Scapegoating – An Insidious Family Pattern of Blame and Shame on a Family Member
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
There are different reasons one child is singled out to be scapegoated. Perhaps the child is viewed as vulnerable. Or the child is hyperactive, non-compliant or acts out. Sometimes the scapegoated child is viewed as one who is weak and cannot defend himself. At times the parent heaps on the blame because he cannot stand the child who has traits and characteristics that are similar to his own! Sometimes the child has personality traits that are similar to a disliked relative (She reminds me of my aunt Tillie whom I never liked.). Other children in the family can pick up the scapegoating pattern and join in taunting and hurting the scapegoated child. In extremely dysfunctional families, the parent may goad the other children to pick on the disfavored one.
Sometimes one child is favored and given special status by the parent. This child can do no wrong according to the parent when they are growing up, but being the favorite backfires on them. In this insidious pattern of favoritism, all members of the family are affected. Children who are scapegoated often feel insecure and develop a victim mentality. They learn that they are at the bottom of the pecking order in the family and often automatically gravitate to that role at school or at work. This dynamic of making one child “good” and another child “bad” in the family is a vicious generational theme learned and passed down from parents to children. Children who are favored often develop their own form of pathology in that they grow up feeling special and entitled. One woman said, “For years I resented my sister who my mother adored. I wished I had been special to my mother. Now I see how messed up my sister is and I’m glad I was not the chosen one of a very sick mother.”
Often an insecure parent will be aggressive with one of the children to vent his own sense of frustration at not doing well in life. Aggression in families creates a decrease in self-esteem in the children. Aggression, the use of force against another human being, is always present in scapegoating. As Elizabeth A. Kaspar says, “The aggressive person is one who tries to dominate others. Aggressiveness, too, can take several forms. The aggressive person is frequently rude and humiliating (e.g., “What do you mean, you aren’t going to do it?”), or the aggressive person can become self-righteous (e.g., “I am only insisting on this for your own good.”), or she/he can resort to being manipulative (e.g., “If you refuse, what will everyone think of you?”).”
Bullying is always scapegoating. Abuse is always scapegoating.
It seems as if we humans as a species seem to need someone to vent our anger on and make wrong. Scapegoating is a projection defense. It is the ego saying, “If I can put the blame on you, I don’t have to recognize and take responsibility for the negative qualities in myself. What I can’t stand about myself, I really hate in you and have to attack you for in order to deny that I have the same quality.”
Scapegoating is a huge social problem contributing to the hate that exists in the world. Scapegoating of whole groups of people happens when there is prejudice or stereotyping. Unfortunately, in a larger sense, some Jewish people or other ethnic groups and minorities have been scapegoated by the lower conscious members of their culture.
Surprisingly there is not much research on scapegoating for all the damage that is does to families and to society. Here are some ideas from The Scapegoat Society, Forest Row, East Sussex, RH18 5JF, England.
“Scapegoating is a hostile social – psychological discrediting routine by which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves and towards a target person or group. It is also a practice by which angry feelings and feelings of hostility may be projected, via inappropriate accusation, towards others. The target feels wrongly persecuted and receives misplaced vilification, blame and criticism; he is likely to suffer rejection from those who the perpetrator seeks to influence. Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. Distortion is always a feature….
In scapegoating, feelings of guilt, aggression, blame and suffering are transferred away from a person or group so as to fulfill an unconscious drive to resolve or avoid such bad feelings. This is done by the displacement of responsibility and blame to another who serves as a target for blame both for the scapegoater and his supporters. The scapegoating process can be understood using the Drama Triangle concept [Karpman, 1968]. [Note: See my article “The Drama Triangle: The Three Roles of Victimhood” ]
The perpetrator’s drive to displace and transfer responsibility away from himself may not be experienced with full consciousness. Self-deception is often a feature. The target’s knowledge that he is being scapegoated builds slowly and follows events. The scapegoater’s target experiences exclusion, ostracism or even expulsion.
In so far as the process is unconscious it is more likely to be denied by the perpetrator. In such cases, any bad feelings – such as the perpetrator’s own shame and guilt – are also likely to be denied. Scapegoating frees the perpetrator from some self-dissatisfaction and provides some narcissistic gratification to him. It enables the self-righteous discharge of aggression. Scapegoaters tend to have extra-punitive characteristics [Kraupl-Taylor, 1953]. ….On another view, scapegoaters are insecure people driven to raise their own status by lowering the status of their target …”
What Should You Do if You Are or Were Mean to One of your Children?
Understand the dynamics and deal with your anger. Examine family patterns of favoritism and placing the blame on one child. Do a web search on The Drama Triangle. Take responsibility for your actions. Apologize to the mistreated child (even if they are an adult now) and stop playing favorites. Get into therapy and learn to live with yourself and family members in more productive ways.
What Should You Do if You Notice Someone Being Scapegoated?
If you know a child who suffers from scapegoating, show him or her some extra attention and be reassuring that the rest of the world does not see him as “bad.” Stand up and speak out against injustice when you can, saying, “Hey that’s not fair. Leave him/her alone.” Get other family members to join you in insisting on fairness–there is strength in numbers. Break the destructive silence–when necessary, report abuse to the authorities. Become a mentor and act as a positive role model so that he can learn to see himself as a valuable person in his own right. Some children from dysfunctional families seek out more positive people to learn from. Do not let him accept the identity of being a bad person simply because a family member was a dysfunctional bully.
What Should You Do if You Were Mistreated?
If you recognize that certain people in your family or workplace always take the brunt of what is going, it is probably scapegoating. If this is your dynamic, you can learn what you do unconsciously to keep yourself a victim. Do whatever it takes to change this role of being blamed. If you were designated the black sheep of the family, then studying this dynamic is the way to release yourself from its poison. Learn to recognize the negative family patterns of blame and shame and vow to stop doing them in this generation!
Stop trying to win the favor of a parent who did not like you when you were growing up. A parent who rejects their child has some severe personality disturbance and is not likely to change. The best you can do is understand the underlying dynamic of your parent and try to come to peace with this on your own. Don’t expect your parent to “own” up to their mistreatment of you. Most likely, they will only deny and blame you again for being ungrateful. Some children who were scapegoated have as little to do with the abusive parent as they can when they grow up. Refusing to remain in an abusive situation is a healthy choice. Educate yourself about narcissistic and rejecting parents and join Facebook communities that share information about how to deal with them. Read my articles in the Narcissism category of this website for further ideas.
Of courses there are exceptions but it’s my belief that it’s almost better to be the scapegoated child than the favorite because you can grow up and get away from the sick behavior. The favored child becomes enmeshed with the sick and controlling parent and remains stuck in family dysfunction. Rejected children have a chance to get away from the ongoing cruelty and invalidation of the family who picks on them and build their own lives. Scapegoated children can grow up and get into therapy to have the opportunity to work through their problems. The favored kids rarely do. People who were scapegoated can recognize and work on their abandonment issues and choose healthy partners to build a better life.
Do more reading to explore how scapegoating may have affected not only your own personality but how it made you feel invalidated. Do a web search on assertive behavior to learn to challenge others who try to put you down. Read Gail Meyer’s blog and watch her YouTube videos. See her book, The Scapegoats of a Narcissistic Mother. Take an assertiveness training class and learn to set boundaries to other’s inappropriate behavior. Keep learning and growing to get past any identity of being less than anyone else. You deserve a happy life.