Toxic Families: Navigating the Challenges of Being a Family Scapegoat

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

What is a Family Scapegoat?

A family scapegoat is a member of a family system who is unfairly blamed, criticized, or targeted for problems within the unit, often serving as a convenient outlet for familial tension and dysfunction. For example, in a dysfunctional family, a scapegoat might be blamed for financial difficulties or relational conflicts, even if they are not directly responsible. 

Resources and Hotlines for Urgent Support

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 for 24/7 crisis support
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

These resources offer confidential support and assistance for those experiencing crises or urgent mental health concerns.

Recognizing Scapegoating in Your Family

It’s not always easy to realize that scapegoating is occurring in your family, especially when you are in the throes of conflict and tension. Here are some signs of family scapegoating:

  • Constant criticism and blame directed towards one family member, often unfairly and disproportionately.
  • The scapegoat is often isolated or excluded from family activities and conversations.
  • Family members frequently project their own issues and insecurities onto the scapegoat, blaming them for problems within the family.
  • The scapegoat may exhibit symptoms of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues as a result of ongoing mistreatment within the family system.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Many risk factors and situations may increase the risk of family scapegoating, including:

  • Scapegoating can occur in families with dysfunctional dynamics, where communication is poor, and conflicts are unresolved.
  • The scapegoat may challenge or resist the dysfunctional family patterns, making them a convenient target for blame.
  • Family members may have unrealistic expectations or unmet needs, leading them to project their frustrations onto the scapegoat.
  • Past experiences or family history, such as unresolved trauma or unresolved conflicts, can contribute to the development of scapegoating dynamics within the family system.

These factors can create a toxic environment where one family member becomes the scapegoat for the family’s collective issues and dysfunctions.

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Psychological Underpinnings of Scapegoating

Family scapegoating is a complex relational situation involving many different psychological influences and behaviors, such as:

  • Projection: Projection occurs when individuals attribute their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors onto someone else, often the family scapegoat. For example, a parent who struggles with anger issues may project their anger onto the scapegoat by constantly criticizing and blaming them for minor issues.
  • Triangulation: Triangulation involves bringing a third party into a conflict to avoid direct communication and diffuse tension within the family. In scapegoating dynamics, family members may triangulate others against the scapegoat, creating alliances and fostering division within the family.
  • Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where individuals distort reality and undermine the victim’s perceptions of truth, often causing them to doubt their own sanity. In family scapegoating, gaslighting may involve invalidating the scapegoat’s experiences and emotions, making them feel confused and powerless.

Parental Personality Disorders and Scapegoating

Personality disorders in parents, such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD), can contribute to the development of scapegoating dynamics within the family. 

Research has found that individuals with personality disorders often struggle with interpersonal relationships, emotional regulation, and empathy, making it challenging for them to provide nurturing and supportive parenting.[1]

As a result, children of parents with personality disorders may become targets of scapegoating as a way for the parent to deflect attention from their own issues and insecurities.[1] However, it’s important not to stigmatize people with personality disorders, given that these are complex and distressing mental health disorders caused by a variety of risk factors. Parents with personality disorders who receive comprehensive treatment and therapy may be able to repair relationships and break old patterns.

The Toll of Scapegoating on Mental Health

Research indicates that being the family scapegoat can have profound psychological consequences on individuals. Family scapegoating is associated with increased levels of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.[2]

Scapegoated individuals often experience chronic stress and emotional distress due to ongoing criticism, blame, and rejection within the family system.[2] 

Further, research suggests that family scapegoating can contribute to feelings of isolation, powerlessness, and identity confusion, as individuals struggle to reconcile their self-perception with the negative labels imposed upon them by family members.[2]

Long-Term Effects

The long-term consequences of being family scapegoated can extend into adulthood and impact various aspects of personal development and mental well-being. 

Research suggests that people who have been scapegoated may experience problems forming and maintaining healthy relationships, since they may struggle with trust issues and fear of rejection.[3],[4]

Family scapegoating can also impair a person’s sense of self-worth and hinder their ability to pursue goals and aspirations.[3],[4]

Longitudinal research further emphasizes that the psychological wounds inflicted by family scapegoating can persist over time, contributing to a range of mental health challenges, including mood disorders, substance abuse, and interpersonal difficulties.[5]

An Expert’s Perspective on Family Scapegoating

We tend to think of bullying as something that happens in the schoolyard amongst kids who are being mean and abusive to one another. However, over the many years of my practice, I have come across cases in which the client presented with the problem and complained that they felt picked on and excluded from their family of origin. They were distressed, anxious, and depressed over this problem despite the fact that they had their own families with husbands or wives, children, careers, and friends. Yet, they were experiencing life as though they were children living in their parental home.

Incredible as it might seem, there are families that scapegoat a loved one even into and including adulthood. For a variety of reasons, we will explore one member who becomes the target of accusations, blame, criticism, and ostracism. While it’s happening, family members are totally unaware of what they are doing and would deny it if confronted with their behavior. Often, scapegoating begins in childhood and continues into and throughout adulthood.

Why would a family choose a loved one to bully and scapegoat? The answer has a lot to do with the concept of scapegoating and the purpose it serves. Scapegoating is often a way for families to hide problems that they cannot face. In the examples of cases I have worked with one or both parents were abusive to their children. In adulthood, scapegoating became a way for adult children to hide the fact of family history of abuse by blaming everything on one member who seemed vulnerable to attack. At times the scapegoat targeted by the sibling who was always the favorite of the family. In that way, the less favored sibling becomes the repository of everything that is wrong in the family.

A parent with Borderline Personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder can vent their own frustrations, aggression, and hatred against one child by uniting the others who are made to think that this one sibling is guilty of everything. In this scenario, the parent goads the other children to pick on the one. None of this stops in adulthood. Of course, the child whose personality is most like the personality disordered patient is targeted because that parent sees in the child everything they hate about themselves. Here, too, this pattern continues into adulthood.

The question that scapegoats face is what they can do to deal with the problem. While one would might think this should not be a problem for an adult, the fact is that these people become depressed, anxious, withdrawn, and even, in the worst cases, suicidal. There is no way to underestimate the fears, self-hatred, and desperation these people come to feel. It is common for them to believe what the family tells them so that they accept all of the blame and finger-pointing at them despite the fact that it’s untrue.

Commonly used strategies used by the scapegoat usually end in failure and even worse. I have seen situations where the scapegoat argues and pleads their innocence before the family only to find themselves further blamed and persecuted. The sad fact is that rational and reasonable discussion is impossible. So, what is a person to do?

Over the years I have recommended family therapy for this situation. Given the nature of the family dynamics involved, none of the families have been willing to attend, not even for the sake of their loved ones. The only other alternative that I have suggested and has been used in a few desperate cases, is to walk away from the family of origin by severing all ties.

This is not a decision that is easily made, especially when mothers and fathers are involved. However, given the fact that these very same parents constantly express cruelty to their adult children with unfortunate emotional consequences, there is nothing else to do. It’s important to remember that the reason for severing all ties is the preservation of one’s emotional health. It’s also important to remember that these scapegoated family members often have their own families that are warm, loving, and successful.

The bottom line is that making someone the scapegoat is abuse, whether that person is a child or an adult.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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