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What Is Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)?

what is family scapegoat abuse

Attribution Required: Thank you for your interest in my research and articles on FSA. Please note that Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)™ and Family Scapegoating Abuse Recovery Coaching℠ are trademarked terms. You may use the following attribution when referencing it in an original work:

Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) is a term coined by Psychotherapist and Family Systems expert Rebecca C. Mandeville during the course of her original research on this dysfunctional systemic phenomenon, as described in her introductory book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat role.”

About the term ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ or ‘Family Scapegoat Abuse’ (FSA)

Psychotherapist and Family Systems researcher Rebecca C. Mandeville coined the term ‘family scapegoating abuse’, or ‘FSA’ in 2010 during the course of her Family Systems research on the ‘scapegoat child’ and the family ‘Identified Patient’ (IP). Bringing attention to this devastating – even traumatizing – form of ‘invisible’ (pyscho-emotional) systemic abuse via her introductory guide on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, has provided scapegoated Adult Survivors and Mental Health professionals a common language to describe this damaging dysfunctional and narcissistic family systems phenomenon.

It’s been very rewarding to see that therapists and Mental Health clinics are now adopting the term family scapegoating abuse and releasing articles on FSA to educate others. I will continue to speak out on family scapegoating abuse whenever I am asked as I advocate for those whose psycho-emotional health has been negatively impacted by this form of systemically-driven psycho-emotional abuse. Below are my answers to five questions I am frequently asked about FSA:

5 Critical Things to Know About Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)

1 – What Is the ‘Family Scapegoat’? ‘The Scapegoat’ is one of the roles unconsciously ‘assigned’ to a child growing up in a dysfunctional or narcissistic family system. In such families, the scapegoating may be fueled by systemic anxiety, intergenerational trauma, and the Family Projective Identification Process. If a parent or other dominant family member is highly narcissistic, has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), or is a malignant narcissist, the scapegoating can be severe, deliberate, conscious, and intentional in nature and the Family Projective Identification Process may or may not be involved. The scapegoating of a particular family member typically (but not always) begins in childhood and often continues into and throughout adulthood, although the role may be passed around to different family members at times.

Because family scapegoating processes can be insidious and subtle, many adult survivors do not realize that they are suffering from a most egregious (and often chronic) form of systemically-driven psycho-emotional bullying and abuse, with all of the painful consequences to body, mind, and spirit.

More specifically: Children and adult children who are caught in the ‘family scapegoat’ role are the ‘Identified Patient’ (IP) in their family. As such, they are often the targets of ‘shaming and blaming’, distorted family narratives (aka ‘smear campaigns’) and can end up rejected and discarded by those who were supposed to love them the most: Their own family-of-origin. (Article continues, below…)

My book on what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) is available on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback formats

You can also purchase it at these online Book Retailers

2 – Why Do Families Scapegoat? Research suggests that parents who are mentally ill or emotionally unstable (including those who have a personality disorder, such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder) are far more likely to scapegoat their own child than a psycho-emotionally healthy and stable parent. This is why it is extremely important to be aware of the fact that family scapegoating can occur in ANY type of dysfunctional family system, not just a narcissistic one.

Such parents may attack their child to release their pent up frustrations and deep feelings of abandonment, ‘toxic shame’, or self-hatred. They might engage in ‘splitting’ behaviors as well, e.g., they might pit one sibling against the other to create a camp of ‘allies’. Parents that ‘split’ will also tend to see one child as ‘good’ (the ‘golden child’) and another as ‘bad’ (the ‘scapegoat’).

In Family Systems theory, scapegoating in a dysfunctional (not narcissistic) family system is understood to be fueled by unconscious processes (specifically, the Family Projective Identification Process) whereby the family displaces their own collective psychological difficulties and complexes onto a specific family member. 

This does not mean that all acts of scapegoating (i.e., rejecting, humiliating, blaming, and shaming) a child are unconscious – rather, the projective identification process fueling the scapegoating of the family member is unconscious (and, as mentioned above, is often rooted in, and fueled by, intergenerational trauma) .

This process of projection, shaming, and blaming serves to divert attention away from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems via casting the targeted family member into the role of ‘scapegoat’. It is sometimes the case that families who scapegoat one of their own are oblivious to the fact that they are engaging in psycho-emotional abuse and will become highly defensive if this is pointed out.

Despite the fact that the ‘family scapegoat’ role is common to dysfunctional families, there is surprisingly little research or literature available to both lay-person and clinician describing family scapegoating’s features and effects on the targeted child / adult child. As a result, family scapegoating is seldom recognized as abuse warranting clinical intervention and treatment. (Article continues, below…)

Join Rebecca on YouTube on her channel Beyond Family Scapegoating Abuse

3 – What Are the Effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)? Many FSA adult survivors fail to realize that they have actually suffered from psycho-emotional abuse growing up, and even their therapist or counselor might miss the signs and symptoms associated with being in this most devastating dysfunctional family role.

Specifically: Adults seeking assistance from a mental health professional may find that the genuine pain and distress they are experiencing is minimized or even invalidated. For example, the FSA adult survivor may be told, “But they’re your family, of course they love you”; “Family connections are so important, it can’t be that bad”; “It’s best if you forgive, we need to maintain ties with our family to be healthy”), which only serves to reinforce the scapegoated adult’s fear that they are somehow fundamentally to blame for their strained (or non-existent) family relationships.

As a consequence of having their family relational distress and abuse symptoms go unrecognized, many adult survivors of FSA suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and anger management issues. They may have been diagnosed in the past with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and even Dissociative Identity Disorder with Psychosis. Per my research on FSA, the scapegoated adult survivor will often develop Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms as well (refer to number 4 in this list, below), which typically go unrecognized and unaddressed, even in a therapeutic setting.

In addition to the above disorders, FSA survivors may have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Agoraphobia. Others may be diagnosed with a personality disorder (Borderline Personality Disorder, especially), or an attachment disorder. They also often present with codependency and/or addiction. 

Watch my Public Service Announcement on the Effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse on Survivors

4 – Can Family Scapegoating Abuse Lead to Complex Trauma?

Yes. It has been my observation that in addition to being diagnosed with one or more of the disorders listed above, many family scapegoating abuse survivors are suffering from symptoms of undiagnosed, untreated Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) – a fact that I discuss at length in my introductory book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed. It can also lead to what I named Family Scapegoating Trauma (FST), which I will be discussing in a future article.

More specifically: As related to my ongoing work with adult survivors seeking to recover from family scapegoating abuse, it is my experience that the rejecting, shaming, and otherwise non-nurturing, harmful, and abusive family environment my clients grew up in (and had no means of escaping from) has actually contributed to their experiencing symptoms of Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD – which is also known as complex trauma disorder) secondary to chronic parental / family psycho-emotional abuse that is systemic and most often insidious.

5 – What’s One of the Biggest Obstacles to FSA Recovery? Scapegoated adults often don’t realize how their familial distress has been negatively impacting nearly every area of their life, including their mental and emotional health, relationships, work, and their ability to form and/or realize their most cherished goals and dreams.

Why is this the case? Scapegoated adults often feel debilitated by self-doubt and ‘Impostor Syndrome’ in their relationships and in the work-place, and blame themselves for their difficulties. They typically struggle in regard to creating and experiencing a sense of life mission, passion, and purpose, and find themselves succumbing to feelings of futility, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and despair. In extreme cases they may feel that taking their own life is the only way to end their pain, as they see no way to rectify their situation or heal from the grave injustices done to them.

What the FSA victim may see as ‘family conflict’ is often unrecognized mental and emotional abuse. To compound matters further, the FSA adult survivor typically doesn’t realize how being the target of family scapegoating is affecting their ability to succeed and thrive in their personal and professional life.

It may not even occur to victims of family scapegoating abuse that they may need to limit or (in extreme cases) even end contact with abusive family members who refuse to take ownership for their damaging behaviors – especially if there are cultural and/or financial considerations that seem insurmountable and impossible to overcome.

In my blog posts, YouTube videos, and book (Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed), I go into more detail regarding each of the five aspects of family scapegoating abuse listed above, along with some time-tested and proven FSA recovery strategies that can be especially helpful when the targeted family member feels they have no choice but to remain in contact with those who are maltreating them. You may subscribe to this blog to receive these articles via email when they are released.

Learn more about the insidious family projection process affecting all FSA adult survivors.

Learn about my book on Family Scapegoating Abuse:

Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed


Copyright 2023 – 2024 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved

4 thoughts on “What Is Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)?”

  1. Amy K

    Wow! I was googling the abuse older sister has some and is doing to me, and I feel so blessed to have found this article. So informative and I’m so excited to order your book. I finally found material that makes sense. You hit the nails on the head and described my life exactly. My case is extreme right now cause I tried going to little contact with the narcissist sister abusing me as the scapegoat. I’ve never understood why or what is happening but I feel .on the right path. I’m ordering your book off Amazon today. Thank you so much!

  2. Alan

    Of course you information is great but no one seems to be mentioning that scapegoats can and do scapegoat their siblings causing that sibling is scapegoated within the family and continued in adulthood by the sibling and others.
    Scapegoats can also turn out to be narcissistic personalities causing havoc.
    Of course the scapegoat is a victim but they create more victims.
    Where is the others side of the scapegoat? It probably doesn’t fit into people sales pitch.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Hi Alan, this can indeed happen. I’m not sure you are familiar enough with my work to know whether I have discussed this or not. I actually have. And I plan to do a YouTube video on this soon. “Hurt people hurt people.” I know first-hand what it is like to be attacked by scapegoated people: It happens here – and elsewhere – more than you might imagine. Thank you for writing in.

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Copyright 2024 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved

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