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

Baptists: “they’re a law unto themselves”

Despite Baptist churches (+7th Day Adventists & Jehovah’s Witnesses) being framed as though each individual location are ‘seperate entities’, NRS acknowledgement under CARC conditions has included Institutions on a state-by-state level. As such, direct personal responses will be made on behalf of these state representatives. Under which these state bodies will be responsible for “coercive control, indoctrinations & scapegoating”, in association with the “abuses & impacts” (BraveHearts psychology, 2022).

https://www.narcissisticabuserehab.com/tag/scapegoating/

As some of us have been taken through multiple ‘levels’ of CSA, this is where “Complex PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) also adds to the atypical occasions on NRS databases. Although I had previously suggested this in both my Private CARC Session and in my NRS Counselling, it wasn’t until I started to share an ‘ideas diagram’ with my psychologist, that another POV was made. It can be complex explaining, these complex settings, which are often covered by complex secrecy!

https://silvergirlshine.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/breaking-free-from-being-the-family-scapegoat/

REFERENCES

9 Way To Untangle Yourself From A Toxic Family

Sherrie Campbell, PhD, ContributorClinical Psychologist, Author and Radio Host

05/16/2017 11:42 am ET

One of the most challenging things to undertake is separating ourselves from a toxic family. The “family” is reveared as something too sacred to separate from, regardless of its toxicity. Adult children feel an obligation to stay connected even when it goes against their best interest. As adults, we stay connected out of fear and guilt. We fear the lack of understanding and recrimination to come from others who falsely assume all children are loved deeply. To follow are the entanglements suffered in a toxic family system, and how to break free.

1. Starved.

Children (no matter their age) of toxic parents are emotionally starved. The family dynamic functions around the needs, wants, desires, and dramas of the parent. Children are not viewed as people, but rather as things to be controlled, used and manipulated. It is common for parents to abuse one child and worship another. Each child’s role serves some distorted need in the parent. The more abused child is raised feeling unloved and rejected, while the worshiped child feels loved for “good performance and behavior.” Each child has some awareness they are not loved for who they are, and both suffer low self-worth.

2. Sly.

The reason it is challenging to separate from these dynamics is because the type of abuse these children endure is not obvious. It’s the passive-aggressive, guilt-driven, needy, jealous, divisive, martyring, baiting abuse that somehow disappears into ether whenever confronted. These parents are sly, underhanded, blaming, manipulators who use their children for games, positioning and getting them to feel guilty, ashamed and increasingly needy for parental approval, which they can never authentically secure.

3. Scapegoating.

Toxic parents scapegoat their children for their own personality flaws and dramatics. They turn everything around to be the child’s fault, and claim how “mean and disrespectful” their children are. These children grow up feeling nothing they do is ever enough. They are consistently rattled with back-handed remarks by their overly critical parents, and are accused of being too sensitive. Being raised like this is no different than living in a house of mirrors, where even the fake apologies initiated by the parents are designed to put the child at fault.

4. Frozen.

Children become frozen under the hypocrisy, constant projection, and circular communication style these parents utilize. They quickly learn that being good enough in the eyes of their parents is about as likely as successfully scoring on a moving goalpost. They live trying to avoid conflict, or trying to express themselves to the point of rage or meltdown, only to face being shamed for their emotions and “treating their parents so poorly.” These psychological games lead children into a state of helplessness, self-hatred and guilt, as every situation is set for their destruction. There is no way to win.

5. Frustration.

There is nothing more psychologically debilitating than living in a world of unexpressed frustration. Very few, if any, validate what these children see and experience. In fact, most attempts at sharing their story are met with disbelief and the minimization of; “things can’t be that bad, your parents love you.” These children are typically advised to be more loving, to do as their told, and to accept who their parents are; thereby, blaming the victim. There is no amount of convincing these children can do that will be more powerful than the societal standard held to never separate from family.

6. Disenfranchised grief.

These children/adults live with a grief not accepted by society. Loss is one of the most common experiences to bring about grieving, and although this is often viewed as normal, there are times when grieving is disqualified; cutting ties one’s family members being one of those times. Traditional forms of grief are more widely accepted, like when a parent dies. When grief is not accepted, but rather viewed as something a person brought on themselves, there are few, if any, support systems to help them cope with their disenfranchised grief.

7. Courage.

As adults, we have the right to determine when enough is enough. If we know it is not possible to be healthy in tandem to staying connected to a dysfunctional family, then it is time to let go. We must have the courage to face the unfair smear-campaigns that will be initiated at breakneck speed to everyone the parents know, the lack of compassion, understanding and support from others, and the loneliness, confusion and grief to process after we sever ties. We will likely have to create distance with mutual connections that bind us to our family, as the more strings attached to them the less likely we are to protect ourselves from their toxic drama.

8. Duty Days.

After we cut ties, it is common to receive cards/gifts on “Duty Days,” such as holidays. These gestures allow them to maintain that they try, and we are just too stubborn to let things go. What is missing in their communication is any combination of three sets of three simply-worded statements; “I am sorry,” “I was wrong,” or “You were right.” They are incapable of owning what they have done; always viewing themselves as right. They show up on “Duty Days” to assuage their guilt, to save face, and to add more drama to their smear-campaign . And…people will believe them.

9. Reclaiming yourself.

In severing ties, we are not doing so to punish anyone else, as much as we are doing something to protect ourselves. Once minimal or no-contact has been established, we must reclaim our lives and rebuild our self-worth. When we risk it all, the Universe in all its magic, will organize and materialize the supports, loves and people we deserve to live lives we love. We build a chosen-family who shows us that love is thicker than blood. Most importantly, we develop a self-respect no one can shake. We are free to live from the truth of who we are, as we come to trust our inherent goodness. The greatest power we have is not give these people what they want…our attention. We must now give our attention only to those worthy of it.


RETRIEVED https://www.huffpost.com/entry/9-way-to-untangled-yourself-from-a-toxic-family_b_591744c5e4b00ccaae9ea36d