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. 

Scapegoating in a family is when a family structure will make a mockery of a specific family member by projecting an extraordinary amount of negativity onto them. The scapegoat is blamed, ridiculed, mocked, and punished for shortcomings of others in the family structure. 

Scapegoating in a family is a really difficult form of abuse to manage. In fact, it often takes people years to recognize that they themselves were the family scapegoat or that they contributed to the abuse that the family scapegoat endured. So, this article is going to guide you through everything that you need to know about scapegoating in a family.

A woman learning about scapegoating.

What Does a Family Do to the Scapegoat?

An upbringing in an unhealthy or abusive family structure has a significant amount of negative consequences on one’s cognitive development. It’s very common to see people who come from these types of dysfunctional family structures naturally gravitate towards abusive relationships in adulthood simply because it is familiar. 

It is so important that those affected by an unhealthy or abusive family structure take the time to analyze their upbringing so that they can identify the “role” that they assumed and begin the daunting task of healing from an abusive relationship. 

We strongly recommend that this is done with the guidance of a qualified professional but as promised, we’re going to guide you through the role of the scapegoat and you can read our article How Do Narcissists Treat Their Children to learn about all of the other roles that are commonly seen in dysfunctional family structures.

The Family Scapegoat Will Experience a Lot of 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. 

The family scapegoat is always going to be a victim of triangulation in a family structure and it is really important to understand why. From the abuser’s perspective, triangulation is a reliable way to accumulate narcissistic supply which is the validation, admiration, and reassurance of others. 

It’s important to keep in mind that this does not mean that the abuser is a narcissist, it means that their behavior is narcissistic. The fact of the matter is that all abusers, regardless of their personality, use narcissistic behavior patterns to remain in power and control of others. 

Moving on, narcissistic supply is very important for abusers to have because in one way or another, it soothes their deeply rooted insecurities and vulnerabilities. A simple example of this would be an abusive father reassuring his fragile sense of self by ridiculing, mocking, blaming, and punishing the family scapegoat on a daily basis.

Two narcissistic siblings scapegoating a family member

It’s important to understand the purpose of triangulation and narcissistic supply from the abuser’s perspective to grasp a comprehensive understanding of how determined they are to maintain their position of power and control within the family structure and how it’s this determination that eventually corrupts the entire family structure.  

What’s often seen in dysfunctional family structure that is plagued with triangulation and scapegoating is that there’s a “main” abuser who’s the driving force for all of the abuse in the family structure and it is their power and control that scares other family members into becoming a “united front” against the scapegoat. 

What this means is that people within the dysfunctional family structure quickly learn that their best chance of “survival” is to side with the abuser instead of standing up for the abused. The abuser is able to use the fear to manipulate other family members into providing them with an unlimited source of narcissistic supply. 

What Does Narcissistic Supply Look Like In a Dysfunctional Family Structure and How Does It Affect the Family Scapegoat? 

A common manifestation of narcissistic supply in a family structure is when the abuser is able to use fear to manipulate family members into ganging up on the scapegoat.

  • Jim, an abusive father of two sons, was considered to be weak and undesirable by his father throughout his childhood. To manage this deeply rooted insecurity he has, he regularly encourages his eldest son to physically dominate his youngest son. He’s able to soothe his deeply rooted insecurity by living vicariously through his eldest son.
  • Sarah, an abusive mother of two daughters, was never able to live up to her mother’s beauty standards. She manages the negative emotions that she has because of her upbringing by ridiculing her eldest daughter about her appearance. Her younger daughter sees this behavior and joins in on the abuse to avoid being the focus of her mother’s wrath. 
  • John, a grandfather of four, never liked his son Eric. He thought that Eric was too feminine to be considered his son. When Eric had his first three grandchildren, John saw them as another source of narcissistic supply to tell him how great of a grandfather he is. But when Eric had his fourth grandchild, who was more into drawing than he was playing sports, John singled him out as the family scapegoat and manipulated his other grandchildren into bullying him.  

In each one of those examples, the abuser puts everyone in a tough position from which they have to choose between being abused like the scapegoat or siding with the abuser. It’s not an easy decision to make and there’s often a lot of other forms of manipulation going on which just confuses the victims even more. 

With that being said, this doesn’t mean that the family members who are contributing to the abuse that the scapegoat is experiencing are always innocent. There’s a very high probability, especially as they get older, that the other family members are abusers as well. In fact, an unhealthy/abusive upbringing is believed to be the origin of narcissism.

Suggested Reading: How Are Narcissists Made?

The best way to think of narcissistic supply in a dysfunctional family structure is to think of it as a tool abusers use to regulate their own emotions. 

A narcissist using narcissistic supply for emotional regulation.

By manipulating other family members into joining their united front against the scapegoat, they’re able to manage their insecurities and vulnerabilities while simultaneously fulfilling their insecure need for power and control. 

It’s also important to note that narcissistic supply and triangulation isn’t always as obvious as an abuser manipulating others into participating in the abuse, it can also manifest in subtle forms like favoritism. 

For example, an abusive father might give his athletic and “strong” son more time, money, and subsequently, opportunities than his “weak” son. It creates a rift between the two brothers as they fight and exhaust themselves for their father’s approval. 

Or it could be an abusive mother whispering lies and gossip about the father into her children’s ears to portray herself as the “best” parent. 

A narcissistic mother manipulating her children into scapegoating their father.

The point is that scapegoating in a family is when a family structure will make a mockery of a specific family member by projecting an extraordinary amount of negativity onto them. The scapegoat is blamed, ridiculed, mocked, and punished for shortcomings of others in the family structure while the abuser secretly has his/her suppressed vulnerabilities, insecurities and need for validation, admiration, and reassurance soothed by the dysfunctional dynamic.

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Scapegoating is a very common form of abuse to see in a dysfunctional family setting. With that being said, scapegoats in family structures are not randomly chosen. We strongly recommend that readers check out our article What Causes Scapegoating In Families because a lot of questions one may have about scapegoating can be answered by simply knowing how scapegoats are chosen.

If you are someone who has been the scapegoat in your family, the trauma that comes from this abusive role should always be addressed with a qualified professional. They will be able to help you manage the self-doubt, anxiety, depression, self-blame, low self-esteem, difficulties with decision making, and maladaptive coping mechanisms that come from being a family scapegoat.

Get a Free Healing Bundle Every Week!


  • 1 Educational Video From a Mental Health Professional
  • 1 Informative PDF About Narcissistic Abuse
  • 1 Journaling Exercise With Multiple Prompts
  • 7 Affirmations for the Upcoming Week
  • Lifetime Access to Our Private Online Community

Get a Free Healing Bundle Every Week!

  • 1 Educational Video From a Mental Health Professional
  • 1 Informative PDF About Narcissistic Abuse
  • 1 Journaling Exercise With Multiple Prompts
  • 7 Affirmations for the Upcoming Week
  • Lifetime Access to Our Private Online Community

All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References

Cornwell, Georgia. “Scapegoating: A study in family dynamics.” The American Journal of Nursing (1967): 1862-1867.