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.


The information provided on the PsyWeb.com is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational and educational purposes. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Neither the owners or employees of PsyWeb.com nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.

PsyWeb Poll

Are you currently taking or have you ever been prescribed anti-depressants?
Total votes: 3979