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8 Types of Children Scapegoated in Narcissistic Families

4. Truth-tellers.

Key points

  • In a narcissistic family children can be burdened with negative projections and adult responsibilities.
  • Family scapegoats can adopt a variety of coping patterns, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.
  • Scapegoats may experience significant trauma but are also most likely to break free from the family.
Lyudmila Tetera/Shutterstock
Source: Lyudmila Tetera/Shutterstock

In simple terms, a scapegoat is someone unfairly targeted with projected shame, rage, and blame by another person or group. In an emotionally illiterate or volatile narcissistic family, it is common for one child to be singled out for ongoing scapegoating. This child is made to carry the narcissistic parents' negative projections — the feelings, thoughts, and behavior in themselves they wish to disown — while also frequently being burdened with adult responsibilities in the family.

8 Types of Scapegoating in Narcissistic Families

Why a particular child becomes a target for scapegoating is influenced by a mix of factors such as gender, birth order, and personality traits. Scapegoated children may try many strategies to manage their painful role in the dysfunctional family system and win whatever validation they can from their parents. Because of the ongoing devaluation and exploitation they are subjected to, scapegoats struggle to develop healthy self-esteem and boundaries, and often make great personal sacrifices in an effort to earn the highly conditional approval that passes for love in their homes.

A scapegoated child may adopt one or multiple forms of the coping patterns described below. For example, a child with a rebellious response may also be truth-telling and protective, or a child who problem-solves may also be perfectionist and/or a caretaker. More than one child in a family may be scapegoated if, for example, a sibling leaves home or other circumstances change.

1. Caretaker

Scapegoated children may provide emotional and/or physical caretaking to one or more parent/stepparent, functioning as a stand-in best friend, spouse, therapist, or nurse. They may be given household responsibilities such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for siblings, while also being targeted with anger and blame for the family's woes. Often intuitive and empathetic, caretaker scapegoats can become powerful healers as adults. But if they continue to prioritize the needs of others over their own they are likely to experience anxiety, poor self-care, resentment, and burnout.

2. Problem-Solver

The problem-solver child steps up to handle things for the family. This child may take over in crisis situations, advise or make decisions for parents, manage aspects of the household, and perhaps earn money for the family. Problem-solver scapegoats may win short-term approval and/or a reprieve from criticism and drama by fixing problems, but, like caretakers, they are being exploited for the service they provide at the expense of their needs and healthy development. As adults, they often show capable leadership but struggle with feeling hypervigilant to potential threats, over-responsible for the well-being of others, and uncomfortable asking for help.

3. Protector

Children in the protector role step in to defend a parent and/or younger sibling(s) from the dominant narcissist's verbal and/or physical abuse. Such children may be driven to try to protect family members because of their own experience with being scapegoated, or they may become scapegoated in the family system as a result of standing up to the abuse. As adults, children who have confronted the aggression of abusers may become fierce and compassionate advocates for justice and the underprivileged. But they often struggle to recognize their own limits, vulnerability, and need for support.

4. Truth-Teller

Children who recognize and attempt to talk about family dysfunction (e.g., inequities, rage, neglect, boundary violations) are trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance between their experience of reality and the denials and distortions pushed by their gaslighting parent(s). Like protectors, truth-telling children in narcissistic homes may be motivated to question the family system because they are scapegoated, or they may be targeted with scapegoating because their awareness is viewed as a threat. Perceptive and often wise or even visionary, truth-tellers can be powerful social analysts, writers, fighters for justice, and whistleblowers. But seeing more than others do can also set them up for frustration, loneliness, and resentment from others who prefer to deny difficult truths.

5. Perfectionist/Achiever

Scapegoated children may attempt to win approval, avoid criticism, and disprove negative narratives about themselves through perfectionist patterns and high achievement. Such efforts can earn them passing validation or reprieves from negative attention, but typically very little the family scapegoat does is acknowledged or valued. Driven and often intelligent and talented, perfectionists/achievers may develop great capabilities, but they tend to struggle with a harsh inner critic, a need for control, and unrealistic standards for themselves and others.

6. Rebel

Family scapegoats may react to the unfairness of their role by adopting a pattern of ongoing rebellion against forms of control and authority in general. Unable to get their needs met or process their frustration in healthy ways, they compensate for feelings of powerlessness through defiant behavior. Like family truth-tellers, rebels are often driven by a desire for justice and can be powerful fighters for a cause. But they can be aimless and self-sabotaging unless they recognize the source of their anger and find constructive ways to focus their energy.

7. Collapsed

Some scapegoated children experience such harsh neglect and abuse, with few sources of support to build resiliency, that they fail to thrive and become mentally unstable, chronically ill, suicidal, institutionalized, homeless, consumed by addiction, and/or incarcerated. As adults, they may experience a trajectory of low functioning, repeated crises, or collapse that ends tragically in early death by illness, addiction, suicide, or violence. Kids who are "different" in some way, such as queer or neuro-atypical, are often targets of extreme scapegoating, both within their family and society at large.

8. Covert Narcissist

Of the child roles in the narcissistic family, the entitled and enmeshed golden child is probably most likely to develop a narcissistic personality. However, being scapegoated can also lead to narcissism, particularly the covert form. Scapegoated children who become narcissistic have typically been trained to submit to the dominance of a more overtly narcissistic parent (and perhaps sibling) and as a result learn to cloak their rage, superiority, and desire for control into passive aggression. In adulthood, scapegoated covert narcissists often identify as victims and may use that to garner sympathy while also subjecting others to the neglect and abuse they experienced growing up.

The Path to Healing

The experience of the family scapegoat can be extremely painful and damaging to self-esteem and identity development. But there can be redemptive aspects in the role: Scapegoats are often empathetic, independent-minded, capable, and committed to justice. And their outsider status can work to their advantage by pushing them to question the family system and establish independence from it, which are necessary steps to breaking a generational cycle of trauma and working on recovery.

The path to healing for scapegoats is establishing safety and stability, building self-esteem and healthy boundaries, and replacing compulsive coping patterns with self-awareness, self-compassion, and reciprocal relationships.

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