By S.P. Crawford and Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT
The Story of the Difficult ‘Problem Child’
One of the ways that a narcissistic parent marginalizes their child is to demean them and put them down – This is particularly the case with the ‘scapegoat child’. An example of such marginalization tactics is evident in what S.P. named the ‘Martyr Parent Ploy’, which we consider to be a form of covert narcissism.
Via the Martyr Parent Ploy, the parent or primary caregiver will repeatedly refer to the many sacrifices they’ve made for their “difficult” (and often “ungrateful”) child. They will exaggerate events to gain sympathy or to make somebody else feel guilty (typically their ‘problematic’ child, who in reality is being scapegoated).
The martyr parent typically tells stories of how difficult or recalcitrant their child was while growing up. These stories often persist well into adulthood, with the narcissistic parent continuing to tell others how terribly taxing or ill-behaved their (now-grown) child was (or still is).
Extreme examples of the Martyr Parent Ploy are somewhat reminiscent of Munchausen by proxy, whereby the parent receives attention by making their child sick and pretending to be a very concerned, devoted parent saddled with an unusually difficult parental burden.
In the Martyr Parent Ploy the child is not made out to be physically ill. Instead, they are repeatedly described as substantially deficient in behavior, morals, or physical appearance or capabilities, gaining the parent ‘martyr’ status for having had to raise a child possessing these supposed shortcomings.
As a consequence, the targeted child will experience a pervasive feeling of guilt as well as toxic shame, which can debilitate them psycho-emotionally for life (read Rebecca’s article, Is Toxic Shame Sabotaging Your Recovery to learn more).
“It’s Your Fault I Can’t Love You”
These stories have a negative impact on the child, as children tend to trust what their parents tell them. The target of the Martyr Parent Ploy will therefore grow up believing that they are somehow bad and defective, and that it is their own fault that their narcissistic parent is not able to love or care for them.
Many scapegoated children of narcissistic parents spend years trying to be “good enough” to be loved by their narcissistic parent, while the parent continually changes the definition of what is “good enough” so that the child can never succeed.
It should be noted that the issues and circumstances cited by parents employing the Martyr Parent Ploy are average – even typical – age-appropriate behaviors for a child to exhibit. Even so, the martyr parent excels at turning even the most common every day occurrences into dramatic scenarios so as to demonstrate the innate ‘badness’ of the scapegoated child/adult child, thereby justifying their own abusive or neglectful behaviors.
These constant recitations of the child’s shortcomings and failures further serves to convince others that the maltreated/abused (scapegoated) child deserves the poor treatment they get. This is one of the primary means used by a parent to ensure that other people connected to the child – especially nuclear and extended family members – will view them in a negative light (and possibly mistreat them as well).
This is one of the primary reasons why a scapegoated child may eventually end contact with most or all of their family-of-origin upon reaching adulthood, as it is the only way of ending the constant criticism and psycho-emotional abuse.
Examples of the Martyr Parent Ploy
Examples of martyr behavior by narcissistic parents have been shared by clients in Rebecca’s FSA Recovery Coaching and psychotherapy practice over the years. Many of these clients describe their parents’ habit of telling others – including new friends or romantic partners of the now adult child, as well as extended family, neighbors, or professional contacts – how difficult or “bad” the child was as a youngster (or now as an adult).
Narcissistic martyr parents use this form of chronic storytelling to keep the chosen scapegoated child in the subordinate role, and to indoctrinate others into the ‘shaming and blaming‘ family culture. Specifically, one client mentioned her narcissistic father meeting her fiancé for the first time. Her father took the opportunity to tell the soon-to-be spouse “xx (the client) was such a bad child, I never knew she would grow up to have a job,” and “xx was always in trouble, doing drugs and staying out late, I never knew where she was”.
This same client noted that her high school classmates would ridicule her because of her unwavering rule-following; she was even teased by peers for being a “goody-two-shoes”. Clearly, a child ridiculed by peers (and even some teachers) for following every rule to the ‘T’ was not out “running around at all hours,” “doing drugs,” or anything else that the narcissistic parent delighted in telling others about to gain sympathy. Needless to say, this distorted version of reality promoted by her father that made her out to be an adolescent hellion when she was nothing of the kind was confusing to her while growing up, to say the least.
Another client’s mother blamed all of their relationship difficulties on her, saying things like, “The reason we were never close is because you rejected my breast milk when you were born!” Her mother was known to repeat this story to others as well, never mentioning that her daughter had been born with such a severe digestive disorder that she nearly died from it in infancy.
Another example of common Martyr Parent Ploys are parents who repeatedly state to others how difficult their child was as an infant. They might say things like “Suzie was always having colic and I could never get any sleep”; “Johnny’s birth was so difficult – I never recovered from it, I’ll never be the same again”; or “Jeannie was such a demanding baby, she always wanted to be held and would never let me put her down.”
Such statements (which in many cases are deliberately amplified versions of the truth, if they are true at all) are designed to emphasize what a terrible burden the martyr parent’s child was, and how nearly heroic they were for taking care of them anyway, at great expense to themselves. These stories also imply that their burdensome child should be indebted to them as the parent due to the nearly unbearable difficulty of raising them, when in fact the parent is engaging in attention-seeking behaviors while seeking sympathy. Such dramatic statements may also serve as a way to mitigate their own guilt for being unable to adequately love and nurture their own child.
“You Did This on Purpose!”
Another facet of the Martyr Parent Ploy is when a parent gives their child credit for adult-level malice of forethought. For example, one client remembered spilling a soda in the back seat of his father’s new car as a toddler. The father became enraged and immediately blamed him for intentionally ruining his father’s brand new car, accusing him of spilling the soda on purpose to damage the car and inflict emotional pain on him. This client was just two-years old at the time.
Clearly, a healthy, non-scapegoating father would have considered that a toddler spilling a beverage in a moving vehicle is not only unsurprising, but an expected part of toddler-hood, or perhaps poor judgement on his part, given he was the one who had given his young son the soda in the first place. Not so with a narcissistic martyr parent. In their world, it is never their fault as the parent; it is always their (scapegoated) child’s fault.
We’ve also heard about martyr parents who blame their children for malice of forethought even before birth, blaming the child for intentionally causing adverse health effects from a pregnancy, or intentionally being born the gender that the narcissistic parent didn’t want.
It must be emphasized that the narcissistic martyr parent may actually believe the stories they tell, and may in fact believe that their child was the worst, most difficult child ever, even if nothing could be further from the truth (for example, a child who is viewed as being ‘difficult’ for getting “only” A minuses at school instead of A pluses, or a child who never quite excelled in sports). There is also the implication that their ‘difficult’ child or adult child was unfairly inflicted upon them, the innocent suffering parent, resulting in their having to deal with behaviors or other challenging circumstances well beyond what other parents had to deal with.
The Martyr Parent Ploy as Psycho-Emotional Abuse
It is critical that those who have suffered from being the target of the Martyr Parent Ploy understand that they have in fact been the victim of a most egregious form of psycho-emotional abuse via the alternate reality proffered by the parent designed to humiliate and demean them while elevating the parent.
The common theme in the examples and scenarios offered above is the narcissistic martyr parent feels burdened by one particular child. And yet, they somehow found the strength and wherewithal to take care of their troublesome child anyway. The martyr parent does this for the purpose of gaining attention and sympathy and to justify to themselves (and others) their own unloving, non-nurturing behaviors as a primary caregiver because, after all, it is their difficult child who is to blame.
In summary, the Martyr Parent Ploy serves to further cement the targeted child’s role as ‘scapegoat’ in the nuclear and extended family system via the telling and retelling of stories that blame and shame their child while justifying their own psycho-emotionally abusive behavior(s). The child is continuously portrayed as being a burden, inadequate, difficult, deficient, or otherwise untrustworthy and unreliable to others.
These repeated inflated and false accounts of the child’s character further compromises the scapegoated adult child’s ability to find support within their own family system, as their memories and corrective statements are not believed. Furthermore, it has been our experience that in many cases of scapegoating via the Martyr Parent Ploy, the adult child may view themselves in the same negative light as the narcissistic parent due to the effects of gaslighting (to be discussed in a future article).
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Copyright 2021 | S.P. Crawford / Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved
About the authors: S.P. Crawford (they/them) was born and raised in the United States and emigrated to Berlin as a young adult to liberate themselves from their narcissistic parent. S.P. is a freelance writer, philosopher, and avid naturalist. Rebecca C. Mandeville is a psychotherapist and family systems expert practicing in the United States. She is also the author of a book on what she named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.