How Toxic Families Choose a Child to Scapegoat

Peg Streep

Peg Streep

Variations on a theme, but always about control and power.

Posted April 16, 2021 |  Reviewed by Davia Sills

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.
fizkes/Shutterstock

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

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.references

About the Author

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s newest book is Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering. She is the author or coauthor of 15 books, including Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.


RETRIEVED https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/202104/how-toxic-families-choose-child-scapegoat

2 Reasons Bully Pastors Rise Up in the Church


NOTE Some survivors of CSA attacks may be familiar with the ‘rougher than expected’ nature of their predators. Alike the identified ‘pastors’, these teachers may hide their outbreaks to whenever they’re exposed to their ‘hunting’: isolated youth.


September 15, 2020by: Paul David Tripp

https://www.crossway.org/articles/2-reasons-bully-pastors-rise-up-in-the-church/

The Church’s Leadership Crisis

There are two things that are at the heart of the leadership crisis in the church. 

The first is that we’ve backed away from a biblical definition of a leader—humble, gentle, kind, faithful, loving, servant. The kind of character qualities that are in the Timothy passage when it talks about qualifications for elder; the kind of character qualities that are in the fruit of the Spirit—we’ve backed away from these qualities. 

And our definition of a leader now is—strong personality, quick witted, forceful, domineering, able to win the day in a discussion or argument, can cast vision and collect people. I’m going to say this: no wonder we’ve produced a culture of ministry bullies who mistreat people

We’ve diminished and devalued the importance of a strong, watchful, comforting, confronting leadership community around a leader

These are leaders who look at staff not as a servant, but see those people as tools for his success; leaders who look at a congregation not as disciples that need his care—sheep that need a shepherd, loved ones who need nurturing, love, and comfort—but instead as consumers. And leadership success is now defined as collecting as many consumers as you can. 

We’ve backed away from the biblical definition of a leader, and we are paying the price for this new definition. 

Lead

Lead

Paul David Tripp

Best-selling author Paul David Tripp offers 12 gospel-centered leadership principles for both aspiring leaders and weathered pastors as they navigate the challenging waters of pastoral ministry. This resource shows the vital role that the leadership community plays in molding leaders.

There’s a second thing: we’ve diminished and devalued the importance of a strong, watchful, comforting, confronting leadership community around a leader. We have diminished the importance that every leader needs pastoring, every leader needs care, every leader needs watchful eyes, every leader needs, at points, to be rebuked, every leader needs to be protected, and every leader needs strong community in his life. 

The Christian Leadership Model

Now think about this. If we’ve forsaken the biblical definition of a leader for this brash definition, and if we’ve diminished the value of a leadership community, no wonder we’re in the trouble we’re in.

I’m shocked that the trouble isn’t greater!

You cannot walk away from God’s norms and be okay. Listen, we don’t need a new model of leadership. We already have one. It’s right in the pages of the New Testament. 

So as long as we’re changing the leadership definition, and we’re devaluing the importance of community, this crisis will continue.

Paul David Tripp is the author of Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church.


Paul David Tripp

Paul David Tripp (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor, award-winning author, and international conference speaker. He has written numerous books, including the bestselling daily devotional New Morning Mercies. His nonprofit ministry exists to connect the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life. Tripp lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Luella, and they have four grown children.


RETRIEVED https://www.crossway.org/articles/2-reasons-bully-pastors-rise-up-in-the-church/



Denial Prevents Pain, but Also Prevents Change

Jason Whiting Ph.D.

Love, Lies and Conflict

When you face the truth, you change your life and deepen your relationships. 

Posted Jul 30, 2020


When I was a kid, I once overheard my mom on the phone, saying, “Jason keeps pretending he can’t hear me when I call him to help with the dishes.” My own kids sometimes adopt this same strategy. Have you ignored a summons to step up and be responsible? Dismissed emails to avoid something unpleasant? Rejected the news about the dangers of sugar, booze, or nicotine?

Dodging reality to live in denial is a forte of our species. A few years back, I was in a thrift store and found a used book from the 1950s arguing vigorously for the health benefits of cigarette smoking. When we don’t want to change, we stick our heads in the sand and use denial. The satirical newsmagazine The Onion nailed it with their article, “New Study Finds Nothing That Will Actually Convince You to Change Your Lifestyle So Just Forget It:” It said:

“Though it contains several significant discoveries with a direct bearing on human health, a comprehensive study published this week in The Journal Of The American Medical Association has found no data that will in fact convince you to change your lifestyle in any way, so what’s the point of even telling you about it?”

The more we want something, the more we are tempted to ignore the truth if it gets in our way of having it. In twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is to get past denial. This is because, as author Stephen King writes, “[Addicts] build defenses like the Dutch build dikes.” King knows this firsthand, as he wrestled with alcohol and drug use. He told himself he “just liked to drink,” or, as a sensitive artist, he needed the drugs to face the pain and challenge of writing. Like most addicts, he thought he was the exceptional person that could handle it. It wasn’t until his wife and family confronted him, including dumping out a garbage bag of evidence (beer cans, cocaine spoons, cigarette butts, Valium, Xanax, Robitussin, Nyquil, and mouthwash bottles), that his denial walls crumbled down.

Photo by Rafael Serafim from Pexels

Source: Photo by Rafael Serafim from Pexels

Facing reality is painful, but it is better to address warning signs instead of turning a blind eye. Sometimes spouses ignore signs of addiction (she keeps coming home late plastered), infidelity(why does he abruptly shut the laptop when I come in the room?), or lies (that story just changed again). Excuses mount, and denial becomes enabling. It’s easier to ignore warnings than have difficult conversations, but this leaves problems free to grow unchecked.

Some of the damage from child abuse is caused by those who looked the other way and ignored the warning signs. Many victims tried to tell a parent or teacher about mistreatment and were disregarded or pressured not to talk. When this happens, victims doubt their own reality, and the truth gets lost.

This distortion occurs in domestic violence, where abusers minimize their actions, and threats of being hurt cause confusion and self-doubt in those who are abused. One of my projects examined how an abuser’s blame can persuade a victim to doubt what happened and blame themselves. One woman said: “[He convinced me that] if I would’ve just done this, he wouldn’t have taken my debit card away, or … he wouldn’t have yelled at me or said that I was stupid.”

Survivors also use denial to cope, because it is hard to admit abuse is occurring, or leave. Denial gives a victim a chance to come to terms with an awful situation while trying not to feel worthless. As another research participant said: “If you can not focus on the negative, things are always better. If you live in your dream world with the rainbow, all that stuff, it’s always much easier to cope. If he was bad about everything, then I had to be bad, too.” 

Denial of reality may be understandable, but problems don’t usually change by themselves. If you are disregarding important concerns, it’s time for a cold splash of truth. Ask yourself: Am I avoiding a difficult issue? Do I sometimes rewrite reality in a way that becomes dishonest?

If so, it may be time to break through the denial and accept the facts. This is how change occurs and relationships become more authentic.


REFERENCES

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft (New York: Scribner Books, 2000), p. 94.

Terry Trepper, and Mary Jo Barrett, Systemic Treatment of Incest: A Therapeutic Handbook (London: Routledge, 2013).

Jason B. Whiting, Megan Oka, and Stephen T. Fife, “Appraisal Distortions and Intimate Partner Violence: Gender, Power, and Interaction,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 38, no. s1 (2012): 133-149. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00285.x


RETRIEVED https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/love-lies-and-conflict/202007/denial-prevents-pain-also-prevents-change

Power and Control

Power and Control (2020) | uploaded by Peter Vincent Lucas, from mindjournal

From the above chart’s simple 8 points, how many viewers know of these ordeals? Whether sexual or physical violence, they each are an act of VIOLENCE. Anyone’s childhood is meant to be appreciated, while we are raised to become ‘young adults’ at 18. The following image, may also remind some of the hardships as victims of their CSA teachers.

  • Coercion and threats
  • Economic abuse
  • Male privilege
  • Abusing children
  • Minimising, denying and blaming
  • Isolation
  • Emotional abuse
  • Intimidation
Child-Parents, S. Arabi | the minds journal

Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, exposing them to sexual situations, or making them feel worthless or stupid are also forms of child abuse and neglect – and they can leave deep, lasting scars on kids.” (Harrison, The Minds Journal, 2020). The following are major forms of CSA:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Medical abuse
  • Neglect
NRS logo (DSS) | website

Survival of any of the above listed actions, are strongly suggested to talk to someone else about it. It’s preferable that it be someone outside your immediate family, as there are many Counsellors available. NRS is also being updated, allowing for it to be easier for CSA victims to have their matters sorted – not impacting others (“minimising”).

ABUSE OF CHILDREN WHEEL – uploaded by Peter Vincent Lucas

INSTITUTIONS are identified, with description of many of scenarios dealt with in Australia’s Royal Commission (CARC) and the current National Redress Scheme. For the benefit of those Victims-Survivors that have come forth, we ask for you to consider coming forward. Counselling can be confidential, lodging an Application is when details begin to be made public.


REFERENCES