Family Scapegoating: Part 1

[The link to the embedded video that was here is broken. We found a copy of the embedded video that worked in an Internet Archive copy of this post (Family Scapegoating: Part 1) that was Internet Archived prior to the ACFJ name change from .com to .blog. Click here [Internet Archive link] for the Internet Archive copy of the post, then click on the video to play it. Wait until the copy of the Internet Archive post finishes loading prior to trying to play the video. Editors.]

Over and over and over again, I hear stories from women (and a few men but I do not generally converse with men about their abusive pasts) who leave abusive marriages, head into therapy or some sort of counseling, and discover that their family of origin is also abusive. When a former victim desires to heal, she will begin to look at the “why’s”: Why did I marry an abuser? Why did I allow people to treat me this way? Why have I so little respect for myself? Why do I feel like I am ‘different’ than others? All of these questions are important for healing and help. And, most often than not, a victim has been a victim before. Victimhood is her normal. And it began as a child, or as a teen or during another trauma in her life.

When the victim begins to fully comprehend the dysfunction in her immediate family (or family of origin), she naturally begins to pull away. Her eyes are opened. She begins to take steps toward boundaries. And the family of origin begins to be scared. And angry:  She is not abusable anymore. She is not even around anymore! Even worse . . . she seems to be growing and blooming and understanding herself better. She is setting up boundaries. She says “no” sometimes. We can no longer do what we want with her. 

Most terrifying for this dysfunctional family, at this point, is that she will talk. Other people might hear about the dysfunction. The family of origin cannot handle this . . . they are not ready to look at their past and problems. So, they try to head her off at the pass. They “scapegoat” her. Indeed, they have been scape-goating her all her life but now things heat up.

Family Scapegoating is not exactly like the scapegoating described in Scripture. The Bible describes the Old Testament practice of “placing” the sins on a goat and then sending the goat away. The goat bears the sins of the people . . . . and then, disappears. Dysfunctional/Abusive families who practice scapegoating will choose one child to blame for all of life’s problems. This child (or teen or adult child) typically is more sensitive and vulnerable. He or she may be unable to abide by the abuse that characterizes the family and home life and the family recognizes this. Parents who scapegoat their child do so, purposefully, out of fear that this child will blab. Scapegoating is usually due to having one parent with a personality disorder, although an entire family can “bond” by scapegoating one member of a family. Scapegoating includes: blaming, minimizing accomplishments, put-downs, criticisms, exploitations of the scapegoat’s greatest fears, manipulation and neglect. The scapegoated child believes that he or she is the reason that things are miserable in the family atmosphere. Obviously, it is a form of abuse that over-laps with other forms of abuse. The family scapegoat grows into a very insecure adult who struggles with intimate relationships. The victim does not normally ask for anything she needs; she assumes her needs are not important yet, ironically, everyone else’s are. She does not believe she has worth simply as a Child of God; she mutes her own desires and dreams, believing that she does not need to be loved, taken care of or encouraged . . . . believing that she does not deserve this. She is a “doer”, desperately attempting to win some love. She panics at the idea of abandonment. She may suffer from PTSD. She has been conditioned to believe that all of life’s problems are her own fault so she fears other people becoming close and discovering her “secret”: that there is somehow something inherently wrong with her and that she is just bad and she may ruin their lives, as well.

The chances of a family scapegoat escaping are slim and usually do not occur until a person reaches their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. And, when a victim does, indeed, escape and boundaries go up, the family is viciously angry. The victim continues to be the scapegoat and the family further bonds with each other in their hatred for the victim. But, he or she is no longer available to accuse. Accusations are slung in other, less direct capacities (blog posts, letters to friends, letters to the workplace). However, after a while, as the victim is no longer bothered by this, they cease. More attacks may come up later but, all in all, with “no contact” from the victim, things get better. The family of origin, however, begins bickering, back-biting, gossiping and dramatizing within their own cesspool of hatred and they, eventually, find another scapegoat! And the cycle begins again.

So, what often happens is, a man or woman leaves an abusive marriage, pursues divorce (enormous amount of bravery required here) and the family of origin begins to (for lack of a better term) freak out. They are afraid that their secrets will be revealed as they watch the strength of their former victim blossoming. Their grip on the victim’s emotions becomes tighter than ever. The victim is laying on the floor, trying to rise and the dysfunctional family stands on his or her neck. They  make a healthy relationship impossible (unless the victim is willing to place his- or herself under their control) so the victim begins to set up healthy boundaries. The family of origin then claims “abandonment”. Mud-slinging begins. And the victim is left shattered in pieces . . . completely dazed and frantic as he or she tries to make sense of the world that has gone crazy in a few short weeks.

She was always the scapegoat; and she will continue to be. The only hope for her is to escape, go “no contact”, and learn how to become all that God intended her to be in Him. This is no easy feat and takes a lot of time. But, it can be done. For my next blog on Scapegoating, I will do just that — give biblical suggestions for how to break free from the Scapegoat persona.

Here is Part 2 of this two-part series on Scapegoating

41 thoughts on “Family Scapegoating: Part 1”

  1. Typically, once the”scapegoat” child is taken out of the picture, the principal abuser will choose a new scapegoat and the other family members go along with it. The problems were never the fault of the original scapegoat, despite what the other members of the household may tell you, as can be demonstrated by the ongoing problems once the original scapegoat child is removed from the situation.

  2. I had never heard of family scapegoating before…but it perfectly describes my situation with my family, and now my husbands family!!! I am now at the point where I am setting boundaries, and it is not easy. I am made to feel as if I don’t care about my family. I am the only believer on my side. I’ve always tried to be Christ to them. For 22 years. It isn’t till recently I’ve realized they continue to take advantage of me financially. It is hard to let go because I really do love them. is not right that they continue to use me, and while I am trying to help them, they call me terrible names! I have to let go. I am looking forward to your future posts on this, and I will read the other articles. Obviously I need help with this!! Thank you for your blog, it has been so helpful to me! I am slowly… very slowly becoming healthy again!

  3. Megan, you have described my situation to a “T” as you so often do. My husband of almost 45 years has alienated virtually all members of my immediate family, disparaging me with vicious lies to my family and others, starting almost 2.5 years ago, after I left the “marriage”. He is still doing this, as I read in an email from our son last week, who continues to blame me. I couldn’t read all the message as it was too painful. I’ve resigned to accepting this huge rift in my family. It may never heal.

    But God has given me a new life, over 2,300 miles away. My wonderful niece, her husband and son totally accept and love me, and I am attending a real church. God has blessed me beyond my wildest expectations.

  4. WOW. So many of the posts hit so close to home for me! 4 years ago my x was incarcerated. In 2011 I packed up my many kids and hightailed it out of town when he got out. Been a long haul since then, but my kids and I are doing pretty well.
    Since that time the x has pulled a lot of shenanigans, and given many false accusations. The most recent being this morning. He is saying that several of my kids are drinking, and do drugs. And thinks I do not give proper medical care for my kids. Also, my now late teenage child was pregnant last summer, and I am abusive, supposedly beating my youngest when she doesn’t go to bed.

    So far, all the kids still live with me because they love me and their siblings. All are well known in our community. I am frequently told how respectful my kids are, how hard working they are, how well they get along with adults, etc, etc. They iike to spend time with me. And, even though we are not perfect, we love eachother. The kids are doing well in school and jobs despite the hurdles they have had to overcome because of our messed up home life we had before he was, by God’s grace, removed from our lives.

    Even though I know how well my kids are doing in life, school and the community, (and no, I am not a grandma) such accusations throw me for a loop each time he barfs them out. Then, you guys post another something like this and I am yet again reminded how normal it is both for him to do it, and for my feelings…..

    THANK YOU! This post had particular relevance because of the volly of texts I got this morning and my great unrest I allowed them to induce.

  5. Scapegoat here too. It wasn’t until my late 40’s, ten years ago, that The Lord revealed that my childhood was full of abuse. I had no idea!!!!! Same with my marriage. I had no idea! When the fog begins to clear and boundaries are established others are more than uncomfortable!

  6. I think this happens in churches, too. Doubly hard when members of your dysfunctional family also go to your dysfunctional church and you are trying to leave. Thank you for this post. It explains a lot of my 30s and why I still feel like an “outsider” in my family of origin. I put up boundaries in my 30s, so that explains it. Your post has transformed feelings of loneliness and rejection I did not understand to just the cost of overcoming. I love this blog. Thanks for the work you do!!

    1. Yes, Lisa. I actually meant to mention this, as well. Churches do this to people ALL THE TIME. And people easily join into the scapegoating because it makes them feel just a little bit more holy than the scapegoating individual . . .

    2. Lisa, I too have long felt like an outsider, both at church and at family functions. I’ve always felt it was me as more than one church has treated me this way. I’ve come to believe that I’m just different and not wanted by most people, family and stranger alike.

      Thank you Megan for this post. I may have to do some thinking about my experiences to view them a little differently. I too love this blog. I have learned so much and have been encouraged by the entries, comments, thoughts and testimonies shared.

    3. Hi Lisa! Yeah, scapegoating definitely happens in churches.

      My youth pastor would make major digs. I played guitar during “worship”, and they never put the volume up!

      I was born with a cataract in my right eye, and I think this is why I was labeled the family scapegoat. However, many parents choose the first born, who may feel entitled as the first child. Once they realize they are the scapegoat, it totally deflates their self-esteem.

      Anyway, there was a healing service and I was encouraged to go up. Both pastors laid hands on me. I obviously wasn’t healed, because I believe they put a “curse” on me. The youth pastor was speaking in another language (very low), but there was no interpreter….which is directly against 1 Corinthians 14:27-28.

  7. Families can do this with relatives by marriage also, not just with their bio children. My dad’s family does a milder form of this with mom. It’s her fault that they never see us, it’s her fault that my dad never calls, etc. The only time they didn’t do this is when she put up and went along with all their crap. And my grandmother (tipped/drunk at the time) did once accuse my dad of “abandoning” her when he didn’t let her know we were in the state soon enough and only visited for one day. I’m certain that if we were to cut off contact with them (which is already pretty infrequent), they would go into the full-bore attack-and-blame mode described above.

    The more I read on this site the more I realize just how much my dad’s family is kookoo for Cocoa Puffs. Not sure how I didn’t see the extent of it before. Maybe it’s because I can give it a name now.

  8. What do you say to someone who is in the family and sees the scapegoat? My cousin feels very similar to what you are describing and I’ve tried to reach out to her as someone who doesn’t want to alienate her but she’s putting me in the pot with the entire family and acting like I am also an “abuser”. I don’t know how to love her through this or reach out even though our history is pretty clean!

    1. Momma7 – well, what you have to do is choose up sides. What I mean by that is you cannot be a bystander if you are going to help an abuse victim who is being scapegoated. You have to “go outside the camp” and stand with her and help expose the truth of what is being done to her. It is costly. But nothing less than this is going to be genuine love to her.

      1. While I am late to this conversation, I want to add to it that to do less, to see the scapegoating for what it is and yet to want to maintain good standing with the perpetrators is to doubly betray the victim. If the scapegoat knows that you know and yet you are unwilling to rock the boat and suffer the wrath of narcissists it reinforces the message “you have no value”. Jesus identification with the scapegoats of the culture brought about his death because to stand with them meant to stand against the Pharisees….

  9. Exactly right. When the abusee changes the playing field, changes the rules, the abuser(s) go ballistic. When the abusee is no longer available and no longer accepts the abuse, the anger boils over like lava from a volcano. I’ve seen whole families turn their backs on the one they all abused for years, claiming that he/she is the one who has ruined the family.

  10. I am having a problem with really getting the scapegoating thing. I have always known how dysfuntional my family was. Whenever the book Toxic Relationships (that may not be the exact title) came out in the 70s I went to a class and worked on the toxic issues I had with my family. I was in my 20s then. I have been in and out of counseling, incest survivors groups (my brother raped me when I was eight), classes, and therapy of various sorts. I am still working on things and don’t have anyone in my family of origins that I have much contact with.

    I have studied the scapegoat as part of the sacraficial system in the temple and thus I can’t look at it and get the modern understanding. I won’t say anything else because the modern concept of scapegoating is helpful to a lot of people here.

    1. Wisdomchaser — The term for laying the blame at someone else’s feet (“scapegoating”) does not line up with the OT testament practice. I am not sure who came up with it or why . . . but it does seem to have stuck. You are right — it does not translate into modern times well, at all. But, it is what it is, I suppose. 😉

  11. The church scapegoats it is true, but having worked in mental health, I’ve observed it there and found it absolutely life destroying for the scapegoat. The capacity of a narcissistic charming abuser to get his wife (or child) labeled mentally ill is profound. Why? Because in toxic families that have a scape goat it is often the Narcissists hero that goes into mental health work. They are groomed to consider themselves a hero. This field attracts those that believe they have uncommon wisdom. They thrive on the vulnerability of needy people whom they have tremendous control over, at least in public mental health where at the therapist word someone can get committed.

    My ex husband was a clinical director of a mental health center. Part of his abuse was to tremendously gaslight me and tell me “everyone at work thinks you are crazy” or whatever manipulation he could foist and he could do plenty. I doubted my own sanity, and as my PTSD increased from his extreme violence which was always couched in terms “you were out of control” “you made me restrain you”. “Apologize to me for what you made me do”.

    He convinced me, and others that I was mentally ill. In that system I met many broken women that were not crazy but were shattered and destroyed by abuse that they were so conditioned to accept that they minds broke. Mental health lacked the insight to see and contributed to their suffering by labeling them. That label further reinforced “something is wrong with you” instead of the truth that the marriage was mental torture that would break any prisoner of war.

    I got out of the marriage, I got better, I got an education and ended up managing complaints for public mental health for a state and in that position I heard enough about predator therapists, to question the entire field. The therapist bible, the DSM [Eds: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association, used around the world for diagnosing mental disorders] is incredibly sexist and damaging to women as well, Read Paula Kaplan PhD’s discussion about this. Louis Wynne PhD writes compellingly as a former state hospital manager about the crazy making environments that a scapegoat lives in Black sheep and mental illness [Internet Archive link]

    In my soul I believe the wisdom to heal women from abuse is found in other abuse survivors not those “experts” that never lived through it. The women themselves are the experts on healing from the trauma of abuse.

    1. Yes, I have heard repeated accounts from abuse victims that their abuser worked hard and sometimes successfully to convince others that the victim was mentally ill. I know of one case in which the victim was actually committed.

    2. Thank you so much for this wise and informative comment, Prodigal Daughter. 🙂
      If possible can you give us a link to Paula Kaplan’s PhD discussion? (I wish I might have the time to read it but I probably won’t; but others may be interested. . . )

      1. I’ve heard many stories –when the abuser is a lawyer, a judge, a police chief it is especially hard to get believed, but none so severe as the one that has the power to convince others the victim is insane.

  12. Oh my goodness! Excellent post! And, your timing! I’m going through a new round with my adult children who have been sucked into my ex and my youngest brother’s cocoa puff kookiness. (That is just too awesome not to use continually now! Thank you, Hester!) It just goes round and round with seemingly no end in sight. With both parents dead, it’s easy to go no contact with my brother. But, my own children? Ugh! I can’t do that, so I find myself battling the crazies constantly.

  13. I don’t agree with the part about the scapegoat being a ‘doer’ in an attempt to win some love, or panicking at the thought of being abandoned. I’ve always been creative and did things for my benefit – not to receive love from my NF. And I felt best when they WEREN’T around. I was never afraid of being alone, because that’s when I felt the most comfortable and at peace. It’s been nearly two years since I’ve gone NC, and the benefits outweigh any smear campaign they have perpetuated against me. I’ve gone through the process of cutting the psychic cords with each of them, and they cannot touch me now. My NM was the most difficult to cut through because she had attached her evil tentacles onto me since the day I was born (yuck!). It was ‘shear’ agony (a little humor there). Anyway, thanks for the posts – they’re very helpful.

  14. The family scapegoating I experienced began in adulthood after my parents’ death and I didn’t have narcissistic parents, but grew up in a large (about a dozen siblings) chaotic family [nationality removed as precaution for the commenter’s safety]. A few siblings recruited others to join their smear campaign and I have been isolated and blamed for all the family dysfunction. However, I can find no information on scapegoating that does not point back to a narcissistic parent. Does anyone have any information or can you point me to any writing on this (non-narcissistic) scenario? I’m researching the topic with a view to writing a paper.

    1. Welcome to the blog! And thank you for your comment and question. 🙂
      I can’t answer your question, but maybe some other readers can.

      As a precaution for your safety, I changed your screen name to ScapegoatedBySiblings.

      We like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      And after reading the New Users’ Info page, you may like look at our FAQ page.

      And if you haven’t already read Part 2 of this post-series — Family Scapegoating: Part 2

    1. Welcome to the blog 🙂 and we are very glad you are finding it helpful.

      I changed your screen name to HoldingOntoTheLifeline as it looked like you had given you real name. If you have been abused and are in any way still at risk from your abusers, it’s not a good idea to use you real name on this blog.

      Please check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      And after reading the New Users’ Info page, you might like to look at our FAQ page.

      Again, welcome!

  15. I was the family scapegoat.

    I am no contact with my family of origin, extended family, and live in a different community. They can attempt a smear campaign, but I cannot think of any way in which they can do me further harm.

    I suspect they still consider me the family scapegoat, since I am not there to defend myself. Based on personal experience, they will stay stuck in the past.

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