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Family Dynamics

A Possible Upside of Being Scapegoated in a Toxic Family

"I didn't want to be like them. That was firmly fixed in my head."

Key points

  • Scapegoating is a specific form of verbal abuse that permits the family to think it is healthier than it is.
  • Made to feel like an outlier, the scapegoated child is often bullied by both parents and siblings.
  • Despite the psychological and emotional damage, the scapegoat is able to recognize the abuse and act on it.
Photograph by Jakub Kris. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Jakub Kris. Copyright free. Unsplash

Let’s be clear: there is nothing–I repeat nothing–that can be counted as positive about growing up the targeted scapegoat in your family of origin. Scapegoating is a specific form of verbal abuse that occurs in society on every level, including the family. By naming one person (or group, depending on the context), the entity gets to pretend they’d be “perfect” or “thriving” if it weren’t for that one individual or group who’s responsible for everything that’s wrong.

That said, some interesting–if anecdotal–patterns emerged from interviews for my book Verbal Abuse from adults who had been scapegoated (and usually continued to be) by parents and, often, siblings.

How scapegoating affects a child’s development

How detrimental the scapegoat role is to a daughter’s or son’s development depends partly on personality and awareness of the dynamic, either at a young age or later in life.

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.

A son, now 50, attributed his status as a scapegoat to his success:

My father and my brothers were bullies and while being bullied was no fun, I was a big kid and able to defend myself. But, mainly, I didn’t want to be them or be like them and that was firmly fixed in my head early. I was the first college grad and then went to medical school. None of that was accidental. I haven’t spoken to any of them in years.

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 parent’s vision of them, or, on the other, 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 goals. There’s no question that significant emotional and psychological wounds are sustained. For information on how the scapegoated child is chosen, go here.

A clear view of toxicity in the family of origin

Yet, in all of this, there may be a silver lining. Of all the children growing up with a verbally abusive parent or parents, the scapegoated child is more likely to come to terms with and recognize the toxic patterns of the family dynamic. He or she is more likely to seek help healing from these patterns and their effects than her or his siblings who have bought into the family story, lock, stock, and barrel. Paradoxically, the scapegoat is often the only child in the family who has a shot at being able to have healthy and sustaining relationships once she or he has sought help.

That’s because, even without being scapegoated, the other children in the family are learning at the verbal abuser’s feet. They learn that being safe from abuse and being supported are transactional and not a given; they are reminded of that by seeing how the scapegoat is treated. They develop deficits in empathy by normalizing verbal abuse, being bystanders, or sometimes joining in on the blame game. They learn to tamp down their emotions and hold their tongues to go along to get along. If there is a favored son or daughter, or one of each, these trophy children know that love is earned by fulfilling parental expectations. They live in a world governed by external achievement and how they look to others; who they actually are is of no import, so their own self-regard rests on the most fragile of foundations. Trophy children know nothing about introspection and even less about their true selves. They carry those mental models into their adult relationships since they’re disinclined to look beyond what the family mythologies tell them.

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 him. He was always 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, the scapegoat is left with no choice but to go no-contact with all of them.

But as many of them have reported, the scapegoated child often is able to forge a very different kind of adult life, free of verbal abuse and a sense of self that is born out of coming to terms with the abuse he or she experienced. In that sense, the scapegoat is more like the phoenix rising from the flames than not.

This post is drawn from text in my book Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

Copyright© 2022, 2023.

Facebook image: Zmaj88/Shutterstock

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