How The Scapegoated Child Gets Chosen In A Toxic Family

Among the types of verbal abuse parents often use, scapegoating seems to be on top of the list.

With a controlling, argumentative, or narcissistic parent as head of the family, scapegoating is a powerful way to keep the upper hand not just over what the rest of the family can say or do, but also to control the family narrative.

According to Professor Gary Gemmill, scapegoating lets a parent believe their family is much greater than it in fact is, but if it were not for that one person (the scapegoat) the family would be perfect, and life would be a dream come true. This is a crucial point because it helps the abusive parent dictate the family narrative with great precision.

A research carried out by Zachary R. Rothschild and colleagues demonstrated how scapegoating lets a person minimize guilt or responsibility for a negative outcome while giving them a powerful sense of control because there’s always a reason to point to for a bad outcome. Not taking responsibility and always blaming another for a bad outcome is the key advantage of scapegoating.

The process of choosing the scapegoat

While research can show what motivates the abuser to engage in scapegoating, there are no studies on how the target gets picket, but thankfully, Peg Streep from Psychology Today has shared some insights that came to her through her own research.

Here’s what she came up with:

1. The resister or rebel

Since all verbal abuse is about control and an imbalance of power, it’s not surprising that the kid who won’t go with the program—whatever that program may be—will be singled out and marginalized for it. 

2. The sensitive one

Scapegoating and bullying have similar intentions, and each gives the abuser a rush of power; that’s going to be much more satisfying if the kid you pick on really responds and reacts. Additionally, this permits the parent to rationalize the scapegoating as being necessary to “toughen the kid up” or “to stop being too sensitive.”

This happens to both sons and daughters and shows up as a strong pattern in many families, unfortunately. The other children do what they can to repress all their emotional reactions, which gives them cover but causes a different kind of damage.

3. The outlier

I’ve come to see that especially with mothers who scapegoat, thinking a child is an outlier is usually a function of the mother’s own goodness of fit; the child is sufficiently different from both herself and her other children that whatever parenting skills she does have are completely overwhelmed, and she reacts by shifting the blame onto the child. In the family narrative, this child usually bears the burden of responsibility for the household being hard to run or any other problem the mother might be experiencing.

4. The reminder

This comes up most frequently with children of divorce who either look like or supposedly “take after” or act like a parent’s ex-spouse, but it also comes up with those from intact households in which the child supposedly resembles a family relative who is disliked, hated, or is a black sheep or some combination of all. It can be overtly expressed—“You are just like your dad, irresponsible and lazy”—or covert, as was the case for Dina, who happens to be a psychologist:

“As a kid, I couldn’t understand why I was always to blame and my sister was always fabulous. I was a straight-A student, high achiever, and my sister was none of those things. But there was history. My father committed the sin of leaving my mother and remarrying happily. I committed the sin of looking like him—tall, thin, brunette, and intellectual. My sister is my mother’s physical—blonde and petite—and not-too-serious clone. It took the therapy which was part of my training to see the elephant in the living room.”

If you wish to know how a child can overcome the role of scapegoat in his or her family, please see the video below.

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