It is difficult enough to bear the burden of traumatic childhood experiences and its long-term physical, emotional, and mental effects. For adult survivors of family scapegoating abuse (FSA), this difficulty is magnified by the fact that their reports of abuse or trauma are typically denied, dismissed, and invalidated by their family due to their being in the ‘identified patient’ role.
To make matters worse, the survivors’ frustration at not being believed, along with any obvious trauma symptoms (including emotional dysregulation) they display due to being ‘triggered’ when interacting with family, can be used by some family members to scapegoat the survivor further when they are most psycho-emotionally vulnerable.
While their dysfunctional or abusive family dynamics may not ever change, by educating themselves on complex trauma (C-PTSD) and adverse childhood experiences (ACE), FSA survivors can discover resources and tools that support their long-term recovery efforts while validating their experiences as survivors of mental and emotional childhood or toxic family abuse.
When Your Experience of Abuse Is Denied
I’ve been working with survivors of what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) for over 20 years now in both clinical settings and in my Psychotherapy and FSA Recovery Coaching practices. In all this time, I can think of no instance where my client’s experiences of harm or abuse were adequately acknowledged or validated by their family.
In some cases, there might be a sibling or extended family member (who may or may not be an ‘ally’ of the scapegoated adult survivor) who will be somewhat sympathetic or supportive and not as dismissive of the FSA survivor’s reports on what they have been experiencing in their family system, but sadly, even this is rare.
These people tend to want to take the role of ‘Switzerland’ in that they wish to remain neutral figures in the family ‘drama’. Typical reponses are, “I don’t want to take sides,” or “Wouldn’t it be best if you forgive and forget and move on?” Also, “I’m worried about you, it seems like you can’t let go of your past.” While this is certainly understandable, such responses can feel like yet another betrayal or abandonment experience to the survivor of family scapegoating abuse.
Because most adult survivors of any type of childhood abuse unconsciously used the coping mechanism of denial when young to get through confusing, painful, and traumatizing incidents with their primary caregivers (and other people whom they felt dependent on for survival when young), they are vulnerable to falling into the trap of invalidating themselves and their own experiences when their reality is challenged by others.
When they finally gain the necessary awareness of what happened to them growing up (often through many long and grueling hours of therapy or other forms of self-healing work), the adult survivor will feel relieved that there is a valid explanation for the mental, emotional, and physical symptoms they may have been struggling with for years, which for many abuse survivors can be attributed to complex trauma (C-PTSD).
Childhood abuse survivors who realize that they have complex trauma may feel validated in their experiences for the first time in their lives as they begin to understand how their brain and body have been responding to trauma and undue stressors within their family-of-origin, possibly for decades (my oldest client currently is 87-years old, for example, proving it is never too late to embark upon the road to recovery).
As mentioned in my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, I had another lovely elderly lady write to me after reading one of my articles on family scapegoating abuse to thank me, saying, “I finally understand what happened to me in my family. It may be too late for any family healing but at least I can now die with some peace.” Statements like this are ones you remember for the rest of your life as a therapist or self-help author, and I am still deeply moved every time I think of it.
Expect Your Family To Be Defensive
As an adult survivor of childhood abuse (whether the abuse was overt or covert, intentional or unintentional), you’ve no doubt worked extraordinarily hard to get to wherever you currently are in your recovery and healing process.
Having finally gained some clarity about what you have been struggling with all these years (overt or covert childhood abuse; complex trauma symptoms and attendant ‘triggering’, recognition of intergenerational trauma and how this may have impacted your family and fueled family scapegoating dynamics, etc), you might initially assume that your family will benefit from hearing all of the discoveries made in therapy or elsewhere. Also, that they may even be appreciative and glad that you shared your realizations with them so that true healing for the family as a whole can begin.
Sadly, this is rarely the case due to the fact that dysfunctional, ‘toxic’ families operate as ‘closed’ systems, and as such, new information that requires those who have treated you badly to look at their past actions and behaviors will quickly and adamantly be denied, dismissed, and invalidated.
To make matters worse, your honest sharings may cause you to be scapegoated further. For example, many FSA survivors who have tried to dialogue openly with family about their painful experiences while in the role as ‘family scapegoat’ growing up will be told that they are “crazy,” “making things up,” “lying,” and “unable to get over” their childhoods. Also, that they are petty and mean for holding a grudge against an aging parent, sibling, or other relatives. (To read more family responses as experienced by one of this blog’s readers, scroll down to see the two comments from ‘REW’ dated 12/18/2021).
This is why it is critical that you assess your family dynamics very carefully before deciding whether or not to share information with them that could make you even more vulnerable to future mistreatment or abuse, including gaslighting (distorting and twisting the reality you fought so hard to realize and accept) and shaming and blaming you for reporting painful truths they would rather not hear, much less take responsibility for.
Ensuring Your Own Emotional Safety and Well-Being
There’s a reason why I continually stress the importance of working with competent trauma-informed Mental Health professionals when discussing healing from childhood abuse, and family scapegoating abuse in particular.
Many complex decisions will need to be made as you realize the depth and extent of harm done, and the price you paid for being a target of unkind, disrespectful, inappropriate, bullying, manipulative, or harmful and abusive behaviors. Working with someone who understands family system dynamics, childhood abuse, and complex trauma is therefore often a critical aspect of recovery.
As mentioned in a previous article, many therapists keep ‘low fee’ slots open for clients who are limited financially, and it is perfectly appropriate for you to ask if they have a low fee slot available if you find an experienced therapist you’d like to work with. Be aware that there is often a waiting list for low-fee slots but for the right therapist, it can be worth the wait.
Other resources are available that incorporate peer-support and feedback based on members’ experiences, such as forums and groups like Out of the Storm (for C-PTSD support) and Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA) can be another way of receiving support and learning from others who have travelled a similar path of recovering from family maltreatment.
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Copyright 2021 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved
Rebecca C.Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP, is an internationally recognized expert in family systems. She is a psychotherapist, certified complex trauma professional, researcher, author, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She specializes in helping victims of ‘invisible’ family abuse reclaim their life narrative and so that they can live freely and joyously as their true self. Rebecca is the author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed – the first research-based book on what she named family scapegoating abuse (FSA).