What Does It Mean to Be the Family Scapegoat?

Thứ bảy - 27/04/2024 01:09
Plus, understand the reasons behind family scapegoatingBeing scapegoated by your family can lead to feelings of worthlessness and isolation—but if you feel like you're the family scapegoat, you're not alone. Many people grow up in...
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Being scapegoated by your family can lead to feelings of worthlessness and isolation—but if you feel like you’re the family scapegoat, you’re not alone. Many people grow up in dysfunctional families where blame and manipulation are used by the people they’re meant to trust most. But what does it mean to be a family scapegoat? We’ll tell you that and more in this article as we cover the causes and impacts of scapegoating (hint: it’s never, ever, your fault) and how to heal from this unhealthy family dynamic.

Scapegoat of the Family

The family scapegoat is the person who gets blamed for the rest of the family’s mistakes. Scapegoating usually begins when a dysfunctional or abusive parent blames a child for everything bad that happens—as a result, this child grows up believing that they’re inherently “bad” or “wrong.”

Section 1 of 6:

What is a family scapegoat?

  1. A family scapegoat is someone who’s always blamed for other people’s actions.
    This role is usually taken on by a child in the family and assigned by parents who struggle to take responsibility for the dysfunctional household. For whatever reason, they perceive their child as someone they can blame for their own errors and negative traits.[1]
    • The scapegoated child receives no praise for their goodness, value, or lovability. Instead, they are frequently at the receiving end of blame, neglect, abuse, and bullying.
    • The term “scapegoat” or “scapegoating” comes from the book of Leviticus in the Bible. In this story, a group of Israelites conducts a ceremony in which they direct their sins onto an “escape goat.”[2]
    • The goat is then released into the wilderness in order to “cleanse” the sins of their community.
    • The innocent “escape goat,” much like the blameless family scapegoat, is burdened with the misdeeds of those around them and forced to bear the weight of their wrongdoings.
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Section 2 of 6:

How Family Scapegoats are Chosen

  1. Step 1 The reasons behind a child being scapegoated are usually nonsensical.
    The “why” of scapegoating doesn’t make sense because it’s rooted in dysfunction and unhealthy family dynamics. A child can be virtually “perfect” but still be scapegoated because their parent unfairly perceives them as competition or as a threat. However, there are common factors that cause a parent to choose a scapegoated child, such as:[3]
    • Birth order
    • Gender
    • Looks or appearance
    • Skin color
    • Sexual orientation or gender identity
    • It’s important to remember that scapegoating is rooted in dysfunctional behavior on the part of the parent. It is never the child’s fault if a parent chooses them as a scapegoat.
  2. 2
    Scapegoated children are often compared to the golden child. A household with a scapegoated child will likely also have a golden child who is perceived as always good, perfect, and attractive. For example, the only boy in the family may be the “favorite” or “golden child,” while the older daughter is chosen as the scapegoat.[4]
    • While being the golden child may seem like a pretty good deal compared to being the black sheep of the family, being a golden child can be a traumatic experience in itself and lead to golden child syndrome.
    • An only child in a dysfunctional family may sometimes be treated as the golden child and other times as the family scapegoat.
  3. 3
    Children chosen as scapegoats are often the most emotionally intelligent. Scapegoated children often have a high level of psychological awareness compared to other family members. They’re able to see their family’s level of dysfunction and may even call it out as they grow older.[5]
    • However, shining light on an unhealthy family dynamic may be perceived by family members as “rebellious.”
    • Really, they’re just frightened because this individual is shining light on their dysfunction and threatening their image of themselves as a “good” family.
    • Unfortunately, the child’s courage and maturity in calling out their family’s behavior may be the reason they become increasingly scapegoated.
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Section 3 of 6:

Why Parents Scapegoat Their Children

  1. Step 1 Some parents project their insecurities and traumas onto their children.
    In most cases, family scapegoating is triggered by and manifested as projection. Parents may be projecting their own childhood traumas onto their children or even mistreating their child because the child reminds them of an ex-partner (often the child’s other parent).[6]
    • In most cases, scapegoating parents were personally abused, neglected, or were raised in a household where scapegoating was a “normal” family dynamic. They likely had very few healthy boundaries as a child.
    • These parents don’t have the emotional maturity to introspect and understand the ways in which they are projecting onto their children.
  2. 2
    Some parents struggle to see their child as a whole person. In a narcissistic family dynamic, a parent may see their child as an extension of themselves rather than a separate individual with their own thoughts, needs, and feelings. This behavior could be due to a personality disorder like NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) or simply because of a parent’s toxic traits and unresolved traumas.[7]
    • Keep in mind, however, that a narcissistic family dynamic doesn’t necessarily mean that the caretaker has a clinical NPD diagnosis.
    • Rather, a narcissistic family dynamic means that the parent or parents are selfish, demanding, neglectful, or spiteful of their children.
    • They may view or use their children as objects and be jealous enough of their child’s strengths to weaponize them against them.
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Section 4 of 6:

Signs You May Be the Family Scapegoat

  1. Step 1 You’re punished for telling the truth.
    You may feel like anytime you talk about what’s actually going on, you get in trouble. Your family may scold, punish, or abandon you when you don’t go along with their version of events. Rather than acknowledging the truth in what you’re saying, they redirect the blame back toward you.[8]
  2. 2
    You’re the person who shines a light on family issues. You might call a family member out for their bad behavior or threaten to mention a family secret. Even though this may be the healthy thing to do, your family will label you as the “bad guy” or “whistleblower.” In reality, your family is just scared that you’ll reveal their level of dysfunction and abuse.[9]
  3. 3
    Your family blames you for their mistakes. You may ask your parents to acknowledge their poor behavior and shortcomings. Rather than reflecting on that in a mature and healthy way, your family will point to your reaction as the issue. They won’t acknowledge your valid emotional response and instead will brand you as “crazy” or as a “troublemaker.”[10]
  4. 4
    You’re held to a different standard than other family members. You may express the same opinion as your golden child sibling or cousin, but you get insulted for it while they get celebrated. This dynamic is also known as the black sheep effect, which is when a family unit judges an “unlikeable” family member more harshly than a “likable” family member.[11]
  5. 5
    You feel left out of your family. You may find yourself on the outskirts of conversations or even fail to be invited to family events. Family members would rather exclude and isolate you than hear your side of the story.[12]
    • Simultaneously, you may get criticized for seeming disengaged from or not showing up to family events—even when you’re not invited.
    • This criticism is an attempt to make you feel guilty or ashamed for no good reason.
  6. 6
    Your family bad-mouths you. Family members may talk badly about you behind your back. By sullying your reputation, they’re trying to make it less likely that others will believe you when you speak out about the family’s dysfunction.[13]
  7. 7
    Your family makes you feel shameful or guilty. After being a family scapegoat for years and years, your family has groomed you to believe that you are always bad or wrong. Whenever something bad happens, your family will guilt you into feeling like they are your fault and your job to fix.[14]
  8. 8
    Your family never praises or acknowledges you. They may downplay or even ignore your accomplishments. You may never hear compliments or praise from your family regarding your positive traits and attributes. This experience may cause you to give up on your potential altogether or to work doubly hard to prove yourself to them.[15]
  9. 9
    You have a difficult relationship with your siblings. In dysfunctional families, siblings are often pitted against each other by parents and adult family members. As a result, your siblings may disrespect you, discredit you, and fail to give you the support that you’d see in a healthy sibling relationship.[16]
    • Especially if your siblings are treated as golden children or “favorites” compared to you, they may buy into the story they’ve been told about your rebelliousness or unworthiness.
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Section 5 of 6:

Effects of Being the Family Scapegoat

  1. 1
    Trauma Children who were scapegoated often develop C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a type of PTSD that results from repeated traumatic experiences over time.[17]
    • For a family scapegoat, those traumatic events include being deprived of parental love, being made to feel like the “bad” one in their home, and having their positive traits overlooked and diminished.
  2. 2
    Dysfunctional relationships After growing up with so much dysfunctional and abusive behavior, those environments may feel “normal” or even safe to former child scapegoats. As adults, they may struggle to recognize people in their lives who have the intent to harm or manipulate them.[18]
    • They may end up entering into friendships, romantic relationships, and working environments that are abusive or toxic in some way.
  3. 3
    Challenges with boundary-setting Dysfunctional parents often employ gaslighting to keep their children under their control. When those children become adults, they may have a hard time setting boundaries and understanding when someone’s behavior is inappropriate.[19]
    • More often, family scapegoats will convince themselves that they are the ones in the wrong—that they’re exaggerating, being overly sensitive, or can’t trust their own judgment.
    • Although they may struggle with feeling like they’re the bad guy in their family, the scapegoated person likely knows deep down that their abuser is the one in the wrong.
    • However, it may take growing into adulthood and many years of therapy to fully confront and internalize these facts.
  4. 4
    Identity issues A scapegoated child likely doesn’t remember a time before they were the family scapegoat. Their whole lives, they’ve just been told that their actions and who they fundamentally are are wrong. As a result, the child never had a chance to find out who they really are.[20]
    • They’re likely still stuck between thinking of themself as a monster (and their parents as right) or their parents as abusers (and themself as survivors of trauma).
  5. 5
    Self-sabotage Children who are labeled as scapegoats will internalize what their parents tell them: that they’re not good enough, that they’re to blame for everything bad in the family, that they’re unlovable, etc. Even once they reach an age where they can recognize that their parents were at fault, they may have already decided that those harmful messages were true.[21]
    • The child may then engage in self-harm or in self-sabotaging, risky behaviors.
    • For example, the child may purposefully perform poorly at school, neglect to take care of their physical or mental health or act out in ways that fulfill the negative image that they’ve been given of themselves.
    • Other scapegoated children may outwardly excel, whether in academic, social, or professional realms. However, they may self-sabotage in more subtle ways—like struggling with addiction, workaholism, eating disorders, or entering into abusive romantic relationships.
    • In a way, this effect of being a family scapegoat is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a parent tells a child that they’re useless or bad, the child may believe that about themselves and see no point in bettering themselves or their life.
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Section 6 of 6:

Healing from Family Scapegoating

  1. Step 1 Decide what boundaries to set with your family.
    If you’re still in contact with your family, you may be beginning to realize that nothing you do can stop your family from scapegoating you. Your two choices are to walk away or continue to endure your family’s mistreatment of you. You should do whatever prioritizes and preserves your mental health; if your family members refuse to change or get help, you may have to choose to have minimal or no contact with them.[22]
    • If you do keep your family in your life, set whatever boundaries you need to. Maybe you refuse to discuss certain topics with them, spend extended amounts of time with them, or invite them to important events like your birthday or wedding.
  2. 2
    Let go of what other people think of you. Be aware that other relatives, friends, and even strangers may convince you to rethink your boundaries or limited contact. While they may mean well, outsiders can never (or choose not to) understand what it’s like to grow up in a dysfunctional family and be neglected.[23]
    • Accepting this can be especially difficult if your parent has a warm and loving public persona while being abusive in private.
    • Others may struggle to understand why you have distanced yourself from this person—while you can explain it to them if you want to, remember that your experience and decision are the only one that truly matters.
  3. 3
    Learn to trust your own intuition. If you were the family scapegoat as a child, you were likely often told that you were lying or that your perception of events was incorrect. As an adult, you may struggle to trust yourself or your own perspective. Try the following ideas to improve your intuition and restore your trust in yourself:[24]
    • Keep promises to yourself. For example, if you say you won’t text that person who ghosts you over and over again, keep that commitment.
    • Listen to your inner voice. If you feel hurt by or distrustful of a certain situation or someone else’s actions, trust that feeling. Follow that instinct and try not to second-guess it.
    • Assert your opinions and perspectives. Remember that the “truth” is subjective, and yours isn’t any more or less wrong than others. Own your decisions and choices.
  4. 4
    Practice self-compassion. Being the family scapegoat is an immensely affecting experience, to say the least, and it can make compassion and affection feel foreign. Give yourself as much kindness as you deserve, and focus on loving yourself as much as possible.[25]
    • Talk to yourself in the mirror or a journal as if you were talking to a close friend. What would you say to someone who had gone through your experiences or was sharing your family stories?
    • Forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Healing is not a linear journey, and you may have a few bumps in the road.
    • Just remember that what you’re doing takes strength and courage, and you owe yourself an acknowledgment of how far you’ve come.
  5. 5
    Focus on self-validation. It can be extremely helpful to have others hear your story and validate your perspective. However, you can’t rely on that happening in order to heal because it might not (and it doesn’t need to!). Your story and experience is true and valid, regardless of how others see it or express it to you.[26]
    • Rather than relying on others to validate you, try to validate yourself.
    • Reflect on your experiences when you feel hurt or upset. Try to understand your feelings and find out where they’re coming from.
    • Use your personal history to validate yourself; if you constantly think that you’re a burden to others, think of all the people in your life who love you and keep you around for a (good!) reason.
    • Normalize your positive and negative feelings. Being upset, angry, or sad are all normal emotions—it doesn’t mean that you’re being dramatic or unreasonable.
  6. 6
    Consult a mental health provider. Choose a therapist or a counselor that specializes in coping with dysfunctional families and childhood traumas. A professional can help you open up about your family stories without any risk of negative consequences or invalidation.[27]
    • Acknowledging and sharing what you’ve gone through may help you heal and lessen the ongoing impact of scapegoating on your life.
    • If you’re not in a position to afford therapy right now, explore free mental health resources offered by organizations like SAMHSA and NIMH.
  7. Step 7 Recognize the lessons you’ve learned from your painful childhood.
    It’s never a good thing to endure childhood trauma or to feel like your family doesn’t care about you—whether in the form of family scapegoating or otherwise. However, there are some ways in which this experience may have shaped you into a more mature and resilient person. It may help to acknowledge some of those silver linings (while also acknowledging that no one is better off for having gone through what you did).[28]
    • You may have had a strong drive to leave your high-conflict home, as opposed to a golden child sibling who may remain enmeshed in the toxic and abusive environment.
    • You may be able to see your toxic family for exactly what it is rather than continue to deny reality and pretend that everything’s okay.
    • You may be strong enough to seek help to recover from the abuse, likely in the form of psychotherapy or other mental health services.
    • You may be the one to end the generational cycle of abuse when you have your own children, or you may decide to find a way to support vulnerable children in your family or community.
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