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When Abusers Depower the Scapegoat Child (What My Research Revealed)

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Have you ever been called crazy or emotionally or mentally ill by members of your own family, either to your face or behind your back? If so, you’re not alone, as my latest research results on this particular aspect of family scapegoating abuse (FSA) attests.

If you prefer to listen to this discussion instead, you can check out my video here.

Those of you who have read my introductory guide on what I named family scapegoating abuse (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, may already be familiar with this issue of scapegoated children and adult children being told they’re “crazy” or mentally or emotionally ill because I do discuss this briefly in my book.

However, it was always my intention to conduct more research on this particular issue; I therefore included a question about this specific aspect of FSA in the survey that I just wrapped up (if you missed taking it that’s okay – I’ll be rolling out two more surveys before the year ends).

The research I conduct is qualitative in nature, meaning I’m looking at people’s lived experience. The pool of research respondents are people who identify as being in the ‘family scapegoat’ role, so that’s an important consideration to remember when you’re looking at my research results. I also like to point out that this is not peer-reviewed research.

Why Abusers Must Discredit Their Victims

Why would someone be told that they’re “crazy,” or mentally or emotionally ill, or “psycho” (or whatever words a family member chooses to use)? Why would they say this to, or about, someone in their family when it simply is not true?

There’s a lot of reasons that this can happen. In my clinical opinion (and experience), this is primarily done in an attempt to depower the target of FSA. This is also a way to do what I called in a recent video a preemptive strike – something I see most often with a covert narcissist parent or sibling who engages in scapegoating behaviors.

Specifically: If an abuser is ultimately successful in invalidating someone as a believable reporter to others or invalidating someone’s perceptions or their intelligence – their ability to see into the truth of things – then that’s going to possibly protect them from being called out on their abusive behavior.

In the end, calling the family ‘scapegoat’ “crazy” is a defensive maneuver whereby the abuser seeks to establish their sanity while simultaneously establishing the insanity (so to speak) of the person that they are abusing. After all, who would believe the reports of a crazy person?

“You’re Crazy!” and the False ‘Scapegoat Narrative’

To take it one step further: If the abusive family member is not challenged within the family (which is often the case if they are dominant and are able to intimidate or control weaker family members via angry, aggressive, or manipulative behavior), the idea that the scapegoated child or adult child is “crazy” or somehow mentally “off” or emotionally unstable will quickly be incorporated into the damaging scapegoat narrative that spreads throughout the entire family system like a toxic oil slick – a distorted narrative that gets repeated to people both in and outside the family; a false narrative that might follow the FSA target for life.

The dynamics described above are especially common in families where the scapegoated child is the victim of sexual abuse. There will typically be a strong campaign (courtesy of the abuser) to discredit that child in case they were to ever report the truth of what was actually happening to them at the hands of the abusive family member.

As a practicing clinician who works with FSA adult survivors, I will also see this “You’re crazy!” dynamic associated with the family Empath – the child or adult child who is able to intuitively see into, or through, dysfunctional family dynamics, although they are not always equipped to call abusive family members out on their behaviors due to protective survival responses.

Below is a slide from my final research results from Item #4 on my first survey of 2023. Percentages are based on a total of 922 survey respondents:

1 – 370 respondents – 40% – have been called mentally ill by a family member to their face.

2 – 295 respondents – 32% – have been called mentally ill by a family member behind their back.

3 – 183 respondents – 20% – suspect this is happening but can’t prove it.

The Scapegoat Narrative and Trauma

Just think about the above statistics for a minute. We’re living in a world where we have children growing up in families where they are invalidated, dismissed, and treated abominably at times, who are then labelled “crazy” by their family members – and there seems to be no meaningful socio-cultural conversations happening around this beyond ‘niche’ groups on social media.

The fact is, being told you’re crazy by your own family can be traumatizing. A child growing up hearing this message can be traumatized by it. An adult child getting this message can be traumatized by it. If it’s happened enough, they may feel hopeless and invalidated due to their truth being twisted, distorted, and/or denied and the fact of their abuse being ignored, disbelieved, and/or dismissed via one simple yet lethal phrase: “You’re crazy!”

Imagine how hard a child has to work to overcome this type of reality distortion. How can they feel confident going out into the world if from a very young age they may have been invalidated or told they’re mentally or emotionally ill? It may take the adult survivor of FSA years or decades to finally figure out that they grew up in a family that scapegoated them. They never really had a chance to feel safe and grounded and rooted in their truth, much less be supported, protected, and believed.

How many adult survivors experience suicidal ideation or have actually committed suicide because of these types of scapegoating behaviors that are happening every day all around us behind closed doors? I don’t know about you, but I’m not hearing enough people talk about this, including in the Mental Health profession.

If you were told you were crazy by members of your family, recognize it as a false narrative that has nothing to do with you. Be curious when you notice negative self-talk. Where did such negative statements and beliefs originate from?

How often are you dismissing and invalidating your own lived experience?

If you notice that you are on some level buying into these false beliefs, you may want to experiment with some of the affirmations I originally made for clients in my FSA Recovery Coaching practice which are now ​available for free on YouTube. I’ve had many people tell me they listen to them every day and they have found it to be very helpful in regard to subduing self-criticism, self-shaming, and self-blame. I hope this will be true for you as well.

13 thoughts on “When Abusers Depower the Scapegoat Child (What My Research Revealed)”

  1. Jo

    Dr M,
    For me it’s every time there’s a conflict, it could be anything at all. My view is disregarded and they change the script on me. I stand there with my mouth open like No, that’s not what happened. But it’s been that way my whole life. Imagine what that does to your mind.

    1. Right. I have found NC is really. The only way to save myself. Low contact just drug the same stuff in just at a slower pace. I also did not know what NC was when I first commited myself to it. I did 1st Nc at 19yo. Then when I was 24 I broke it. You know give another chance all that. Then I restarted it in 2008. Its been going strong since then.

      It is just too much. And yeah, invalidation all the way around. Every family member. Just the family outcast is what it ends up being. Few Flying monkeys have dropped off now, so theres only a few left. It is really aweful. I have found that I feel better distanced from it. I know they still rattle on about whatever insert here thing, but at least I dont have to be subjected to it day to day. I dont trust any of them. And I dont see that changing.

  2. Tara

    This is so true to my situation. I’m the empath in a large family (youngest of 7). The Scapegoating abuse (that in hindsight had been there my whole life) didn’t come to light until I was in my 50s – soon after the death of my father (the only other empath in the family). The problem is, it wasn’t just my family that labeled me as crazy. Healthcare professionals, therapists, and legal professionals did as well. Nobody recognized my deep depression and anxiety as trauma responses because my family looked so normal from the outside. Once I was labeled as “mentally ill” everything got so much worse for me… I spiraled into a true breakdown because nobody was validating my experience. It took 2 years of really hard work (mostly on my own) to “heal myself” from misdiagnosed bipolar disorder r/o borderline personality disorder!

    I’d love to know if there are other victims of FSA who have been misdiagnosed and who ended up harmed even further by well-meaning therapists and psychiatrists who don’t understand trauma, much less trauma from FSA.

    1. Cathie

      Tara, so sorry to hear about your experiences. Your message sounds strong though. Your knowledge and insight indicate great strength and resilience. We who are picked to be the family scapegoat are often the intelligent, caring and strong entities within the family. We’re chosen so that our qualities will be squashed. This ensures no light will shine on their evil natures.

      Nevertheless, I understand the web of complex trauma caused predominantly by FSA. Most counselors, psychologists, even psychiatrists don’t understand complex trauma or FSA and hence, make things worse.

      Unless they’ve experienced FSA themselves, I strongly believe we’re wasting our money by approaching them for help. I was lucky ie I had a psychiatrist who had himself been the family scapegoat. He had in-depth understanding and knowledge. Unfortunately, he’s passed away. His death left me feeling hopeless and helpless. Now I’m back to having no one who understands.

      Luckily we have these blogs to lean on and to learns from. I don’t know what I’d do without them. I’m 61yrs. I also discovered my role as family scapegoat when I was in my 50’s. I was oppressed all my life.

      I wasn’t mis diagnosed but can well imagine it happening given the lack of knowledge within the healthcare professions.

      I currently have a counsellor only because I have no one I trust to talk with about my research into strategies for healing etc. She doesn’t have a clue about FSA but at least I realise. My expectations are in line with what reality.

      Keep reading these blogs. Gain knowledge and healing from them. You’re probably an amazing person, gentle, kind and honest…Family scapegoats usually are.

      1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

        Hi Cathie, just FYI, many FSA adult survivors have written me to let me know that they gave my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed (my introductory, research-based guide on FSA) to their therapist or psychiatrist and they were happy to read it – and glad they did. Just a thought…!

    2. Jo

      One of the great doctors wrote a quote, when trauma get its due the DSM on mental illness will be a pamphlet. I was diagnosed bipolar also. I’ve been and still am struggling to get off of there useless medications. They destroyed my sex drive completely and my relationships.

  3. Suzanne

    They didn’t call me “crazy” – and mercifully I didn’t suffer the horrors that Julia did. In my case, it was more generalized character assassination: e.g. irresponsible, lazy, incompetent (I was a top student who worked hard at school and participated in a lot of the school’s extracurricular activities). “I-messages” (as recommended for conflict resolution) were met with “Oh, so you feel [whatever] do you – isn’t that just too bad” or “Nobody is interested in what you think” or “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself” or “Don’t expect sympathy.”

    It wasn’t constant, but it was unpredictable, and it had a powerful effect on my concept of who I was, as well as what I did and did not deserve in life. Feedback from friends and colleagues was that I came across as apologetic, self-effacing, and diffident. I still catch myself feeling inadequate. Thank you Rebecca for the incredibly valuable work that you are doing.

  4. Julia

    Try being labelled crazy by your family and then coerced into psychiatric treatment by your mother when you are 17 years old. Then try being subjected to electroshock treatments for almost 4 years by a psychiatrist who continues the labelling. (7 years later the psychiatrist was fired from the hospital for indiscriminate use of electroshock, and censured by the state board of medical examiners.) At age 76 I still experience flashbacks, fears, hypervigilance, triggers, etc., but I have been lucky to be able to have a somewhat normal life. I wrote a book about the experience under a pseudonym, Julia Hoeffler Welton, and published on; the title is From the Lion’s Mouth. Thank you, Rebecca, for bringing the idea of scapegoating in families to light and, hopefully, to prominence.

    1. Tara

      @Julia – I’m so sorry to hear your story. I am a pediatric nurse turned psychiatric nurse after my own psychiatric crisis at age 55. Unfortunately, I have found that mainstream psychiatry is very corrupt. Few people are helped by being diagnosed (labeled) with a “mental illness” when what we are all suffering from is complex trauma. The earlier people receive a label, the worse the outcomes. How did you finally escape the horror? You are clearly incredibly strong and courageous. I will look for your book.

    2. Greta

      Dear Julia, God Bless you, Awesomely Strong Goddess of Light who survived such atrocities. What a dark shadow projection you experienced so relentlessly! God! I am so sorry for your experiences of this. Also, did you know that the writer, Paul Coehlo (The Alchemist) from Brazil who is NOW worth 400 million dollars also had parents who committed him to an institution 3 times when he was young where he also received electroshock therapy? Just because he wanted to be a writer and not an engineer. Parents in the name of love (with fear as their primary motivator and their own distorted identities about themselves can do atrocious things). I’ll buy your book and comment on Amazon. Thanks for being an inspiration to me. Greta

  5. Debra B

    Thank you, Rebecca. This is so sad and also very helpful. I appreciate your work in bringing this to attention through deliberate study. In my life, the idea that I am emotionally unbalanced and therefore untrustworthy has caused me a lot of pain. I am in my sixties now and finally beginning to claim my true voice, but being discredited by my entire family as a child set in place deep seeds of self-doubt. d

    1. Greta

      Dear Debra, I totally relate. I am 61, surprisingly fit, healthy and still alive with fervor and determination but just finally having the courage to FACE THE TRUTH, thanks to Rebecca. I still hold to a Christ-centered optimism and hope. Deep down I know I still have a lot to do in life. I’ve reached great heights and fallen most times because I’ve FINALLY realized someone put the brakes on my lamborgini 🙂 long ago (and currently tries to reach out their tendril threads of shadow projection and no matter my conscious planning and gusto, I fall short of who my authentic self is as a result. I’ve even delved into some pretty convincing, repetitive narratives of intergenerational trauma that is very revealing. I want to heal. I’m determined to heal. Have you found a good trauma informed therapist for yourself? Greta

      Rebecca, You’re AWESOME! I’m 1000% behind all your efforts. I’ve read, read, read and am reading, reading and EMDRing, EFTing, etc, but I’m still stymied on locating/affording the right therapist since you stress “trauma-informed” and I’d also like someone skilled in FSA like you. Any referrals for Monterey Bay/San Francisco Bay area would be highly appreciated.

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