Family Scapegoating Abuse and Conflicting Family Narratives

Family Scapegoating Abuse and Conflicting Family Narratives

Family scapegoating abuse (FSA) may be intentionally overlooked or rationalized by family members. The scapegoated child or adult will rarely get validation if they attempt to share their experiences of mistreatment or abuse. Siblings will frequently adopt the ‘scapegoat narrative’ promoted by the family system power-holder (typically a parent), causing the FSA victim to become isolated and cut off within their family-of-origin.

The Damaging ‘Scapegoat Narrative’

A scapegoating parent (who is typically the ‘power-holder’ in the family system, and therefore in control of the family narrative) often has a ‘story’ about their child that they are quick to share with anyone who will listen – a story whereby they are ‘good’ and their (scapegoated) child is “difficult,” a “problem,” “bad” and somehow innately defective.

This distorted narrative designed to elevate the parent and demean the child is shared within and outside of the family, resulting in siblings, extended relatives, and friends of the family viewing the scapegoated child through this same distorted, negative lens.

For example, a number of my FSA clients have been described as “mentally ill” or “crazy” by one or more of their nuclear or extended family members. In every case, these clients are intelligent, well educated, and positively contributing to society. Many are quite successful in their personal and professional endeavors and are highly regarded within their communities. Not one of them has been diagnosed with psychosis or a severe Axis I disorder at any time in their life.

If these outrageous claims (which are actually a form of slander and a defamation of character) were not so egregious and personally/professionally harmful, they would be almost laughable. In any event, it certainly does seem to be the ‘go-to’ story in dysfunctional families that scapegoat one of their own.

While on the surface it may not seem to make much sense, this strangely common narrative that the scapegoated child/adult child is mentally ill is typical in families where aggressive, dominant family members seek to de-power and discredit the victim of their deliberately hostile behaviors. It is a defensive maneuver designed to establish the “sanity” of the abuser and the “insanity” of their victim. After all, who would believe the reports of a “crazy” person?

Releasing the ‘Scapegoat Story’

Although the work of freeing yourself from the painful and damaging role of ‘family scapegoat’ isn’t easy, it is indeed possible to reclaim the truth of who you are so that you can live a self-empowered life that includes love, respect, serenity, and clarity. Your recovery will hinge upon one basic concept: Cultivating a connection with, and embodying, your ‘true self’, free of the ‘shaming and blaming’ family
‘scapegoat’ narrative

When I first begin to work with clients who are suffering from the mental and emotional anguish caused by family scapegoating abuse (FSA), I help them understand that they have been imprisoned in a role common to dysfunctional/narcissistic family systems. This highly destructive arrangement invariably benefits the power-holders in their family-of-origin (often one or both parents and/or a dominant sibling, but not always).

While educating my clients on FSA, I explain that their personal narrative, i.e., their unique life story, has been co-opted and distorted by those empowered within their family to do so as part of a macabre and complex multigenerational ‘dance’.

Said differently: Their identity has become embedded within a twisted, distorted, ‘shaming and blaming’ narrative which acts like a cancer that metastasizes and spreads throughout the ‘body’ of their nuclear and extended family.

In place of the truth of who they are, the scapegoated child/adult child becomes imprisoned within an extraordinarily damaging false narrative that requires them to accept their ‘role’ as faulty, damaged, and defective.

Recognizing this toxic narrative for the lie that it is will therefore be the first step in the FSA adult survivor’s healing. An intensive therapeutic focus on self-care, self-compassion, and self-love (which will include developing and setting boundaries and deciding who should or should not be in your life) must go hand-in-hand with releasing the destructive ‘family scapegoat’ narrative. Complex trauma symptoms must also be carefully assessed and addressed to ensure lasting recovery due to the genuinely traumatizing nature of family scapegoating abuse.

Parts of this article were excerpted from my book on family scapegoating abuse, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed. currently on sale on Amazon (Kindle, Paperback, and Hardcover).

9 thoughts on “Family Scapegoating Abuse and Conflicting Family Narratives

  1. At age 52, after spending 8 years in a new town with my young son living in substandard rental housing I could barely afford having used all my savings as I failed to secure a mortgage for my fresh start after a breakup. I found out that my parents had loaned my brother $100k to buy a Bach. All I needed was for them to be guarantor on a mortgage of $115k in my own name for a house I had found that I could afford after having a mortgage since I was 20. My son is 16 this year and what a wonderful boy he is despite shifting rentals 5 times and not being able to have a pet or do any extra curricular stuff, all because I couldn’t be controlled, apparently. The lies told about me are horrendous. Now my mum is fantastic, I had a great childhood; never suspected she didn’t like me. Although on retrospect the signs were there. Heartbroken, I feel like I have lived a false life and have had to stop contact for my own sanity.

    1. Thank you for commenting. It is quite a shock to discover the underlying ‘scapegoat’ narrative that somehow we remained oblivious to, sometimes for decades and decades. Waking up to reality can be painful, but it is necessary if we are to recover our true Self. Sadly, in cases where the narrative will not shift, and you are seen only within the confines of the damaging ‘family scapegoat’ role, ending ties will be necessary in order to experience optimal well-being and mental/emotional health.

  2. Rebecca, question for you: some of the reading I’ve done on this subject includes a therapist’s opinion that the perpetrators’ scapegoating behaviors are wholly unconscious to the perpetrators. What’s your take on this, please?

    1. Great question, Stacey. Classic Family Systems thinking in regard to the family ‘identified patient’ attributes family scapegoating to unconscious processes fueled by unaddressed, unacknowledged, or repressed intergenerational (aka multigenerational) trauma and attendant (repressed) anxiety. I discuss this at various points in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed. After 20 years of working with FSA survivors, my own opinion is that the worst cases of scapegoating do indeed occur in families with intergenerational trauma and it is this unacknowledged trauma and grief that the scapegoated child/adult child is burdened with and forced to unwittingly carry, versus “the sins” of the family.

      In most (but not all) cases, family members who project onto the ‘identified patient’ are unconscious of this process. They genuinely see the child/adult child as defective and feel righteous in their condemnation of the FSA victim and experience absolutely no shame or guilt when mistreating / abusing the scapegoated family member. This does not excuse their horrific behavior, however. Abuse is abuse is abuse and family scapegoating must be recognized as such, especially by the FSA survivor, if they are to fully heal.

      With that said, it is also my experience that the scapegoating can be conscious, intentional, and deliberate in cases where the scapegoating is driven by a family member who is narcissistic or has narcissistic traits (such as lack of empathy and insight) or has another type of personality disorder or is mentally ill, or is a sociopath, or sadistic – something I plan to discuss at length in a future book. I also see scapegoating occur when the FSA victim was also a victim of sexual abuse in the family and the perpetrator (a family member or someone connected to the family) wants to discredit the victim so that they are not a believable reporter, as mentioned in my article here.

      You may want to read an article I co-wrote here on my blog on the narcissistic parent and the ‘martyr parent ploy’ for examples of scapegoating that is conscious and intentional. Link to the article here:

  3. Have you seen many cases where scapegoating comes to the fore as a parent ages and needs care? I’ve become the primary carer for my mother after multiple strokes, and a younger sister supports me and allows me to get some reprieve by stepping in on a regular basis. Our 4 older sisters have created some false narratives around why they can’t help, that are linked to apparent blockages we present to mums care, and consistently display DARVO on various issues. I had to go no-contact early on in the caring role, just to have the energy to care for mum, and whenever I think it might be time for reaching out to them to try to understand and address their issues, I get more DARVO back. It seems intractable, and we have recently had family therapy to try to work it through as siblings, though I’m now understanding it was/is probably too early for those approaches. My 3-strong therapist team recommended a radical approach of a truce and dealing with own hurts and grievances separately, suggesting it may take many years to be able to reconnect.

    1. I have actually seen this with some clients in my therapy and coaching practices and it is not at all uncommon. From a Family Systems perspective, the death or deterioration of a parent due to stroke, dementia, etc, raises anxiety (both conscious and unconscious) within the family system, including within the sibling sub-system. This is because the homeostasis (or balance) that held the system together is shaken. For example, a parent that acted as a guiding force, matriarch or patriarch, or domineering power-holder is no longer able continue on in this role; this effects the roles of each sibling and power shifts will likely occur as a result. The resulting systemic anxiety related to shifts in roles and identities within the family can cause all hell to break loose and some very ugly things can occur as a result, which I have witnessed first hand.

      Until the individual family members are each able to understand what may be occurring from a more holistic, systemic viewpoint, it will be difficult for them to tolerate hearing that they have a part in the family dysfunction or participate meaningfully in family therapy. It is often the scapegoated adult child that suffers the most in these instances, and it sounds like this may have happened to you. Also, your position as your mother’s caretaker may have been very triggering for your siblings for reasons that can only be wondered about on my end.

      Part of a ‘radical’ approach to the FSA adult survivor’s healing is adopting an attitude of ‘radical acceptance’, as described in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed. You cannot control or fix this situation, and you are wise to seek out professional assistance and allow your therapeutic team to guide you through these choppy dysfunctional family system seas. As I state in my book and in articles here on my blog, family therapy cannot possibly be effective when the unconscious projective identification process is active within the family system (in this case, you apparently are the target as the family scapegoat within the sibling sub-system). Meaning, if you attempt to do family therapy while the projections are active within the sibling sub-system you would be going where angels fear to tread. I wish you the very best as you navigate through a difficult situation.

  4. Very illuminating article, thank you, Rebecca. I’ve never felt that scapegoating as a completely unconscious mechanism explained my circumstances, and this article really clarifies why that may be. Looking forward to reading the new book!

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