What Is Scapegoating?
Scapegoating refers to the act of blaming a person or group for something bad that has happened or that someone else has done. Scapegoating can happen to protect the image of the family or people who are favored in the family, not just the self. It is common for one person to be scapegoated, but it can happen with more than one person.
Commonplace in families with unhealthy dynamics, scapegoating tends to start in childhood when children are blamed for all of the problems in dysfunctional households. The term “scapegoat” originates from the Bible. In the book of Leviticus, the Israelites conduct a ceremony in which they direct their sins onto an “escape goat.” Afterward, they set the goat free into the wilderness to metaphorically cleanse the wickedness from their community. The scapegoat, then, bears the burden of taking on the misdeeds of a tribe, community, or family.
When children are assigned this role, the impact can be detrimental to their mental health and emotional well-being for a lifetime.
In addition, it results in an upbringing in which the scapegoated child’s inherent worth, goodness, and lovableness are ignored. Instead, insults, bullying, neglect, and abuse are deemed appropriate for the child forced into this position.
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How Scapegoats Are Chosen
There are myriad reasons why a parent might choose to scapegoat a child, but it is never the child’s fault. While some might be nonsensical, some arbitrary factors that can influence this can include:
- Birth order
- Skin color
- Sexual orientation and/or gender identity
For example, the only boy in the family might be the favorite or golden child, while the second-born daughter is assigned the scapegoat role.On the other hand, a narcissistic parent might prefer the child who brings the most glory to the family while scapegoating the child who does not boost the family’s public image.
Why a parent decides to scapegoat a child tends not to make any sense because this behavior is rooted in dysfunction. For example, a child who is sensitive, inquisitive, attractive, and smart might be perceived as a threat and scapegoated by a parent who lacks these qualities.
Scapegoating as a Form of Projection
In some cases, parents might mistreat children who resemble or remind them of their ex-partners. For example, biological children might be treated differently from stepchildren or adopted children in the home.
Only children of dysfunctional and abusive parents report that they are sometimes the golden child, and other times, the scapegoat. The same child can have these roles projected onto them, indicating just how troubled parents who engage in this behavior are.
Being a scapegoat or a favorite is never about a child’s inherent worth as a human being.
Parents who scapegoat their kids tend to lack the ability to introspect and understand their projections. They might have been raised in dysfunctional families in which some children were scapegoats and others were golden children. They might also have a personality disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, which leads them to idealize and devalue others or engage in black-and-white thinking.
Unfortunately, children tend to internalize that they are the problem and don’t have the life experience to recognize that parents who scapegoat them are the ones with the problem. They don’t know that loving and mature parents don’t divide children into “all good” or “all bad” roles but recognize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
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Effects of Being a Scapegoat
Clearly, being a scapegoat puts children at a disadvantage. Some ways this can show up in their life include:
- Trauma: Being deprived of a family’s love, singled out as the “bad one” in the household, and having one’s positive attributes overlooked can set up a child for a lifetime of emotional and psychological distress, where they struggle believing they are good, worthy, competent, or likable.
- Toxic relationships and environments: It can also result in these individuals entering friendships, romantic relationships, and working environments that are abusive and harmful.
- Normalizing dysfunctional behavior: Dysfunction and abuse often feel “normal” for family scapegoats, making it difficult for them to spot dangerous people and places before harm is done.
- Difficulties with boundaries: The fact that gaslighting is common in dysfunctional families makes it challenging for abused individuals to set boundaries and recognize when other people's behavior crosses the line. They are more likely to believe that they are exaggerating, are being too sensitive, or can't trust their judgement.
- Self-sabotage or self-harm: Scapegoats tend to internalize the harmful messages they’ve received about themselves from birth or early childhood onward. This could result in the child engaging in self-sabotage or self-harm, such as doing poorly in school, neglecting self-care, engaging in risky activities or behaviors, and acting out in ways that indicate they deserve the title of the scapegoat (even though no child does).
Other scapegoats may go on to excel in some aspects of life, such as graduating college with honors or accumulating professional accolades. Still, they may be drawn to partners as unloving as their parents, struggle with addictions and self-care, or allow themselves to be used or exploited.
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Learning From Your Painful Childhood
Being a scapegoat is a lonely, heartbreaking experience for a child, but it may also yield a more desirable outcome in some cases. For example, the maltreatment scapegoats endure in families is often the impetus that drives them to leave the dysfunctional, high-conflict home. Meanwhile, the golden child typically remains enmeshed in this harmful family system.
In other words, being a scapegoat may give someone the ability to see a toxic family for what it is. This can result in scapegoats distancing themselves from their families of origin and getting help to recover from the abuse they experienced.
Moreover, scapegoats very often decide to end the generational cycle of abuse when they start their own families. They might vow to never treat their own children as they were treated or to be a source of support for the vulnerable children in their lives.
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Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares why you might allow others to mistreat you and how you can learn to speak up for yourself. Click below to listen now.
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Coping With Family Scapegoating As an Adult
Scapegoats bear the burden of recovering from a childhood full of bullying, put-downs, unequal treatment, and abuse generally. They were deprived of the experience of growing up in a safe, stable home where they had the unconditional love of their parents or caregivers. Rather, the dysfunctional adults in their lives singled them out for maltreatment and pitted them against their siblings or other family members.
Healing From Childhood Trauma
Attempting to heal from this reprehensible behavior can take a lifetime, which is why it’s important to consult a mental health provider who specializes in dysfunctional families and childhood trauma about starting the recovery process.
Healing will look different for each individual, but people who have been scapegoated as children will have to decide how to interact with their families as adults.
Prioritize Your Mental Health
If family members continue to abuse them or refuse to get help, scapegoats need to prioritize their mental health and emotional well-being by learning the best way to set boundaries. This may also include exploring with a mental health professional the nuances of minimal or low contact with family members.
Be prepared for other relatives, friends, or even strangers to convince you to rethink your boundaries. Many people know little about the psychological toll that dysfunctional families or parents with personality disorders, substance use disorders, or other problems have on a child. It’s easy for outsiders to assume that because they had loving parents, everyone else did as well .
Some people may also get confused by a parent’s public persona. For example, if a parent appears to be loving in front of an audience, the idea that this person could be abusive in private may result in cognitive dissonance.
A Word From Verywell
If your parents continue to be abusive in your adulthood, ceasing contact may be in your best interest. Some scapegoats might also decide to cut contact if they believe the childhood abuse they endured was unforgivable.
Other people scapegoated in childhood may choose to go low contact, meaning they have firm boundaries about what types of contact they’re willing to have with their relatives. Low contact might mean communicating with family members only via text, email, or phone call. It might mean never or rarely visiting family members in person or limiting visits to special occasions such as holidays, weddings, graduations, births, or funerals.
How you move forward is up to you. With a support system, including a mental health provider, you can decide what will serve you best.
- "Toxic Parents" by Susan Forward
- "Mothers Who Can’t Love" by Susan Forward
- "Codependent No More" by Melody Beattie
- "Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents" by Lindsay Gibson
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