family scapegoat

5 Critical Things to Know About Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)

Rebecca C. Mandeville is a Trauma-Informed Psychotherapist and Recovery Coach, Educator, and author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed. She is a pioneer in identifying the overlapping symptoms of family scapegoating abuse (FSA), complex trauma (C-PTSD), betrayal trauma, and the devastating impact and effects of multigenerational trauma on adult survivors of dysfunctional and narcissistic, family systems.

Since beginning this FSA Educational website and blog several years ago, many readers have written me with questions regarding family scapegoating and the challenges faced when attempting to recover from its damaging effects. In today’s post I answer five critical questions about this most insidious form of systemic psycho-emotional abuse.  

Understanding Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)

Over the past few months, I’ve had quite a few readers of this blog write to me privately or in comments to the effect of, “I can’t believe what I am reading – It’s like you’re writing about my own life!”

My knowledge of family scapegoating dynamics is based in part on countless hours spent working with both individuals and families in residential treatment settings and in my private practice over the past 15 years, as well as my qualitative research findings on what I eventually named ‘family scapegoating abuse’, or ‘FSA’ – A type of abuse that is similar to narcissistic abuse, but has its own unique features, as described in previous articles. Given I have experience being in the ‘scapegoat’ role in my own family-of-origin, my clinical work is informed by my personal understanding of family scapegoating’s negative impact as well.

I also have been the grateful recipient of countless messages, comments, and personal sharings in response to my introductory eBook on FSA (linked below in my profile), as well as my social media posts and educational articles, which I publish both here and elsewhere.

Many of those writing to me express the intensity of emotions they experience when recognizing themselves as FSA survivors. Typical comments include, “At last, there’s a name that describes what I’ve been experiencing”, and “Now that I understand what may have happened to me, I have hope that perhaps there’s a way for me to recover.”

Often those reaching out to me to share their experiences of being scapegoated also have a lot of questions about family scapegoating abuse as related to their experiences of painful and damaging family betrayal.

Below are five of the most frequently asked questions I am asked by clients and readers, along with my responses (in brief), that are critical to understanding scapegoating abuse and its effects on the targeted family member:

1 – What Is the ‘Family Scapegoat’? ‘The Scapegoat’ is one of the roles unconsciously ‘assigned’ to a child growing up in a dysfunctional family system (I say more about this process in my answer to question 2). The scapegoating typically (but not always) begins in childhood and often continues into and throughout adulthood, although the role may be passed around to different family members at times. If a parent is a malignant narcissist, the scapegoating can be severe, deliberate, and intentional in nature.

Because family scapegoating processes can be insidious and subtle, many adult survivors do not realize that they are suffering from a most egregious (and often chronic) form of systemically-driven psycho-emotional bullying and abuse, with all of the painful consequences to body, mind, and spirit.

More specifically: Children and adult children who are caught in the ‘family scapegoat’ role are the ‘identified patient’ in their family. As such, they are often the targets of ‘shaming and blaming’, distorted family narratives (aka ‘smear campaigns’) and can end up rejected and discarded by those who were supposed to love them the most: Their own family-of-origin. Article continues, below…

Purchase Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed from Amazon to learn more about family scapegoating and toxic family systems

family scapegoating fsa book

My book on what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) is available on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback formats

You can also purchase it at these online Book Retailers

2 – Why Do Families Scapegoat? Research suggests that parents who are mentally ill or emotionally unstable (including those who have a personality disorder, such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder) are far more likely to scapegoat their own child than a psycho-emotionally healthy and stable parent.

Such parents may attack their child to release their pent up frustrations and deep feelings of abandonment, ‘toxic shame’, or self-hatred. They might engage in ‘splitting’ behaviors as well, e.g., they might pit one sibling against the other to create a camp of ‘allies’. Parents that ‘split’ will also tend to see one child as ‘good’ (the ‘golden child’) and another as ‘bad’ (the ‘scapegoat’).

In Family Systems theory, scapegoating in a dysfunctional family system is understood to be fueled by unconscious processes whereby the family displaces their own collective psychological difficulties and complexes onto a specific family member. This does not mean that all acts of scapegoating (i.e., rejecting, humiliating, blaming, and shaming) a child are unconscious – rather, the projection process fueling the scapegoating of the family member is unconscious (and, per my own clinical experience, is often rooted in, and fueled by, multigenerational trauma) .

This process of projection, shaming, and blaming serves to divert attention away from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems via casting the targeted family member into the role of ‘scapegoat’. It is sometimes the case that families who scapegoat one of their own are oblivious to the fact that they are engaging in psycho-emotional abuse and will become highly defensive if this is pointed out.

Despite the fact that the ‘family scapegoat’ role is common to dysfunctional families, there is surprisingly little research or literature available to both lay-person and clinician describing family scapegoating’s features and effects on the targeted child / adult child. As a result, family scapegoating is seldom recognized as abuse warranting clinical intervention and treatment.

Learn more about the insidious family projection process affecting all FSA adult survivors.

3 – What Are the Effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)? Many FSA adult survivors fail to realize that they have actually suffered from psycho-emotional abuse growing up, and even their therapist or counselor might miss the signs and symptoms associated with being in this most devastating dysfunctional family role.

Specifically: Adults seeking assistance from a mental health professional may find that the genuine pain and distress they are experiencing is minimized or even invalidated  (e.g., “But they’re your family, of course they love you”; “Family connections are so important, it can’t be that bad”; “It’s best if you forgive, we need to maintain ties with our family to be healthy”), which only serves to reinforce the scapegoated adult’s fear that they are somehow fundamentally to blame for their strained (or non-existent) family relationships.

As a consequence of having their family relational distress and abuse symptoms go unrecognized, many adult survivors of FSA suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and anger management issues. They may have been diagnosed in the past with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and even Dissociative Identity Disorder with Psychosis.

In addition to the above disorders, FSA survivors may have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Agoraphobia. Others may be diagnosed with a personality disorder (Borderline Personality Disorder, especially), or an attachment disorder. They also often present with codependency and/or addiction. 

4 – Can Family Scapegoating Abuse Lead to Complex Trauma?

Yes. It has been my observation that in addition to being diagnosed with one or more of the disorders listed above, many family scapegoating abuse survivors are suffering from symptoms of undiagnosed, untreated Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) – a fact that I discuss at length in my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed.

More specifically: As related to my ongoing work with adult survivors seeking to recover from family scapegoating abuse, it is my experience that the rejecting, shaming, and otherwise non-nurturing, harmful, and abusive family environment my clients grew up in (and had no means of escaping from) has actually contributed to their experiencing symptoms of Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD – which is also known as complex trauma disorder) secondary to chronic parental / family psycho-emotional (and at times physical) abuse. 

5 – What’s One of the Biggest Obstacles to FSA Recovery? Scapegoated adults often don’t realize how their familial distress has been negatively impacting nearly every area of their life, including their mental and emotional health, relationships, work, and their ability to realize their most cherished goals and dreams.

More specifically: Scapegoated adults often feel debilitated by self-doubt and ‘imposter syndrome’ in their relationships and in the work-place, and blame themselves for their difficulties. They typically struggle in regard to creating and experiencing a sense of life mission, passion, and purpose, and find themselves succumbing to feelings of futility, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and despair. In extreme cases they may feel that taking their own life is the only way to end their pain, as they see no way to rectify their situation or heal from the grave injustices done to them.

What the FSA victim may see as ‘family conflict’ is often unrecognized mental and emotional abuse. To compound matters further, the FSA victim typically doesn’t realize how being the target of family scapegoating is affecting their ability to succeed and thrive in their personal and professional life.

It may not even occur to the FSA victim that they may need to limit or (in extreme cases) even end contact with abusive family members who refuse to take ownership for their damaging behaviors – especially if there are cultural and/or financial considerations that seem insurmountable and impossible to overcome.

In my upcoming blog posts, I’ll be going into more detail regarding each of the five aspects of family scapegoating abuse listed above, along with some time-tested and proven FSA recovery strategies that can be especially helpful when the targeted family member feels they have no choice but to remain in contact with those who are maltreating them. You may subscribe to this blog to receive these articles via email when they are released.

Learn about my book on Family Scapegoating Abuse:

Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed


Copyright 2020 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Your writing is very clear and sensible and I encourage you to continue and i look forward to reading your new blogs and to sending them to my children for their edification.

    1. Thank you, James. You might also want to read my book on FSA, ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role’. Most major online book retailers have it in both paperback and digital form, including Amazon.

    1. Hi Erika. Absolutely. While my book focuses on the ‘adult child’ survivor, anyone in a family can be in the ‘scapegoat’ or ‘identified patient’ role at one time or another. I see this often in alcoholic family systems, for example, where the family attributes all their issues and problems to the parent drinking or using. When most of their issues and problems are still there after the parent is sober, it’s a real ‘wake up’ call. I know, because I used to run family programs at addiction treatment centers.

  2. Hi Rebecca, your articles were very eye opening. My partner and I are going through a court battle with a Guardian that has all the signs of being a Malignant Narcissist. The guardian took my partner’s two children in 2010 (10 moths and 7 years old at the time) by using lies and threats. The oldest is now emancipated and told us of all the mental, physical and sexual abuse that he had to endure for over 10 years. The guardian has gaslit the whole community including our own family, doctors, psychologists, child protective services, local police department etc.

    The younger child is now 12 years old and we are trying to get him back since we finally realized what was going on. We reported all the abuse to the police and children services, but no one believes us. We even have proof with the text messages and pictures and yet they will not do anything. The police and children services say ” He says he is okay and that he wants to stay there”. But we know that he is being manipulated by the guardian and is being lied to.

    That environment is the only thing he knows, he does not know that he is being lied to and is physically and mentally abused. Our whole family is now aware of what is going on and we are fighting for his life. How do we convince others (courts and police and children services) of what we are going through? None of these professionals believe us or want to admit that they have been duped. I understand that it is easier to fool people than to convince them that they were fooled. Any suggestions would help.

    1. Hi Joshua, I am so very sorry to hear of your situation. You might find this article helpful in that it may validate your experiences. Your best hope is to find an attorney who is a specialist in dealing with a narcissistic custodian,but I realize these can be hard to find, and the judge is not always responsive or willing to be educated. More information here:

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