We think about familial bonds between and among parents and their children as being forged by caring, love, support, and shared experiences: frolicking in the snow or going to the beach, roasting marshmallows, holidays and celebrations, etc. And, yes, there are families whose old photo albums and newer Instagram accounts look just like that — potential subjects for a contemporary Norman Rockwell and the stuff that television commercials are made of. In dysfunctional families, though, bonds are formed differently and a lot less prettily. This is especially true when a narcissistic, combative, or controlling mother is at the helm of the family ship. That brings us to the scapegoated child.
Scapegoating: the glue that holds a family together
In ancient tribal societies, a goat — yes, that’s where the term comes from — was chosen to represent the group’s collective sins to appease an angry deity. By casting the animal out, the tribe symbolically guaranteed itself a clean slate going forward. Scapegoating appears in most, if not all, groups — from entire nations to towns to organizations to families — in times of turmoil. Naming a scapegoat and blaming him/her/them for the crisis at hand facilitates not just a sense of unity (us versus them), but also in authoritarian societies provides a go-to explanation for societal problems.
This process happens in families as well, and it can be driven by both conscious and unconscious motives. Becoming the scapegoat can be a temporary role (and family members may rotate in and out of it) or a permanent one. Let’s look at the temporary role first and its effects on family interactions.
Taking turns being the fall guy
The rotating scapegoat role can become institutionalized in a family with a controlling mother. This mother leaves little to chance; she’s a perfectionist who believes that there’s a “right” and a “wrong" way of doing things, and she wants everything “just so.” When things don’t go as planned or as she imagined them taking place, she both needs a reason for what she considers a disaster and a person to blame it on, other than herself. Controlling mothers rarely concede that it’s their mistake that prompted whatever it is she’s calling a disaster. So when the dog gets out and digs up the neighbor’s garden, it’s going to be Aidan or Leann who takes the fall for not latching the door, and that will prompt either or both children to tattle on each other. Controlling people want there to be a reason bad things happen and someone to pin it on. Let’s say the family car gets vandalized in the driveway. A reasonably well-adjusted person is irritated, but figures this was the work of random thugs. Not so the controller, who discovers that when Nancy came home, she didn’t leave the porch light on. Voila! She’s an instant scapegoat as the parent focuses on the cover of darkness without which the thugs wouldn’t have acted. Yes, the vandalism becomes Nancy’s “fault” in this particular household.
Knowing that someone is going to have to bear the blame, regardless of the circumstances, sets siblings against each other, working hard to stay in Mom’s good graces. As part of their strategy to duck and cover, they participate in the blame game.
"My whole childhood was like navigating a minefield, making sure that I didn’t get on her wrong side. Mornings were torture, because if we were late getting to school, there had to be a fall guy. My brother made sure that he never took the heat and always was quick to make sure either I was responsible or my sister. It’s no different as an adult. Same deal. It’s her way or the highway. I have no relationship to either of my siblings to speak of."
A combative mother, too, often relies on the revolving scapegoat not just to maintain control over the children, but also to reassure herself that she’s doing a great job. She doesn’t see herself as a bully, but as someone with authority and agency, who’s determined that her kids toe the line she’s drawn.
The pattern is much more scarring to individual development when being the scapegoat is permanent. That is often the hallmark of the mother high in narcissistic traits who loves playing games and favorites to keep herself at the center of attention.
The designated scapegoat
In an interesting article, Gary Gemmill points out that assigning a child the role of the scapegoat allows all the other members of the family to think of themselves as emotionally healthier and more stable than they actually are, since they’re not required to take responsibility for their behaviors or actions. The one thorn in the family’s side (so the mother maintains) is the presence of the scapegoat, and if he or she could be “fixed” or “made to act better,” then life would be perfect.
The permanent scapegoat permits the narcissistic mother to make sense of family dynamics and the things that displease her without ever blemishing her own role as a “perfect” mother, or feeling the need for any introspection or action. She has a ready-made explanation for fractiousness or any other deviation from what she expects her family to look like. Similarly, the attention of the other children in the family is directed away from how the mother acts and, instead, is focused on the one person who’s “messing it all up.”
While the underlying motivation for scapegoating may not be consciously perceived by the mother who’s instigating it — she doesn’t recognize it as a tactic for maintaining the image of a perfect façade and keeping dysfunction masked — bullying and targeting the scapegoat is consciously maintained. With a narcissistic mother, it often becomes a team sport with the other children following her lead. In this way, the scapegoat becomes a part of the family’s mythology — the stories the members tell about how the family works, both in childhood and in adulthood — which is firmly established as “truth.” Like a Hollywood Western, there are white hats and black hats, good kids and a bad one or two, and the family scripts are utterly predictable.
The presence of a designated scapegoat effectively prevents any kind of open dialogue about the mother’s behavior or how the family interacts. The scapegoat facilitates the mother’s vision and, so, keeps her above reproach.
While it seems counterintuitive, it’s not just the scapegoat who’s affected by the dynamic.
How the scapegoat is affected
How detrimental the scapegoat role is to a daughter’s development depends, in part, on her personality and how aware she is of the dynamic, either at a young age or as she matures. One daughter confided that she understood what was going on by the age of seven or eight: “My mother made no effort at being at all even-handed; she favored my older sister who could do no wrong, and she blamed me constantly for not being good enough. The unfairness of it all rankled me, and I actively looked for outside positive feedback to offset what was going on at home. My father also didn’t join in on the bullying, so that helped.” But another daughter, now 46, describes how she went down for the count: “I honestly believed every word my mother and siblings said about me until I went into therapy at a friend’s suggestion when I was 30. I blamed myself for everything and couldn’t take credit or feel pride in anything. When something good happened, I thought it was a fluke. When someone liked me, I doubted it. When something went wrong, I knew I’d made it happen because I was flawed and deficient.”
Almost all scapegoated children develop a thick hide emotionally and are prone to self-armoring, even when they’re conscious of how they’re being bullied and mistreated and how unfair it is. Being robbed of a sense of belonging in their family of origin leaves a real mark, and may dog them into adulthood. They can become high achievers, on the one hand, actively working to disprove their mothers’ vision of them, or they may have so internalized the negative messages about themselves that they set their sights low, avoid failure at all costs, and have problems both setting and accomplishing their own goals. There’s no question that significant emotional and psychological wounds are sustained.
Yet, in all of this, there is indeed a silver lining. Of all the children growing up with a narcissistic mother, it is the scapegoated child who’s more likely to come to terms with and recognize the toxic patterns of this relationship — those displayed by her mother and other family members. She’s more likely to seek help healing from these patterns and their effects than her siblings, who have bought into the family story, lock, stock, and barrel. She is often the only child in the family who has a shot at being able to have healthy and sustaining relationships once she’s sought help for herself.
The effect of scapegoating on the other child or children
Children of mothers high in narcissistic traits remain planets in orbit, circling the mother sun; even with one child scapegoated, the mother still plays favorites among the others, doling out what passes for love depending on how well the individual child reflects on her. Because the narcissistic mother sees her children as extensions of herself (except for the rejected scapegoat), the status of each child may change at various points in time. There’s usually a “trophy" child, also referred to as “golden,” who fulfills the mother’s expectations perfectly, and is often just like her and is high in narcissistic traits. It’s a world governed by external achievements, how good you look to other people (including your mother), and not at all about your character, empathy, or inner self.
The trophy child knows nothing about introspection and less about her true self. She sees love as transactional (“You do well for me, and you have earned my love”) and is well aware that it’s conditional. She’s likely to carry that mental model into all of her adult relationships, since she’s disinclined to look past what the family mythologies tell her. She’s utterly clueless about how she’s been affected by her narcissistic mother and has deficits in empathy and emotional regulation because she’s learned to go along to get along. It’s not a formula for happiness.
The ongoing division and dysfunction
Not to mix up our barnyard metaphors, but once they’ve achieved adulthood and left home, scapegoats grow up to be the black sheep of the family. What efforts they make to try to dislodge the family mythologies will be met with vehement denial and reprisal; they move from justifying the family dynamic as scapegoated children to unifying the other family members by challenging their truth as black sheep. What happens usually is a hardening and solidification of the party line (“She was always crazy, even as a child”; “No one could ever deal with her. She was a liar given to fantasy"; “The most ungrateful human being you’ve ever met”; “She never wanted to be part of the family to begin with”). Additionally, the family isn’t likely to go quietly and ignore the threat; they will often mount a smear campaign and use other tactics to discredit the adult black sheep. Often, she’s left with no choice but to go no-contact with all of them.
But, as I’ve learned from my readers, with support and help, these neglected and set-upon daughters will ultimately bloom, firmly rooted in a life of their own making.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2017
The observations are drawn, in part, from my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
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.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.