family scapegoat

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

Rebecca C. Mandeville is a licensed Psychotherapist (LMFT); Certified Clinical Trauma Professional (CCTP); recognized Family Systems expert; and author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role, in which she coined the term Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA). 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.  

Healing From Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) Begins With Understanding What Happened To You…

Since publishing my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, many FSA adult survivors have written to me privately saying things like, “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 for the past 20 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.

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 or narcissistic family system. In such families, the scapegoating may be fueled by systemic anxiety, intergenerational trauma, and the Family Projective Identification Process. If a parent or other dominant family member is highly narcissistic, has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), or is a malignant narcissist, the scapegoating can be severe, deliberate, conscious, and intentional in nature and the Family Projective Identification Process may or may not be involved. The scapegoating of a particular family member 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.

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’ (IP) 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. This is why it is extremely important to be aware of the fact that family scapegoating can occur in ANY type of dysfunctional family system, not just a narcissistic one.

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 (not narcissistic) family system is understood to be fueled by unconscious processes (specifically, the Family Projective Identification Process) 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 projective identification process fueling the scapegoating of the family member is unconscious (and, as mentioned above, is often rooted in, and fueled by, intergenerational 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. (Article continues, below…)

Join Rebecca on YouTube on her channel Beyond Family Scapegoating Abuse.

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. It can also lead to what I named Family Scapegoating Trauma (FST), which I will be discussing in a future article.

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


Learn about my book on Family Scapegoating Abuse:

Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed

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Copyright 2020 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved

8 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: https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/What-Judges-Need-to-Know-About-Narcissistic-Personality-Disorder-in-Custody-Cases

  3. Rebecca, you talk elsewhere about how people who have lived with FSA can find themselves scapegoated in a lot of different situations including work, study, hobby groups etc.

    I would value your opinion: do you think that a woman who was/is a scapegoat to her family of origin and had a close relationship until recently with her own two adult children, can start to be scapegoated by her own daughter when that daughter gives birth. Client describes how daughter began to collude with the father of her child during their drive to the maternity hospital and from then onwards, in a deeply critical, bullying, gaslighting, Mum is to blame for everything sort of way.
    Mother and daughter were close and daughter was indignant about the family of origin treatment of her mother but did not understand why things were the way they were.. Then, the day daughter became a mother herself things changed, and since then she will hear no complaints about the son-in-law’s extremely rude, aggressive behaviour to her mother and participates in it herself. The son-in-law’s own mother, of whom he could say nothing good, died about 6 months before the baby was born. I get the impression he transferred his mother-hatred and scapegoating to his partner’s mother and drew the daughter into the lovely close belonging place that scapegoating offers the scapegoaters.
    I also know another family where the mother is a very kind aware soul and so is her older daughter, but the younger daughter seems to be scapegoating their mother in a variety of ways, again with the collusion of her husband.

    1. Hi Lily,

      These are excellent questions. I can only answer here in general terms. Unfortunately, for liability reasons, I am unable to speak to specific situations / client cases online. I have been thinking of offering case consultations to therapists. If that’s something you’re interested in, let me know. I also have a sign-up form on my menu if you’d like to be notified when my online training for clinicians is available in regard to treating FSA. So my short answer is that YES, any change to the family homeostasis (including birth of a child) can create shifts in family roles and can contribute to new or increased FSA events. And yes, children / adult children can begin to scapegoat a parent, and there are many reasons for this. I plan to address this issue in a future video on my YouTube channel. Hopefully you’ve already subscribed – link here, in case you still need it: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIyAJJIjX07beYqnUVIGPgw/ Thanks for your questions, they address a key issue that comes up often in relation to FSA.

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