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What Is Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)?

Healing From Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) Begins With Understanding What Happened To You In Your Family…

Since publishing my book on what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)™ (Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed), which was a result of my original Family Systems research, many FSA adult survivors have written to me privately saying things like, “I can’t believe what I am reading – It’s like you’re writing about my own life!”

My knowledge of family scapegoating dynamics is based in part on countless hours spent working with both individuals and families in residential treatment settings and in my private practice for the past 20 years, as well as my qualitative research findings on what I eventually named ‘family scapegoating abuse’, or ‘FSA’ – A type of abuse that is similar to narcissistic abuse, but has its own unique features, as described in previous articles. Given I have experience being in the ‘scapegoat’ role in my own family-of-origin, my clinical work is informed by my personal experience of family scapegoating’s negative impact as well.

Many of those writing to me express the intensity of emotions they experience when recognizing themselves as FSA survivors. Typical comments include, “At last, there’s a name that describes what I’ve been experiencing”, and “Now that I understand what may have happened to me, I have hope that perhaps there’s a way for me to recover.”

Often those reaching out to me to share their experiences of being scapegoated also have a lot of questions about family scapegoating abuse as related to their experiences of painful and damaging family betrayal.

Below are five of the most frequently asked questions I am asked by clients and readers, along with my responses (in brief), that are critical to understanding scapegoating abuse and its effects on the targeted family member:

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 a dysfunctional family system, the scapegoating may be fueled by unconscious systemic anxiety, intergenerational trauma, and the Family Projective Identification Process. Alternatively, in a narcissistic family system, whereby 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 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 what I call the ‘scapegoat narrative’, i.e., a ‘shaming and blaming’, distorted family narratives (aka ‘smear campaigns’) and can end up rejected and discarded by those who were supposed to love and care for them the most: Their own family-of-origin.

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 in a dysfunctional family system (i.e., rejecting, humiliating, blaming, and shaming) 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.

In a narcissistic family system, the scapegoating is driven by a narcissistic family power-holder – typically a parent but at times a grandparent or other power-holding family member. This family member may have strong narcissistic traits, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or may even be a malignant narcissist with sociopathic, sadistic traits. In such cases, the scapegoating abuse is typically conscious, malicious, and intentional.

Despite the fact that the ‘family scapegoat’ role is common to dysfunctional and narcissistic 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.

Why Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) Merits Global Attention

3 – What Are the Effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)? Many FSA adult survivors fail to realize that they have actually suffered from a form of systemic 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  (e.g., “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.

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. 

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 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 future articles.

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 (and at times physical) abuse. 

My FSA research also suggests that Family Scapegoating Abuse can also result in the adult survivor experiencing profound betrayal trauma symptoms; toxic shame, disenfranchised grief; and traumatic invalidation.

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 realize their most cherished goals and dreams.

More specifically: 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 victim 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 the FSA victim 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 upcoming blog posts, I’ll be going 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 about my book on Family Scapegoating Abuse:

rejected Shamed and Blamed' scapegoat book

Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed

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