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Why Do Families Have a Family Scapegoat?

The family scapegoat takes on the role of the black sheep in the family. In clinical terms, they may be perceived as the 'identified patient.'

If you're the family scapegoat, you know what it's like to feel alienated from other family members. You also know the loneliness and frustration associated with being in this heartbreaking role. Here's why it happens and how this situation might be affecting you.

Traits of Family Scapegoats

Family scapegoats come in all different shapes and sizes. In dysfunctional families, a child may be scapegoated from a young age. This scapegoat child essentially takes all the blame within the dynamic, and they often grow up with low self-esteem. This role fits within the context of other problematic covert rules in family dynamics.

While dysfunctional households will use anyone as a scapegoat, it's common for scapegoated people to have these characteristics:

Rebellious: Scapegoated people often have personalities that are much different from their other family members. They may present as rebellious with their thoughts or actions. In many ways, they aren't afraid to speak the truth, even if the rest of the family wants to deny it.

Medical illness: Some people are scapegoated due to having a medical illness or disability. Other family members may perceive this situation to be a burden, and they might blame the child for their issue.

Mental illness: Anyone with mental illness in the family can quickly become the targeted scapegoat. That said, when this is the case, it's likely that the scapegoating family has significant undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.

High-performing: Sometimes the most successful person in the entire family is the scapegoat. This can happen in a dysfunctional family unit where there's a narcissistic parent. This person might feel so jealous of the child's success that they turn them into the bad guy.

Why Do Families Scapegoat Children?

Not all families scapegoat, but it's a common characteristic in a dysfunctional family system.

Scapegoating is often a form of projection. When family members refuse to look inward, they often transfer their frustration, shame, and unmet needs onto someone else. It's easier than working on their own problems.

The golden child can be the counterpart to the scapegoated child. The golden child represents the "good" in the family. Everyone can point to them, as if to say, Look at how successful we are! This can cause a serious rift between the scapegoat and the rest of the family.

Scapegoating can also be a product of intergenerational trauma. Adult children with unresolved mental health issues may transfer their symptoms onto other people or their own children. This is often unintentional, but the effects can be highly damaging.

Regardless, scapegoating is never acceptable. All family members deserve basic respect. If someone is 'acting out,' family systems theory suggests that everyone in the family is playing a role to contribute to that behavior. Rather than only focusing on the scapegoat, it's better to focus on how the entire system can change.

A scapegoated role isn't necessarily fixed. Someone may have the role temporarily until another person causes an even more bothersome offense.

What Are the Effects of Being Scapegoated?

Even if you no longer live with your family of origin, that doesn't mean the impact of your family's dysfunction no longer affects you. A person who's been scapegoated their entire life may struggle with a sense of purpose or identity. You might worry that, even if you do escape your role, people won't take you seriously.

Trauma symptoms: Scapegoating can be considered a form of emotional abuse, especially if your own family withheld love, criticized you, threatened you, or neglected you of basic needs. As an adult, you may experience complex trauma symptoms like hypervigilance, self-loathing, avoiding people, and severe trust issues.

Toxic relationships: Scapegoated children often turn outside the home to build their support system. But because their self-esteem is low, they may be more likely to turn to abusive romantic partners or friends who don't have their best interests at heart.

Patterns of self-destruction: Scapegoating often results in internalizing pain. From a young age, you may have learned how to cope with this pain through various escape measures, including substance abuse, disordered eating, self-harm, or promiscuity.

Trust issues: If you didn't feel safe within your own family, it can be challenging to trust others. You may find yourself in patterns of dysfunctional relationships, and you might even start scapegoating others yourself.

Perfectionism: Some people try to escape being scapegoated by over-functioning. You may be highly ambitious and successful. To the outside world, you have it all together. But inside, you might feel profoundly broken. There's often this looming sense that you're a fraud and it's only a matter of time before other people find out.

How Mental Health Treatment Can Help With Family Scapegoating

Escaping the family scapegoat role can be more challenging than people realize. And even if you're actively trying to change, that doesn't mean your family is on board. In some cases, you may even feel like they're sabotaging your efforts or discrediting your success.

At Resurface Group, we help families heal from their unhealthy patterns and build stronger connections with one another. We know the insidious effects of scapegoating abuse, and we seek to help those who are struggling with their emotional health.

Contact us today to learn more about our dynamic program.

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