When Your Family Invalidates Your Experiences of Abuse and Complex Trauma

When Your Family Invalidates Your Experiences of Abuse and Complex Trauma

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.

Not one.

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.

If you learned something in this article, consider sharing using the social media icons, below. Your comments are also welcome.

Copyright 2021 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved

28 thoughts on “When Your Family Invalidates Your Experiences of Abuse and Complex Trauma

  1. How does one get the counseling seemingly necessary when one family member recognizes this pattern in another, but the latter points the finger outward: not me! ???

    1. Do you mean family counseling? Or counseling for yourself? I want to make sure I’m understanding your question correctly. In previous articles, and in my book, I address the issue of family at times engaging in ‘DARVO’ (Jennifer Freyd), which stands for ‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender’. Meaning, they claim to be victimized by the (scapegoated) family member who is simply telling the truth about how they have been treated.

    2. Sadly, this is why some FSA survivors choose to limit or end contact with those family members who continue to scapegoat them, as mentioned in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed (more information here): https://www.scapegoatrecovery.com/introduction-to-family-scapegoating-abuse-recovery-ebook/ If a family member is unwilling to consider the possibility they are playing a part in the family dysfunction, counseling is unlikely to have any positive effects, and may only cause further harm to the scapegoated family member.

  2. When I finally called everyone on the carpet and demanded that the scapegoating end and the respect begin, I was accused of having “early dementia” at the age of 55 (there is no past or present medical evidence of this). I told my family that they need to back off and leave me alone because they are not in control of me any longer. This didn’t go over very well. I was shamed and blamed all of my life for being a failure to them, socially and economically, but as soon as I became successful all by myself, my family did everything they could to destroy me and prevent me from being my own person without them. My family can’t live, breathe or function unless they have me as their scapegoat. And even with my no-contact policy, they still sneak around and question my friends and other family members about me, while trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life now. What my family did to me is a violation of every human rights law on this planet.

  3. Here are more “invalidation excuses and remarks” that can happen (and have) when an older (over 45) Scapegoat confronts their family and requests – or demands – from them that The Scapegoat Game is over and must end because it will no longer be tolerated:

    (1) “How dare you make demands like this to us? You are not entitled to anything like this.”
    (2) “You are attention-seeking again, as well as being self-centered and narcissistic.”
    (3) “You are making this up, because you spend all of your time online looking for psychological excuses to blame us for all of your life failures.”
    (4) “You watch too much Dr. Phil on TV.”
    (5) “We do not have a problem, you are the problem, and it has always have been this way.”
    (6) “Oh, G-d, you’re having menopause, and your hormones are making you talk crazy.”
    (7) “You have no right to talk like this to us, after all we have done for you.”
    (8) “Don’t upset our family, otherwise you will be taken out of the will.”… OR: “Go ahead, upset our elderly parent(s) about the past, you cannot change the past, so confront them!” (knowing that you WILL risk being disinherited, and they will get more).
    (9) “Don’t create a scandal within our own family and stop talking to outsiders/your spouse about how dysfunctional we are.”
    (10) “You were never sexually abused as a child (by a parent or someone else). Those are all false memories, and you cannot prove any of this today.”
    (11) “You are being unrealistic, demanding and aggressive. You are so delusional; we have never done what you say we did to you. You are showing signs of early dementia. You need to see a neurologist. Here is a list of local professionals to help you.”

    Scapegoat Abuse is a real circumstance in families, as well as an illegal mental assault of another human being’s psyche/soul. Let us all support Rebecca’s continued research, online work and books. Believe me, it is NOT you, it is THEM: your family as a gang. The minute you call them on the carpet and tell them to stop, they will do everything they can to make you look bad, crazy, or defective.

    1. Appreciate your two comments here, REW. I’ve directed readers of this article to read the ‘invalidation’ responses (reactions) you have personally experienced. They closely mirror reports from my clients over the years, and there’s a few in there I’ve heard myself, nearly word-for-word, when trying to share my truth with select family members many years ago. I imagine many people assume that the FSA survivor is “selfish” and impulsively ‘cuts off’ their family. Few understand the pain, frustration, ‘righteous rage’, and deep grief that leads up to this seemingly “radical” decision.

  4. My narc mother was also anti men and told my dad when she find she was pregnant that if it was a boy she would hate it! And boy did she!
    It was made worse when thru adopted a girl when I was 6!
    I was sent to boarding school at 10 to be basically got rid of!
    When I went to high school I was living again at home and it was like WW3 the whole time! I was blamed for everything, discouraged in anything I was interested in by my NM and basically couldn’t do anything right!
    I eventually left home a year before I left school because I knew if I went back I would probably kill her!
    Even that didn’t stop the abuse!
    I spent decades seeing counselors, etc. One asked me what my dreams and goals were and all I could ask was what she meant!
    I have been seeing a psychologist for nearly 10 years and once I worked out my mother was a narc it helped me understand.
    But I have always felt that my life has been a waste. My dad put me into a photography studio as he thought I should be doing it professionally due to my interest but the lack of self esteem and his controlling me meant I eventually failed!
    I’m in my early 60s and feel a total failure with no prospects.
    I’m on my own and feel totally disconnected from everyone and emotions apart from feeling depressed. I have a step daughter but because I feel emotionally disconnected I find it difficult to accept she might want to have me in her life.
    The abuse totally destroyed me and even though my dad after he left my NM tried to sort of fix things he wouldn’t admit his role in things which left me still isolated.
    The article describes my situation well but I think in some ways it was worse!

  5. Wow, how awful. My siblings don’t seem to care when I go no contact. They just go about their life. If I let them back in, the abuse starts up again. But if I stay away they don’t seem to care that I’m gone.

  6. This is exactly what my siblings do to me. If I tell them how they’ve hurt me, they deny, attack my character again, and then they spin the whole thing around and act like the victims and call me abusive. All I ever do is tell them how their behavior hurts me and they twist everything I say to fit their narrative that I’m a bad person and then they are the victims. It is so infuriating and frustrating. I’m at the point now where I’m done even trying to get through to them. All they do is use whatever I say as ammunition against me and they twist it to however it works best for their narrative.

  7. I could not agree with you more. The minute I drew a boundary and told my siblings that if they wanted to move forward then the abuse needs to stop, that opened the floodgates all over again. They all attacked my character all over again and promptly excluded me and my family from Thanksgiving. All for just stating the targeting needs to stop. I did nothing to them. I’ve been called “delusional” as well. Add to that “borderline,” “bipolar,” “crazy,” and in “great need of major mental help.” My relationship with my siblings is just gone. It took me 5 years to start accepting that.

  8. Adult siblings that continue to unfairly Scapegoat you today learned how to do this in the past, as kids, directly from your own mother or father, or whoever else was responsible for your upbringing. Children grow up believing what adults tell them. Child siblings do not wake up one day and automatically start Scapegoating another sibling. Someone else teaches them how to do so. There is no way in the world to change this, once it gets started. The worst Scapegoat abuser I have now is my own younger brother, and he learned all of this from our late mother.

    We have a younger half-sister who was born several months premature. She was born deaf, had a speech impediment, and never developed properly. It took years for her to learn to walk normally on her own without having balance issues. Doctors later had to give her growth hormones in order to reach puberty. When she went to school, my parents demanded that she not be placed in Special Education, because that meant DNA failure in their marriage (her father is not my father, by the way). So guess what the family narrative was then, and still is today? I, as the oldest, was scolded for being above average and doing well in accelerated classes in school, something that my sister could never do. I was told to “tone down” my abilities/talents and dumb down myself in order to not upstage my sister or hurt her feelings. I had to comply, while my brother was encouraged to excel.

    My parents taught my siblings that our sister was normal, while I was “too much.” That’s how I became the family Scapegoat. My mother was embarrassed that she had a disability baby with her new husband, and all of that frustration was rolled over onto me. Today, my sister is treated like she can do no wrong, while everything I did in life has been discounted or ignored in order to make my sister seem “normal.” My sister does not and cannot work. I have launched and sold two corporations in my life, all by myself without family financing. My sister’s father pays her bills and bought her a 5 bedroom home with a pool and an upstairs movie theater room. Yet there is something “wrong” with me, according to them. You cannot fix insanity in some families. So NO CONTACT is how to cope, and it’s easier than you think.

  9. Yes, but aren’t you glad you did this for YOU as a person? The feeling of freedom and healing gets stronger as time passes. You did not do anything to deserve this. You may not ever forget the horrific disrespect and trauma they caused you, but you can congratulate yourself for putting your foot down and saying NO MORE to your sibs.

  10. So, how do you get away from a family that simply won’t let you go?

    I’ve been trying to go ‘no contact’ for 30 years. It’s led to nothing but a series of events such as false charges of theft for ‘stealing’ my own belongings–no, they didn’t give them to me. I had a judge tell me as a legal adult that if I didn’t do what my parents told me when they told me, she’d make sure I went to jail and stayed there. I’ve endured phone calls that were nothing but screaming and being attacked by other family members if I told the screamer that I had dinner on the stove, the kids in the tub, or that I wasn’t going to listen to it. I’ve had family members show up uninvited and unannounced and bang on doors and windows until I answered. If I’m ever sick, I have to hear how there’s nothing really wrong with me and I need to just get back to work because I don’t make enough money. I’ve had family members report my whereabouts when I was out around town, just so the screamer could have ammo. I’ve been threatened with having my kids taken away, threatened with jail, threatened with commitment, etc. any time I backed away and didn’t stay in touch–these are just the things from adulthood.

    It got so bad about 20 years ago that I consulted an attorney about harassment charges or a restraining order and was told that no judge would touch it because it was family and they just wanted to know I was all right.

    I’ve been told I was crazy, a liar, making things up for attention, not capable of functioning on my own, etc. I’ve been hounded, harassed, and even went through a period as a teenager where I was forcibly drugged because I wasn’t allowed to speak with the therapist alone–I was in therapy to deal with my delusions of abuse and need for attention. This is the first place I’ve ever dared to mention this at all. I learned my lesson about keeping my mouth shut as a child.

    I’ve been fighting for so long that I’m exhausted. I’ve managed ‘low contact’, but that really does nothing toward helping me feel free to live my own life. If I don’t ‘check in’ on a regular basis, I’m at risk of cops showing up at my door, so I spend more time than I should dreading the phone conversations.

    I was flat out told that my purpose in life was to be a trophy, but surely that time has passed. They don’t call to have tantrums anymore, so what’s the point of them holding on so tightly? I just don’t understand and don’t know what steps I can take to make this really end. I feel like I’ve tried every possibility.

    1. Your situation sounds severe and extreme, indeed. What a terrible ordeal for you, and for so long. In cases like yours, I’ve seen people change their name and move to other countries – also extreme, but they did find some peace at last. However, the fact that they had to go to these lengths just to live their life without being stalked and harassed by their own family is something that nobody should have to endure. BTW: I see this happen more often within wealthy families versus families that are not as financially well off. They have more means and ability to conduct the stalking and harassing – often blatant.

  11. This all sounds so familiar. I am slowly coming to grips with scapegoating family. I haven’t quite figured out where the abuse came from exactly yet. I have figured out who keeps it alive. I am considering moving out of state again, with no contact. But I hate to give them that power.
    I’m absolutely amazed and mad at myself for falling each time , “working things out”. Over and over again I am blamed for the Drama. They believe ( my 4 sisters) that I am to blame. Exhausting, and I need help with this to keep my away from false hopes.

  12. There is very little here that I cannot relate to. Let me add another dimension that makes their behavior more hopeless and hateful: religion.

    “You are responsible for how you are. Instead of blaming everyone else, you should turn to God and ask for his forgiveness for your problems, real and imagined. Then you can wake up and smell the coffee and turn to his help. I can’t feel sorry for someone who doesn’t avail herself of better options in life.”

    Studies have long shown that religious people are often more selfish and act with less moral and ethical responsibility by invoking “God’s will.” For example, they are more likely to keep a found wallet with money, whereas the non-religious will more likely return it.

    “Religion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited. It allows them to justify their own selfish behavior as acting in accordance with God’s will.” – Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great”

    When you combine a lifetime of prejudiced beliefs and false narrative, lack of self-awareness and self-reflection, and a sense of self that relies on abusing the scapegoat, with religious sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness — well, reconciliation is impossible.

    1. Hi Rae,

      As these are both systemic-generated forms of abuse (religious and family), they can definitely interact with each other, and both have much in common. Cult systems are also comparable in this regard. Thank you for your comment.

  13. I am not sure how to come to terms with the situation that my grown-up sons have bought in to the (dysfunctional) family history that I am the scapegoat, based on the ‘fact’ that I ruined my mother’s career plans by being born – something that my younger sister (as a replica of our mother) keeps up and extends in a horrible way.

    1. Hi Elin, this does indeed sound like (painful and classic) family scapegoating dynamics. Were you able to read my book on what I named ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse, or FSA, yet? This is research-based from 20-plus years of client work and qualitative research I have conducted off and on for over a decade. You can read more about it here: https://www.scapegoatrecovery.com/introduction-to-family-scapegoating-abuse-recovery-ebook/

  14. So true REW. It was when I was in medical school – for the first time in my life really happy and on the road to a successful career – that my family’s abuse escalated to the point that I could no longer NOT see what was happening. Up to that point I bought the family narrative that I was “bad”, defective, crazy, to blame for everything. Once happy and on my path – once I was sure I wasn’t doing anything to warrant the mistreatment – I could see how cruel and vicious they are. They can’t take it when the scapegoat is about to break free and they do everything they can to set up roadblocks and obstacles to destroy what you’ve created and to prevent any more success. I’m glad you were able to achieve success; I’ve been unable to leave my role behind despite several years of no contact with the family.

  15. Thank you.

    You’re the first person, aside from one therapist 30 years ago (short relationship because she wouldn’t follow the family narrative), who hasn’t said I was nuts, a drama queen, stirring up trouble, delusional, the cause of all the problems, etc.

    It’s nice to start off the new year with something positive. I only found the right combination of keywords to discover FSA this past year. It’s hard to wrap my head around.

    1. You’re most welcome. My hope is that by my giving a name to this type of systemic psycho-emotional abuse (family scapegoating abuse, or FSA), and by sharing my research on this phenomenon, it will be easier for us all to wrap our heads around it – Not only for the survivors of FSA, but academics and clinicians as well.

  16. Do you have any suggestions on how to stop invalidating myself? I find my internalizing what my family has said about me. For example, “you’re making a bigger deal of this than it is” or “it really wasn’t that bad.” As an adult, I am having difficulty recognizing and stopping it because it seems so automatic.

    1. Hi Maren, great question. If this sort of systemic invalidation begins early in life, the ‘habit’ of invalidating yourself can be deeply entrenched as it was reinforced by scapegoating family. In a certain way, it is a form of gaslighting – The FSA survivor eventually begins gaslighting themselves, i.e., they are distorting reality by repeating the shaming and blaming family scapegoat ‘story’, or narrative about them, only this is an automatic response, not intentional, of course. Could this be happening with you?

      This also ties into the chapter in my book on what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA), Rejected, Shamed,and Blamed, on the ‘false self’. The next chapter discusses reclaiming ‘the true self’. Therein lies the key to releasing the ‘scapegoat story’ once and for all, and transcending the egoic personality (where habitual thinking, including self-blaming and shaming, is ingrained).

      I do send some clients out to have EMDR work if ‘talk therapy’ is not able to penetrate beyond the egoic defenses. With EMDR (or hypnosis or NLP), the thinking patterns can be ‘re-programmed’ and for a few of my clients it has been a life-saver, along with the dedicated work they have done in my FSA Recovery Coaching practice, which includes learning CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) techniques.

      If you have not read my book yet, you might start there. My goal is to get two more books out about what I named family scapegoating abuse, or FSA: One which publishes my research on FSA, and the next will be an FSA recovery workbook. I’ll announce the release of both books here.

  17. This is so true… I too, after a confrontation about being mistreated, spiral down full of doubt, shame, and self hatred. It takes days and sometimes weeks to snap out of this living hell!

  18. So sorry, Natalie, I thought I had replied to your comment here. I understand the exhaustion, as do most all of my clients. But it need not be this way. Have you read my book yet on the systemic aspects of what I named ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ (FSA) entitled ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’? If not, this might give you some more understanding and also provide you with reason to hope in regard to reclaiming your unique narrative, free of the ‘scapegoat story’. Sadly, this does sometimes lead to the decision to end contact to preserve one’s mental and emotional health.

  19. Thank you for commenting. I’m 47 years old and just now leaving my family of origin. I’ve only lived 2 years on my own. It’s a long story as to how that ended up being the case – my illnesses and job losses. I have read your book (more than once) and it was very helpful. I think because I’ve lived with my family all this time it’s going to be a difficult road getting these voices out of my head. I’ve tried EMDR and it wasn’t very helpful but perhaps it would have been if I had been away from my family. I’m curious about hypnosis and neurofeedback and wonder if it will help with the nightmares and internal dialogue. I have a trauma therapist but I can only afford to see her twice a month. I look forward to a recovery workbook and it’s wonderful all the work you’re doing in this area that is so much needed. I also struggle with what another person commented above about intimidation. I worry that I won’t be able to go no contact for fear they will call the police on me. I was hospitalized 15 years ago in a mental ward. The circumstances – the story my family tells other people didn’t happen. My sister reminded me when I complained that their story wasn’t accurate that I won’t be believed. She came into my room when my parents were not home and said this and then turned around and said the incident never happened and I was trying to turn the family against my mother. I’ve lived in fear all this time. My family has told extended family members about my “mental issues.” I was offered help from a non profit to hospitalize myself a second time. My mother had called them. I almost consented not realizing all the gaslighting that was happening. My therapist tells me not to worry about it since I’m not a threat to myself or others but I still worry since technically I have PTSD. My point being that I do have issues to work on so my family has a lot of proof and I have little actual evidence beyond a few saved text messages to prove the emotional abuse and gaslighting. Thank you for all you do.

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