Everyone has their individual roles to play in a family. They grow up, receive an education, get good jobs, and share a good relationship with each other. However, this is not the case in a few families. In most dysfunctional families, there can be one or more people suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. This means that one reason or another, the narcissist singles out one person and blame him or her for everything that goes wrong in the family. This person is known as the family scapegoat.
Narcissists manipulate people who are sensitive and open-minded. The reason behind it is that open-minded people aren’t afraid to fight for justice. These people are a threat to a narcissist personality type. Thus, he or she would do anything to manipulate this person, mentally and psychologically.
If this behavior starts during childhood and continues until adolescence, the behavior reaches a point where every member of the family starts criticizing this person. These people are the black sheep of the family. It is obvious that years of this painful pattern affects the mental health of this person.
This person is usually different from other family members, in terms of thoughts, habits, and actions. In strict psychological terms, he or she is called a family scapegoat.
If you are able to relate with the term ‘black sheep,’ and the above description, you may be the scapegoat of your family. Read on to learn more about it.
What is a family scapegoat?
A family scapegoat is a person who is a victim of blame, accuse, judgments, criticisms and is always held responsible for the wrongdoings of others. They carry the liability of misdeeds and faults of others. The onus of all family problems lay on them.
The word family scapegoat comes from an ancient Jewish tradition where a goat was sent to the wilderness to compensate and atone for the sins, misdeeds, and immoral acts of the community people. In family scapegoating a narcissistic or abusive parent blames a single person, especially a child for whatever wrong happens in the family. They become the target of blame, ostracism, criticism, evaluation, and disapproval.
This behavior of the narcissistic family continues throughout the child’s growing up years and even in early adulthood. Later on, the trend in the family becomes such that all other members start accusing that single person unfairly. Scapegoating is a continuous dysfunctional pattern that isolates that one member of the family whom all others consider blameworthy.
A family scapegoat is a person who is shamed, blamed, and criticized for everything that goes wrong in a family. It usually starts with one or both parents, who tell the child that he or she can do nothing right in the world. With time, other family members join the pattern, which contributes to developing certain psychological and mental problems in the child.
These individuals face recurring disrespect from their families and friends. They grow into an adult child, with low self-esteem, trust issues, and unusual fear. They are usually drawn to people who hurt them over and over. If your answer is yes to all or some of these, then you might be a scapegoat.
Family scapegoats are belittled, humiliated, betrayed and hurt blatantly in a family dynamic. It is a clear case of bullying. If your family of origin is constantly shaming you or making you feel bad about yourself, it is natural to question your self-worth. It is completely unfair to the person who deals with such a situation over and over again.
Family Scapegoat Syndrome
Scapegoating can result in a lack of self-esteem if it is inflicted at a young age. Scapegoats are generally the smartest and kindest people in the family, and a dysfunctional family dynamic is what results in their lack of self-love.
According to Sarah Swenson, the expert on the topic explains the relationship between a family scapegoat and a dysfunctional family. As mentioned before, the term comes from a biblical tale, where a goat carries the sins of all the community members into the wilderness and isolated from its kind. During its time in the wilderness, it learns to fend for itself, fight for its survival even though it lived in a state of constant fear.
In the same way, all other members of a negative familial feel better (or free from their sins) after dumping their issues on one family member—the scapegoat. Usually, the blacks sheep or family scapegoat is the smartest, kindest, healthiest, strongest, and wisest person of the family. This also means that other family members subconsciously are afraid of this person’s potential and power.
Thus, they want to suppress the scapegoat. This can be done in a myriad of ways. It is usually achieved by making him or her believe that he or she isn’t good enough or lacks goodness. When this is done to a person at a young age, it leaves an impression on their minds. This can lead them to believe that they deserve nothing, which results in low self-esteem and a lack of self-love. This turns them into an adult child, without any fault of their own.
The human scapegoat is innocent and blameless in every sense of the word. It’s the family members who due to their own inability to examine themselves or look into their conscience make the strongest member of the family system feel bad about themselves.
Who is a scapegoat child?
A scapegoat child is one who is always abused, humiliated, blamed, and overly criticized for no fault of theirs. They are always chided and rebuked for the wrongdoing of someone else in the family. The scapegoat child usually belongs to the narcissist parents who don’t see the child as an individual rather an extension of their own ‘self’.
The parent needs a timid child to blame upon all the time. They play favorites at the home front and everything going wrong in the family is shouldered upon one child. Scapegoating is a form of control used by abusive and harsh parents, though it is often considered by them as a necessary discipline done to train children desirable ways of behaving.
Scapegoat child syndrome
Scapegoat child syndrome is a continuous family dysfunctional pattern to fault a single child and keep him/her isolated in the family. This makes the scapegoat child secluded in the family who always has to take the onus of every minute problem that the family suffers. The scapegoat child is subjected to verbal and physical abuse, threat, emotional torture with varying degrees of severity.
The scapegoat child becomes the fall guy and the parent, especially the mother who never needs any reason to accuse or humiliate the child. The controlling mother bullies the child and holds him/her responsible for the wrong that happened in the household.
The underlying motive of scapegoating is to maintain perfect family dynamics and to hide those aspects of family life that are undesirable. Moreover, it has been seen that narcissist mothers use this tactic of bullying without getting themselves blemished. She plays the role of a perfect mother and names scapegoating as a form of discipline.
It has been found that most scapegoat children develop intense emotional painful experiences when they reach adulthood by internalizing the conflicts since childhood, they have never learned to vent out their repressed emotions.
Children of narcissistic parents may develop anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorders in their early adult life. Though they are conscious of the unfair attitude and maltreatment but never got a chance to express themselves.
Strengths of a scapegoat child
In dysfunctional families, a scapegoat child is not chosen at random but on the basis of certain character traits that makes them a perfect fit for the role. The scapegoat child can feel the acute injustice that leaves a psychological scar for a lifetime. Scapegoated children are typically targeted on the basis of certain strengths. These are as follows:
- Independent mindset
- Care about and fights for justice
- Empathy towards others
- Emotionally less reactive, internalizes the pain
- Can digest blame very easily
- Overprotective of family members
- A highly sensitive person
- Often questions authority
- Different from all other children in the family
10 Signs of family scapegoating
A family scapegoat is constantly criticized. He is accused of being a trouble-maker. His family members are abusive. Also, they are belittled and humiliated regularly.
Until then, they blame themselves for everything wrong that happens around them. Most scapegoats exhibit certain universal signs that prove that they are in fact the scapegoat of the family.
Your family relationships built during the growing up years determines your success in adult bonding. It sets the tone of how you are to interact with the world at large. In family scapegoating, a single person is chosen to carry the burden of family guilt, secrets, anger, and frustration of the entire family. There are a few typical signs of family scapegoating. These are:
1. Blame and shame
A family scapegoat is burdened with criticism, shame, and blame for something that they have not done. The wrongdoings of others are projected onto them. The words like “you’re not good enough”, “you cannot do anything properly” etc. are continuously fed into the person’s ears. It breeds insecurity, shame, self-doubt, and broken self-esteem in them.
2. Verbal abuse
Verbal abuse is a very significant sign of family scapegoating. No matter whatever you do to please them, your perpetrator never misses a chance to abuse you verbally, shame you in front of others, and belittle you for all the wrongdoings that were not yours’. A continuous defaming is done by using filthy words like ‘you are lazy, incompetent, irresponsible’ etc.
Being a family scapegoat, you will never be heard in the family. Since you are the most sensitive one in the family, others find you uncomfortable. They fear being caught in unhealthy situations, as you are the whistleblower when it comes to limelight the intricate family dysfunction going on in the family. When you speak, you speak the truth that others don’t like or want, thus you are kept aside and ignored.
4. No praise or recognition
As you are the victim of family scapegoating, your abusive mother or parent never praises or recognizes your achievements. You may find that your achievements are never talked about, rather belittled as much as possible.
There are no rewards and praise for you, no appreciation or compliment for so many things that you do. This lifetime discouragement and blame game are usually carried out in your adult life and can even turn you into an abusive parent as well.
5. Isolated from others
In dysfunctional families where family scapegoating is a regular pattern, the parents do not want other loved ones, such as grandparents, relatives, friends, or extended family to come and support the scapegoated child. The narcissistic parents never want to get caught. Thus, the child is kept in isolation from others.
Your perpetrators will physically isolate you from your loved ones by not allowing you to visit their places. Then starts emotional isolation, where the parent will separate you from them by creating about them. Thus, your support system is broken and the motive of making you powerless is fulfilled.
6. The flaws of others are put on you
If you are a family scapegoat, the chances are high that you will be held responsible for the mistakes of others in the family. For example: if your sister forgets to get the grocery for the household while coming back from work, your narcissist mother may project a blame on you by saying that you should have reminded her.
You are labeled as forgetful, irresponsible, lazy, and disorganized. This kind of projection is far-fetched and continues till you move out of the family.
7. You’re always picked up for fun and criticism
In a dysfunctional family set up, a scapegoat acts as a family punching bag who can be used to bully, make fun of. You are an ingredient for laughter and are singled out for more ridicule. The rest of the family members, outsiders and relatives consider you worthless because they are made to believe so.
You are the center point of every joke in the household. Your narcissist family destroys your worth in front of others. This leaves permanent scars forever.
You’re labeled as worthless. The family members are taught to describe you as such. Once you are labeled as incompetent, stupid, and irresponsible. You are in a shame game by siblings, friends, and family members etc. You are subjected to mimic and more fun and others derive a pleasure out of it. Any new person entering into the family readily identifies this problem and follows the clan.
9. You’re magnified
If you are a family scapegoat, your faults and misconducts are always highlighted, magnified, and broadcasted loudly. Your family speaks loudly about all the bad things that you may possess. They are happy to show you’re the worst in the family. This is just to make you feel helpless and powerless. You are negatively highlighted everywhere so as to make you weak and docile.
10. Ambitions are sabotaged
Being a victim of scapegoating, you will never get an opportunity to showcase your talent. You will be sabotaged and undermined at every stage. No one wants to see you able and competent. If you get an opportunity to shine bright, your abusers will show the negative side of it.
They will give you many reasons not to pursue it because it’s likely to fail. The motive is to kill your interest and motivation and destroy your ambitions. You are forced to live below your potential. Your abusers sabotaged your abilities and never allowed you to pursue your dreams and goals.
What causes family scapegoating?
There are several causes that result in family scapegoating. One family member becomes the target of abuse, neglect and isolation because they are considered as a threat to the well-being of the household. As such the process is fueled by the unconscious fears and insecurities of the narcissist parent.
The abusive parent may not blemish his/her face with accepting what’s going wrong in the family. Thus, they need someone to project these faults. The healthiest child is chosen to fit into the role of scapegoating. This is done to preserve the family image and social respect. The parents blame the child for their own faults and inner battles that are hard to escape and avoid.
The child becomes an easy target and is humiliated and ostracized to own the psychological vulnerabilities of the parent or siblings. As parents avoid personal responsibility and try to hide the web of lies, deceit, and secret, if any in the family. This process of projecting and blame continues till the scapegoated child internalizes the insecurities fully and readily follows and accepts being the black sheep of the family.
What happens when the scapegoat leaves the family?
After years of suffering the family abuse, neglect, and humiliation, a time may come when the scapegoat leaves the family of origin. The scapegoat child becomes an adult and leaves the household. When they leave the family discord increases because there is nobody else who can buffer the friction and shoulder the blame on oneself.
The family members turn to one another to find an ideal fit for the role. On the other hand, leaving the family doesn’t mean you are safe from the traumatic family abuse. Rather in most cases, the narcissist parent spreads false rumors against you to blemish your social dignity and self-respect. The family members may designate you as selfish.
They may criticize you for not being helpful or supportive. There will be several tensions at the home front because there is no readymade scapegoat now. Thus rifts, conflicts, and disharmony takes precedence in the household.
The narcissistic mother and the abusive siblings may start playing blame games on each other. In this scenario, if you were the family scapegoat, do not look back and never try to go back to the family. Let your family members solve their internal conflicts on their own. For you, all these years of being in the scapegoat role was a painful journey. So, you should go for a counseling session to deal with your traumatic symptoms.
When the scapegoat fights back
It may take some time for the scapegoat child or adult to realize that they were humiliated for no reason. But once they do so, they need to fight back. The scapegoat sons and daughters of narcissistic parents must learn to re-parent themselves.
As their inner child is hurtful, they need to heal to move ahead in life with confidence and proper self-worth. When you fight back, it means that you have learned to overcome the scapegoating tendencies that you have developed for so long.
Your wounded self has healed from the burden of blame and shame. You deserve self love, compassion, and forgiveness. It will self validate your lost ‘self’. This can be achieved by following a psychotherapy from a professional. Throw out the emotional garbage and heal the trauma ridden self of yours.
Live a life without fear and do not give up to criticism made by your abusive parent. Few steps can help you to fight back and restore good mental health.
1. Recognize the vulnerabilities
It’s important for the scapegoat to understand their patterns of vulnerabilities and sabotage. Do you still internalize the abuse made by your toxic parents? Have you ever thought of defying? You need to set healthy and firm boundaries and should respect your personal integrity.
Never allow your narcissistic parent to define your identity otherwise you will feel more frustrated and resentful. The toxic ties will never break off. Your psychological abuse will continue; no matter what you do to feel safe and sound.
2. Step away from toxic family bonds
The best way to fight back is by giving yourself some healthy space and time to heal. In dysfunctional families, it is important to maintain a physical distance from your narcissist perpetrators. Love them but do not stay with them. You need to safeguard your mental space from getting more hurt and emotional pain.
3. Avoid arguments and verbal fights
Refrain from getting into arguments with your abusers. It won’t help and can aggravate the problem. Just speak your mind firmly, say the truth however harsh it may be and close the chapter. The onus to change lies with you. So, make the very first move towards a tough fight back.
4. Avoid negative self-talk
When you were trapped in so much blame for such a long time, it might happen that you have developed a negative attitude towards yourself. You have internalized the blame and humiliation and started negative self-talk about yourself. Avoid doing it so as to heal the childhood trauma and inner pain. Negative self-talk can weaken your self-esteem and stops you from developing a positive mindset.
5. Don’t accept the liability of others
Never accept the mistakes that you have not committed. This is a way to fight scapegoating. Do not shoulder the responsibility of other family members. Let them do their share and never accept the onus of any wrongdoing of others. The best way to fight back is by keeping yourself aloof from every abuse that you might fall into.
Healing the Family Scapegoat
The family scapegoat has to look back on their past to break free from the trauma. They have to learn to recognize their feelings and find their source. They should not expect their family to apologize to them.
These patterns are a part of the subconscious of the person. Thus, it is important to take easy steps to uproot the pattern. The first step towards breaking free is putting a finger on the problem.
Most people spend their lives blaming themselves for things they didn’t do and don’t even know the reasons behind their behavior. Thus, here are a few steps that you must take towards breaking free from the scapegoat problem.
1. Go back to your past
Realize that the troubling voice in your head, the one that tells you that you aren’t good enough isn’t yours, to begin with. It was put inside your head by other people—ones, who should have cared about you but sadly, did the opposite.
2. Recognize your feelings
These include shame, guilt, unhappiness, sadness and understand from where they came from originally. Understand that you had become a dumping ground for the emotional energy of other people. Understand this and start looking at yourself from a place of love.
3. Recognize the good in you
Once you recognize your feelings and source of them, you will get the clarity in your brain about who you are. Once you get that, you will slowly start pointing the good things about yourself. When you start focusing on the good things about you, you will start having positive thoughts about yourself.
4. Move on
Do not expect any of your family members to apologize to you for their past behavior. Some of them are not even aware of the fact that they did some irreversible damage to you. Understand that they don’t have to apologize to you for you to forgive them. Just forgive them and move on with your life.
5. Focus on becoming your greatest version
This is the best way to get over every pain, hurt, disappointment, and related emotions. Leave the victim mentality and start looking at you like a superhero, which you really are.
6. Shake off your old habits
Your inner voice was always suppressed because you never tried to speak up your mind. Thus challenge yourself and shake off your old habits of allowing abuse to happen. Realize that whatever you have been taught to believe about yourself was not true.
Face your fears and dismantle those false misconceptions that you have about yourself. You just need to believe your abilities and trust your intuitions and then you will know that you are able and competent and whatever your abusers told you was never true.
7. Seek support
Being a family scapegoat for so long has broken your confidence and self-esteem. You just need to re-build it by seeking support from elsewhere. For this, you can join self-help groups, counseling forums or seek community support from friends and well-wishers who you think will support you. Build a healthy and brand new self-image that speaks confidence and worth.
8. Get some mental space
To heal from within, move away from your toxic ties and avail some mental space for yourself. When you do so, you will get an opportunity to tap your strengths and develop those. Move to a happy space of growth where nobody will humiliate you.
Give yourself time to unwind, meditate, self-love, and reaffirm your worth as a competent being. You can even try out new things and explore your interests to know yourself better.
9. Forgive those who sin against you
Free yourself from the bitterness and resentments that your family has given you. To move ahead in life, try to forgive them to heal from within. If you harbor negative feelings, it can only give you more pain and suffering.
When you move towards healing, give yourself enough room to make mistakes while you revisit old patterns of behavior and habits. Don’t treat yourself as a hostage rather unlearn those habits that are toxic and doesn’t serve a healthy purpose in life.
You will have to be kind towards yourself. Treat yourself with care, compassion, and respect and others will follow you. Practice giving enough recognition to your little achievements as well. Remember that you are a person of great value and worth. This will help you to build your self-esteem and you can easily break free from the toxic ties.
11. Stop being perfect
Most scapegoating tendencies arise in dysfunctional families because the scapegoat child portrays being perfect. You need to stop being good, humble, kind, or whatsoever. Do not take the onus of every wrong happening in the family onto yourself.
At times, you even go beyond your ability to please your narcissist parent. This tendency aggravates scapegoating. Stop being perfect and a people pleaser because this won’t change your abusers. You will have to speak up and make your presence felt to stop the abuse.
12. Prioritize your peace of mind
Since you are in an abusive set up for a long time, you have lost your peace of mind. Thus, you need to get back your inner peace to live life on a happy note. Decide whether you wish to move away from your family members and follow a ‘no contact’ rule to feel better or if you stay in the same pace, set your ground rules to live a better life.
Challenge them when you feel what’s happening is not right. You deserve a life of happiness and respect and when you do not get what you deserve; you will have to ask for it. After all peace of mind is something that paves the path for healing and transformation.
13. Build healthy connections outside home
The support of a good friend will be a good option for you. They can help you overcome the trauma, change your faulty perspectives that you have about yourself. You can trust them and expect support in times of emotional turmoil and adversities.
14. Do not suffer in silence
If you choose to suffer in silence, you can never heal your wounds and scars. Your abusers will not change for good; so the onus to make yourself feel better lies with you. You should verbalize your feelings and speak your mind, whenever necessary. Do not allow your narcissist parent or sibling to humiliate you and end the blame game forever.
15. Follow ‘no contact rule’
Though this is not an overnight fix to all the scapegoating tendencies you might be facing, but at least it will help you to gain some insight and freedom of emotions. In this way you can maintain a ‘no contact’ rule with your abusive family. No visits, no texting, no phone calls to be made.
A complete emotional isolation and social distancing to be followed in a no contact rule. It is a highly personal decision and will vary from one person to the other. But once you decide to go for it, you shouldn’t back out. Then the same toxic patterns of abuse will continue in the family system, whether you like it or not.
If you know someone who is a scapegoat or shows symptoms of the same, then, it is advisable to be really kind towards them. You will have to help them meet themselves for who they truly are. No matter how much they try to run into their safe place, it is highly recommended to help them realize their own talents and gifts. Once they see themselves for who they are and they somehow do in their 20s, mostly, they become unstoppable.
Parting Thoughts from ‘TheMindFool’
Family scapegoats have trouble dealing with their emotions. These poor souls feel unsafe in relationships and are afraid of everyone. Such people are usually mentally and emotionally abused for a long time by people who should actually love them and be there for them all the time. They also suffer from mental problems, such as anxiety and depression due to their overwhelming insecurities imbued by certain family members.
The best way to get through these problems is to love yourself and accept yourself unconditionally. It is a challenge but once you know what you deserve in life, it comes easy.
A Psychologist with a master's degree in Psychology, a former school psychologist, and a teacher by profession Chandrani loves to live life simply and happily. She is an avid reader and a keen observer. Writing has always been a passion for her, since her school days. It helps to de-stress and keeps her mentally agile. Pursuing a career in writing was a chance occurrence when she started to pen down her thoughts and experiences for a few childcare and parenting websites. Her lovable niche includes mental health, parenting, childcare, and self-improvement. She is here to share her thoughts and experiences and enrich the lives of few if not many.