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Toxic Families: How the Scapegoated Child Gets Chosen

There are variations on the theme, but it's always about control and power.

Key points

  • Scapegoating is a common form of parental verbal abuse.
  • Research shows that scapegoating allows a parent to think of the family as healthier than it is.
  • Scapegoating lets a parent minimize responsibility for and explain negative outcomes, enhancing a sense of control.
  • The scapegoat role can be rotating, or it can target one child specifically.
 Bessi/Pixabay
The scapegoated child.
Source: Bessi/Pixabay

In interviews for my forthcoming book on verbal abuse, the subject of scapegoating comes up with great regularity; among the forms of verbal abuse used by parents, scapegoating appears to have go-to status. In a family with a controlling, combative, or narcissistic parent at the helm, scapegoating is an effective tool to maintain control not just over the interactions and behaviors of family members but also over the family narrative.

As researcher Gary Gemmill has pointed out, scapegoating permits a parent to think of the family as healthier and more functioning than it actually is; if it weren’t for that one individual—yes, the scapegoat—the family would be perfect, and life would be blissful. This is an important point because it helps the parent curate the family narrative in a very specific way.

Another study by Zachary R. Rothschild and others posited and then showed that scapegoating allows a person to minimize guilt or responsibility for a negative outcome and gives him or her a sense of enhanced control because there’s always a reason to point to for a bad outcome. The example I often use is the family car that is vandalized at night while parked in the driveway. If this happened to you, you might be concerned or even call the police, but you’re likely to consider it a random incident.

But the parent who habitually scapegoats won’t approach it that way; instead, he or she will focus on the fact that Jack drove the car last, and he didn’t lock it, which made it so much easier to vandalize. Moreover, Jack didn’t turn on the lights that illuminate the driveway and entrance, which gave the vandals the cover of darkness.

Voila! In the family’s curated narrative, Jack is actually to blame for the car’s being vandalized. That is how scapegoating works.

Who gets to be the scapegoat?

In some families like Tim’s, the scapegoat role was rotating, one that permitted his father to drive his message across with force:

“Failure was unacceptable. Talking back was treason. You did what he said, you took the abuse he meted out, or you were ignored and scapegoated. The son who didn’t listen up then became the scapegoat until he reformed and ‘got the message,’ and then the next slacker would become the target. This went on from childhood to the first decade or so of adulthood until I finally set sail.”

In many families, the scapegoat is a permanent role, as it was in Alisha’s:

"My middle brother, Tom, was the scapegoat because he talked back and resisted my mother’s manipulations. It was ironic because of the four of us, he was the highest achiever—he was athletic and got good grades—but my mother couldn’t deal with the fact that she couldn’t contain him the way she could me and my two younger siblings. She blamed everything that went wrong on Tom and that, in turn, set my father off who believed every single lie she told about Tom. The rest of us made ourselves scarce and said as little as possible, trying to stay as neutral as we could so she wouldn’t turn on us. Tom left home at 18, put himself through college and then law school, and stopped speaking to our parents 10 years ago. He’s got to be the most successful black sheep in history. I still see him, but my sister and brother are too scared, even as adults, of pissing my mother off. Even though I wasn’t scapegoated, I have tons of issues that I am dealing with in therapy. I spent my whole childhood curled up in a defensive ball.”

Counterintuitively, you don’t need a herd to become a scapegoat; only children can be scapegoated too. This is what Dora recounted:

“In my mother’s telling of the story, everything that has gone wrong in her life can be traced back to me. It was my birth that alienated my father from her and ended up in his seeking a divorce. That isn’t the story my dad tells, of course, and I was 7 when he left. She never remarried because no one wanted a woman with baggage, the baggage being me. This could be funny since Dad married a woman with two kids but she didn’t mean it as a joke. Ditto her job and why she never rose up the ranks; yes, the Dora factor. At 30, I walked into a therapist’s office and ended up confronting my mom who denied ever doing it. As my therapist pointed out, she shifted from scapegoating to gaslighting. I maintain low contact these days but I am moving toward estrangement because her inability to own her actions or words makes me nuts.”

Not taking responsibility is the home-court advantage of scapegoating.

How the scapegoat gets chosen

While science illuminates what motivates the abuser to scapegoat, there’s no research on how the target gets chosen, so I’ve culled from the hundreds of stories shared with me for this project and Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life to come up with some thoroughly unscientific patterns which may, nonetheless, be of interest. Some of them are more obvious than others.

1. The resister or rebel

Since all verbal abuse is about control and an imbalance of power, it’s not surprising that the kid who won’t go with the program—whatever that program may be—will be singled out and marginalized for it. This pattern echoes the story Alisha told about her brother, Tom, and may also be the impetus for the rotating scapegoat role in other families.

2. The sensitive one

Scapegoating and bullying have similar intentions, and each gives the abuser a rush of power; that’s going to be much more satisfying if the kid you pick on really responds and reacts. Additionally, this permits the parent to rationalize the scapegoating as being necessary to “toughen the kid up” or “to stop being too sensitive.”

This happens to both sons and daughters and shows up as a strong pattern in many families, unfortunately. The other children do what they can to repress all their emotional reactions, which gives them cover but causes a different kind of damage.

3. The outlier

I’ve come to see that especially with mothers who scapegoat, thinking a child is an outlier is usually a function of the mother’s own goodness of fit; the child is sufficiently different from both herself and her other children that whatever parenting skills she does have are completely overwhelmed, and she reacts by shifting the blame onto the child. In the family narrative, this child usually bears the burden of responsibility for the household being hard to run or any other problem the mother might be experiencing.

4. The reminder

This comes up most frequently with children of divorce who either look like or supposedly “take after” or act like a parent’s ex-spouse, but it also comes up with those from intact households in which the child supposedly resembles a family relative who is disliked, hated, or is a black sheep or some combination of all. It can be overtly expressed—“You are just like your dad, irresponsible and lazy”—or covert, as was the case for Dina, who happens to be a psychologist:

“As a kid, I couldn’t understand why I was always to blame and my sister was always fabulous. I was a straight-A student, high achiever, and my sister was none of those things. But there was history. My father committed the sin of leaving my mother and remarrying happily. I committed the sin of looking like him—tall, thin, brunette, and intellectual. My sister is my mother’s physical—blonde and petite—and not-too-serious clone. It took the therapy which was part of my training to see the elephant in the living room.”

Scapegoating is verbal abuse, no matter how it is normalized or rationalized. And it really doesn’t matter how parents choose their victims; it only matters that they do.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2021

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Gemmill, Gary. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups, Small Group Research (November, 1989), vol, 20 (4), pp. 406-418

Rothschild, Zachary R., Mark J. Landau, et al. “A Dual Motive Model of Scapegoating: Displacing Blame to Reduce Guilt or Increase Control,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012), vol. 102(6), 1148-1161.

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