Scapegoating in a family is when a family structure will blame, ridicule, mock, and punish a specific family member for their own shortcomings. It’s a horrifying form of abuse that leaves victims plagued with self-doubt, anxiety, depression, self-blame, low self-esteem, difficulties with decision making, and maladaptive coping mechanisms

In a dysfunctional family structure scapegoating is initiated by the abuser of the household and carried on by the other members of the family structure. A scapegoat is often perceived as a threat by the abuser because certain aspects of their identity trigger the abuser’s suppressed vulnerabilities and insecurities. 

For those who currently are or previously were a family scapegoat, a lot of the questions you may have can be answered by learning about what causes scapegoating in a dysfunctional family structure. We strongly recommend that you pair the information in this article with the guidance of a qualified professional to ensure that you are as emotionally and physically safe as possible.

A scapegoat in therapy learning about narcissistic abuse.

How Do Abusers Choose Their Scapegoat?

The disproportionate level of abuse that an abuser will direct at the family scapegoat in comparison to the rest of the family often appears random and unpredictable but it is not. Generally speaking, a scapegoat is someone who unknowingly antagonizes the abuser.

By no means is this the scapegoat’s fault but something about them triggers the deeply rooted vulnerabilities and insecurities that abusers possess. 

When this happens the abuser feels a tremendous amount of negative emotions but instead of using that gut-wrenching feeling to reflect on themselves they project the negative emotions onto their scapegoat through the most malicious forms of abuse imaginable.

Fear

One of the most common reasons that someone feels the need to abuse others is fear. Not necessarily fear of their victim, but a fear of their own inadequacies. 

For example, imagine that you knew a narcissistic woman named Lily who has two daughters who are twelve and fourteen. Lily is going on fourty-three and is terrified of aging because she’s always gotten what she wanted in life because of her superficial charm, good looks, and flirtatious nature. 

There’s a very high probability of Lily scapegoating one of her daughters in an immature attempt to manage her fears of aging. With that being said, she could target the daughter that she felt was less beautiful because in a twisted way it reminds her of a part of herself that she hates or she could target the daughter she believed to be more beautiful because she reminds her of someone she’ll never get back. Either way, Lily’s fear of aging is driving her need for a scapegoat. 

Suggested Reading: Do Narcissists Get Worse as They Get Older?  

A narcissistic woman being terrified of her age

Hate

As hard as it is to believe sometimes, abusers are some of the most self-loathing individuals on the planet. It’s very common for abusers to suppress negative emotions that they have about themselves and hide behind a falsified identity for their entire lives. Unfortunately, these suppressed negative emotions just eat away at them from the inside, making their sense of self extremely fragile. 

It’s for this reason that it’s very common for people to become an abuser’s scapegoat because they remind the abuser of something that they hate about themselves. Imagine that there’s this abuser named Jim who grew up with an abusive father who made him feel incredibly weak and vulnerable. 

Over the years Jim has learned to suppress these negative emotions behind a falsified identity but his father’s condescending voice is still eating away at his sense of self. Fast forward a few years, his son is turning eleven but instead of wanting to play a “manly” sport like baseball or football, he has taken up an interest in ballet. 

Jim’s lack of insight and emotional immaturity causes him to be triggered by his son’s “weakness” but because he’s worked so hard to maintain a falsified identity that portrays him as “strong”, he’s unable to acknowledge his own insecurities and vulnerabilities from a childhood of being devalued and invalidated by his abusive father so he targets his son for scapegoating instead.

Insecurity

Much like an abuser’s hatred for themselves, wrapping your mind around the fact that abusers are incredibly insecure can be a difficult task as well. But the fact of the matter is that they are very insecure about themselves. However, they hide these insecurities behind their falsified identity because they believe that aspects of one’s identity like vulnerabilities and insecurities are flaws that make them weak, not strengths that contribute to who they are.

A narcissistic father scapegoating his insecurities through is son

Imagine that Madison has always had a really close relationship with her narcissistic mother. The reason being that they are both very narcissistic and supplied each other with a ton of narcissistic supply. When Madison turned 18, her mother took off to the other side of the country without saying a word to anyone. Months go by, still nothing. 

Madison feels discarded, insecure, and worthless so she lashes out at her sister who has already worked through the trauma of having a narcissistic mother with a qualified therapist and flourishing in her own life. This makes Madison feel very insecure and alone so she continues to scapegoat her insecurities and anger through sister because her sister appears to be doing better than she is. 

Jealousy

A very common trait to see among abusers is an envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them. The most common manifestation of this is how jealous they get when the attention isn’t on them. For example, covert narcissists are well-known to compete with their children for the attention of the other parent. It’s almost like a sibling rivalry but their jealousy can also trigger scapegoating in dysfunctional family structures as well.

Imagine that Johnny, an abuser with two children, is married to Maxine who others consider to be an empath. Johnny is well aware that his children have a much better relationship with Maxine because of how emotionally free she is. Anytime he tries to connect with his children, they always end up crying. 

In a jealous rage, Johnny begins to devalue, invalidate, and dehumanize Maxine in front of the kids on a daily basis. He wants to show his children that he is the one who they should love the most, not their mother. He is jealous that he can’t connect with his children like Maxine can which triggers a lot of shame and feelings of inadequacy inside of him.

How Do Abusers Create a United Front Within the Family Structure Against the Scapegoat

The reason that scapegoats are often blamed, ridiculed, mocked, and punished by the entire family, not just by the “main” abuser, is because scapegoating in a family structure creates a lot of really toxic triangulation. 

Triangulation in a dysfunctional family structure is when an abuser will purposely make one-on-one conversations, disagreements, feudes, and arguments into two or more-on-one conversations, disagreements, feuds, or arguments. In a family structure it turns people against one another and creates a lot of paranoia, trust issues, fear, and anxiety.

Scapegoating creates triangulation because the rest of the family structure has to witness the abuse that the abuser is putting the scapegoat through. It teaches the family that in order to “survive” they have to side with the abuser or risk becoming the family scapegoat. 

Circling back to the example we just provided you about Johnny’s jealousy of the relationship Maxine has with the children, the moment that he begins to devalue, invalidate, and dehumanize her in front of the children, the children have to choose between siding with their mother or father. 

A narcissist using his wife as a scapegoat at the dinner table.

The children don’t have the capability of looking past Johnny’s falsified identity and seeing how corrupted he really is. They’re only going to see a level of abuse that is terrifying and something they don’t want to experience. What ends up happening is that they side with their abusive father out of the fear of becoming the scapegoat themselves if they don’t.

It’s for this reason that it is very common to see a lot of cliques, backstabbing, spying, mean inside-jokes, and other forms of abuse within dysfunctional family structures plagued with scapegoating and other abusive behaviors. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

As we mentioned before, being the family scapegoat is traumatizing. It can cause a tremendous amount of negative emotions like self-doubt, anxiety, depression, self-blame, low self-esteem, difficulties with decision making, maladaptive coping, and a tremendous amount of difficulties in adult relationships.

When it comes to abuse, knowledge is power. Family scapegoats who take the time to truly understand the scapegoat role are going to put themselves in a position from which they can mute their abusers’ condescending voice and take the steps needed, preferably with the guidance of a qualified professional, to properly heal from the abuse.

Suggested Reading: What Is Scapegoating In a Family?


This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

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References:

Paul, Norman L., and Joseph D. Bloom. “Multiple-family therapy: Secrets and scapegoating in family crisis.” International Journal of Group Psychotherapy 20.1 (1970): 37-47.

DISCLAIMER

THIS INFORMATION IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR CLINICAL CARE. 

IF YOU’RE IN THE UNITED STATES AND ARE SUFFERING DOMESTIC ABUSE, PLEASE CONTACT THE NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE AT 1.800.799.7233 OR YOU CAN VISIT THEIR WEBSITE FOR MORE HELPFUL CONTACT METHODS.

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