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The Narcissistic Martyr Parent Ploy and the Scapegoat Child

tired mother with cute daughter resting on bed in cozy room

By Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT and S.P. Crawford

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. Crawford named the ‘Martyr Parent Ploy’, which we consider to be a form of covert narcissism that results in psycho-emotional abuse of the targeted (scapegoated) child.

Watch my video discussion on the Narcissistic Martyr Parent Ploy

The Story of the Difficult ‘Problem Child’

Via the Martyr Parent Ploy, a narcissistic 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.

“It’s Your Fault I Can’t Love You”

These stories (what Rebecca refers to in her FSA work as the ‘scapegoat narrative’) 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. This need to please and appease the parent will often lead to chronic fawning behaviors as a result (read Rebecca’s PsychCentral article to learn more about the fawning trauma response).

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 when he was being driven to pre-school. The father became enraged and immediately blamed his child for intentionally “ruining” his brand new car, accusing him of spilling the soda on purpose to damage the car and inflict emotional pain. This client was just three years old at the time.

Clearly, a healthy, non-scapegoating father would have considered that a very young child spilling a beverage in a moving vehicle is not only unsurprising, but can almost be expected. Or that perhaps he used poor judgement in giving 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).

A Special Note: In cases of extreme abuse with sadistic traits, the parent may be a malignant narcissist. Read my article on the malignant narcissist parent and the scapegoat child to learn more.

Learn about my book on Family Scapegoating Abuse:

Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed

scapegoat recovery coaching

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.

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15 thoughts on “The Narcissistic Martyr Parent Ploy and the Scapegoat Child”

  1. Diane S

    This article is the very FIRST time anyone has been able to identify and describe my exact experience with my mother. I have been to over a handful of therapists over the years and not one of them has ever touched on my mother being abusive. The focus was always on my father’s abuse and neglect as a result of his major drug addiction and alcoholism problems. She left him to raise me and I would visit her on various school breaks, knowing my life was endangered by him. I have no siblings. I have been gaslighted by some therapists as that my mother could not possibly be part of the problem and that my father ruined my relationship with her. After all, mothers love their children. I never knew she was gossiping behind my back, but felt it somehow deep in my unconscious. But she is very intelligent and the queen of covering her tracks and looks like an outstanding benevolent citizen and does so much volunteering for the elderly and PETA while telling everyone how much my father loves me and that I was totally fine and treat her like I am just using her for money. She never paid child support and I went without consistent food, shelter, and clothing. I have never registered that she abused me; it’s been so invisible and so covered up. I have deep anguish that until I recently came across your YouTube videos (and subscribed) I could never put my finger on it or where it came from. This article is life changing for me as I now have a huge piece of my puzzle that was missing. Thank you so much for the work you do and freely share. You are a beacon of light and hope. I will get your book. This missing piece id why I have never truly been able to heal, not realizing I fawn/submit and therefore wind up constantly in the scapegoat role and believe the narrative. I’m 51, complex chronic illness (identified patient among in-laws and friends) and have been at the end of my rope. Your shared work is giving me hope when my well has been empty. I deeply thank you!

  2. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

    This is the insidious nature of what I named ‘family scapegoating abuse’, or FSA. The abuse is often covert. The abuser excels at, as you say, covering up their tracks. The FSA child or adult child target suffers from abuse – yet is ‘rejected, shamed, and blamed’ for the family’s issues. This is the ‘Gordian Knot’ I mention in my book (Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed). This knot is complex and cannot be untied. Is it any wonder FSA adult survivors slice through the knot by ending contact? I only hope this form of systemic psycho-emotional abuse is properly recognized and understood in my lifetime. It is a silent killer of souls.

  3. Ginger G

    I just want to say that I’m finding your videos and articles helpful, validating and reassuring that its not just me and I’m really not the problem; I didnt do anything to deserve the 60 years of psycho-emotional abuse. I am learning more all the time, how my mother (still alive) used me. She still tries, but I am well aware her tactics. She has used my other siblings as well.
    Weve all been thrown under the bus more times than i can count, but I am the one who put up the longest. I am the only daughter.
    When I dont “rise to her occassion”, she bad talks about me. She gets affirming responses from her siblings, and friends, but I care way less now. I allow minimal contact that looks like I dont care about her…but I care a lot about my wellbeing. I’m 89% sure she has a narcissistic personality disorder/mental illness never diagnosed.
    OFF TOPIC … I find the ADS on this website, very annoying, as they cover the content and disrupt the flow of information I believe you truly want to convey to help people. I’ll stick to the youtube videos for now. Please consider that the ads detract from and pull people away from your website.
    GG, a survivor

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      Hi Ginger, thank you for the comment and also I appreciate you letting me know about the issue with ads. The ads do help with administrative expenses related to this website and showed up okay on my end (not interfering with content); I’m going to see if I can run fewer ads on each page so it is less disruptive. If you can let me know if it is any better when I run the next article, I’d appreciate it.

  4. Robin S

    I have read your recent book and many of the posts. I am the scapegoat daughter of a malignant narcissist mother. In my years of treatment, I have found that information itself is healing.
    Understanding that I was not a freak, was not alone and that there were words to describe my anguish was life saving.
    Thank you for your work.
    Thank you for providing a free forum.
    It is said that you can only enter Heaven on the arm of someone you’ve helped.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Your note brought tears to my eyes while reading it, Robin. What a beautiful acknowledgement. You all help me as well. And for the same reason. I learn so much from all of you, and I also learn that I am not alone…And yes, this is why I focused on psycho-education on what I named FSA in my book and on my blog – and now on my FSA Education YouTube channel. I hope you will join me there also and subscribe. Link to the channel here:

  5. Tessa

    I want to vomit and cry reading this. I was the bad baby, causing my poor mother to have a C-section scar and have to birth my younger sibling by C-section too. I was the baby that couldn’t be consoled by my mother, which was an actual justification told to me by my father for why she was so “hard on me” (the explanation for him being so was that I was too much like him).

    I am shaking and disgusted at this and how now as an adult I write off my spouse’s unkindness as due to me being unlovable and I’ve apologized to him for it. Everything bad is my fault.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      Hi Tessa, your strong bodily reaction suggests you may be having a trauma response (no doubt this article served as a trigger, given how strongly you related to it). I do hope you will be able to read my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, which explains why many FSA adult survivors have complex trauma symptoms. There are also suggestions on how to heal from this form of abuse. It is never too late to recover from something that was *never* your fault. Nobody deserves to be mistreated and abused in this manner. By anybody.

  6. leila n

    Wow, this article explains my family, particularly my mother, with absolute accuracy. The authors have nailed it (I can literally hear some of the above quotes coming directly out of my mother’s mouth). I was in denial, and so were those I surrounded myself with. It took me well into my 50s to understand the full extent of the family abuse – to dig-into it, name it, and understand the devastating impact it has had on my life. It’s because of articles like this that I was finally able to open my eyes, distance myself, and begin a healing journey.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      Hi Leila, I let my co-author know of your appreciation of our article, and I also appreciate your insightful comment. Sounds like you are well on your way to healing family wounds – Eyes wide open, and within a safe container (so necessary for recovery to take hold).

  7. Paula

    This explains yet another layer of what happened to me, within my family. I had two Martyr carers, my mother & grandmother, and there were some pretty insane narratives that they spread around about me. Thank you, for another well written piece, that helps me to connect another dot from my past.

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