if all medical problems have been ruled out (including mental illness) then I think the family and its dynamics are the next place to look.  That investigation may uncover some nasty stuff, or not.  But it’s an important first step in identifying the source of the issue so that it can be resolved.

Again, please don’t try to identify or diagnose your family and/or friends.  And if you have a child who is behaving in these ways, don’t start beating yourself up.  Personality development is complicated and complex and no one situation or issue is the only contributor to our adult outcomes.

On Thursday, I’ll take a look at some of the emotions of this child and treatment strategies.


  1. Thank you for writing this Ms. Behiel, I’ve known for years that I was the family scapegoat. After several years of therapy I’m well on my way to working towards healing. It’s interesting that the ‘rebelling’ part is much the same in every description that I’ve read about scapegoats. I ran away many times as a child, and I did act out as a teen, although it was never substance abuse or any of the other things on the list except the difficulty with authority and defiance. I did for much of my life consider myself ‘a bad person’ although I’ve never done anything that could remotely termed bad. So I began to rewrite the inner critic’s message from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ and the rewriting seems to be working. I’m no longer the scapegoat in my family as I resigned from the position, so I could be considered a recovering scapegoat. I’ve also been out of contact for several years with my family, its been sad and difficult at times but its also given me peace and the ability to work toward healing from all the abuse. My previous therapist has indicated that I should contact my family again with firm boundaries, and I tried, but fell into the same scapegoat role again. So I went out of contact again. Is it really necessary to be in contact with your family? I’ve not found it helpful in any way.

    • actually, it isn’t always helpful to be in contact with your family. I have minimized mine for good reason. Toxic people are toxic. as long as they remain that way, why would someone have anything to do with them? sounds to me from this comment that you’ve made some good decisions. well done.

  2. Since you keep telling me not to self diagnose (so hard!) I’m looking at these series as a writer and how to incorporate these traits into my characters. They’ve made me take a step back and really look at the dynamic of my character’s roles in how they associate with each other and how to add tension because of these traits. Loving the series, Louise!

    • I’m so glad you’re finding value Tameri. I’m going to look at role combinations and how that happens as well – once this series of 4 roles is finished. Stay tuned.

  3. Another fascinating post, Louise. And I love your note about not diagnosing ourselves or friends—very tempting when we learn about conditions, behaviors or anything else that influences our wellness. Thank you for sharing such important information!

    • August, I’m so glad you’re not diagnosing. It is tempting but we need lots of objective informaiton to clarify why people do what they do – which is why therapy can take so long.

  4. Interesting stuff, Louise. Your posts are not only valuable for many of your readers personally, but they also provide keys to help fellow writers understand their characters better. I’m not big on writing the “bad boys” of romance, but I can’t help but wonder if many of the bad boys of romantic fiction are struggling with the remnants of being the problem child.

    • I think you’re right Janelle. Their childhood doesn’t have to be shown in the book but it helps us as writers to know why they do what they do.

      glad you’re enjoying

  5. glad you’re enjoying Kristy. It’s always funny to start seeing adults as a result of how they learned to cope as children – it truly makes me a kinder, gentler person. glad you’re enjoying.

  6. “These roles are the hero, rebel or scapegoat, mascot and lost child.” Hmm. Just call me Sybil. I have some idea what the mascot and lost child are…and can see some of all of these traits in me (at different times in my life). I can also guess which ones describe my siblings. Can’t wait to read about the last two. Great series, Louise! 🙂

  7. This is great information. Informative & interesting! I’m already trying to diagnose myself!

    • no self diagnosing, Emma. tempting as it might be. Besides, you haven’t read the other roles yet Glad you’re enjoying.

  8. Unfortunately, I know some of these people. Family dynamics are sooo complicated and interesting at the same time. You always offer such keen insight into behaviorial types. I always enjoy reading your posts about human actions and reactions. Especially good stuff for we fiction writers. Great character development and backstory stuff.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • glad you’re enjoying Patricia. I’m hoping these posts are of value in our lives and in our writing.

  9. My first reaction is Ouch! The rebel child you describe fits my youngest son to a T. I have always known that I played a role in his struggles and pain, but this has made me aware of what that pain might look like or feel like for him. This is a lot for me to absorb. I will be back to read it again before writing in my journal today. These moments of self-reflection are hard and extremely uncomfortable, but I look at them as growing pains, as I know from experience that growth will result from honesty.


    • come back after you’ve assimilated this info, Cindy. Remember, guilt isn’t helpful. understanding is. both for you and him. take care.

  10. Louise, where were you when I needed you? Oh my goodness, here’s my youngest son. He totaled 7 on your scale of behaviours. For as much as I loved and still love him, I couldn’t love him as a father as well as a mother. And that was only the start. How easy it is to be wise after events occur than to recognize and deal with them as they happen.

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right, Vicki. wisdom is always easier after the fact. how’s he doing now, vicki?

  11. I”m loving these posts, Louise. While I came from a relatively well-adjusted, well-balanced family, I see traits in myself and my siblings in these. And I see a lot in my friends. But I agree with several others who have commented on the last few posts – these are absolutely awesome insights with which to build a character, child or adult!

    • Jennifer, we all have some of these in us. in families with dysfunction, the roles harden and become permanent. and they become our way of being in the world, rather than one option.

  12. Interesting stuff, Louise. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Is self-harming another response to this situation?

    • Yes Joan it is. And that’s hard to watch or do.

  14. Our youngest son experienced 9 out of the 13 behaviors you listed above, Louise. At one point, my husband wanted to toss him to the wolves (because that’s what his parents would’ve done) but we fought through it and when those raging teenage hormones finally settled down, so did our kid. He is a normal, productive person now, thank goodness.

    During this time, we did have to get involved with someone attached to the police department. Can’t remember her title but it was supposed to be family social services type help, where she investigated us, then met with our son to evaluate him and try to reconcile the family. The really sad part about this episode is that after she met with our surly teenage son twice, she came back to us and told us he was garbage, to forget about him because there was nothing to be done for him. To this day, I am thankful that we didn’t listen to that woman. Instead, we kicked her to the curb and struggled through those horrible years.

    Teenagers, sheesh.

    • Hood for you Sheila. We have to be our kids advocate. Well done.

  15. More good info for giving our fictional characters depth! Thanka for your informative posts, Louise!

    • These posts are all about why characters and people do what they do. Thx

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