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Why Do Parents Scapegoat Their Children—Even the Grown-ups?

Unquestioned power differentials fuel the energy of narcissism in the family.

How does one become a scapegoat?

It is certainly not a role one chooses or wants. It has everything to do with power, as we see in history, but also more personally, in the family. People in power who internally feel powerless and who lack the ability or desire or interest in changing want to preserve their so-called power. Inside the family (just like in business) his is done via money, status, control, humiliation, favoritism and so on.

In this post, I will use the term parent, but it can mean any prominent "caretaking" figure (the term caretaker used loosely). With a narcissistic parent, the child often becomes the depository for the parent’s unconscious deficits. It can become tricky for the now-adult child to determine what part of the deficit—rather, undesired trait—is actually theirs (if any).

Role Assignments Start Early

If your parent has narcissistic traits, you will not be able to understand as a child that you are a scapegoat. You may feel a sense of not being loved or nourished, but you will think it's you, not them. Thus begins unconscious collusion, in other words, going along with the dynamic—what other choice does a child have?—early in life, so early that one is not aware and could never be aware. Why? Because that person is a child. Having started the adaptation so early makes one susceptible to narcissists later in life. It also makes one susceptible to being a scapegoat.

It is likewise impossible for the narcissistic parent to know either, because they have done such a complete job of projecting their own anxiety and rage outward and onto the child — and letting that child (young, middle-aged, or older) believe that they are the one with the problem. Their messages may be subtle. They may be cold. They may come in the form of trying to "help" you. But they are all designed to not see the real you, but only the you they have fabricated to elevate themselves.

The adult child continues to seek approval from the parent, thus keeping the dynamic alive.

If the child is owning or carrying the deficit/undesired trait, the parent doesn’t have to (and isn’t).

All in the name of "family."

Paradoxically, the child still feels completely separate and alien despite the tentacle-like hold the parent has on the child. This grip, through manipulations including temporary tenderness or neediness and, conversely, withholding and anger, is to ensure the child carries or takes on the parent’s undesired traits. This is in the service of the parent, not the child.

The Energy of Narcissism and Its Energetic Patterns

I have done energy healing work and therapeutic work—receiving my own and in working with others. For the young child, loss of the parent is by extension loss of the developing self. They (you, I, we) feel inseparable, though none of this occurs on a conscious level.

When the dynamic is operative, both parent and child believe it is they who are internally, irreparably flawed. But it is the child, having become the depository of the parent’s disowned traits, who may consciously ask, “What is wrong with me?”

On the other hand, the parent may say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but something is wrong with you.” Unconsciously, both feel anxiety, but for different reasons. The child is carrying something they are unable to control, and the parent is fearful that the child will stop carrying it. What must be understood, however, is that the child cannot heal this “thing” himself because…this “thing” does not belong to them.

This is another way that the child’s development and behavior becomes about the narcissist—because everything eventually becomes about the narcissist. The child, at the earliest stages, learns to acquiesce to the parent to keep the parent from emotionally abandoning them. Nothing the child does can prevent the abandonment, however, which is typically emotional in nature, and may manifest in parental coldness, aloofness, inconsistent affection, etc. Once you understand this, your own fear of abandonment may lessen, and you will see your parent more clearly.

Adapted from When Your Parent Is a Narcissist: Uncovering Origins, Patterns, and Unconscious Dynamics to Help You Grow and Let Go, by Meredith Gordon Resnick, LCSW.