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The Lasting Pain of the Scapegoated Child

My mother wanted things to go her way and when they didn’t, she needed someone to blame. That someone was always me, not my older brother. I did my best to stay under her radar but it didn’t work; everything was always my fault. And you know what? I believed her.

Mothers (and fathers) who are high in narcissistic traits and see their children as extensions of themselves—and not as individuals—don’t just play favorites but frequently make one child the scapegoat in the family. Scapegoating is one way of exerting control since the other children in the family become highly motivated to please their parent in whatever way they can—and serves to keep the attention on the narcissistic parent which is precisely what he or she wants. Parents who are highly controlling use scapegoating as a tool as well, though it’s often repackaged and presented as “necessary discipline.” These mothers say things like “I wouldn’t have to punish you if you’d listened in the first place” or “If you were thoughtful like your brother, you would have closed the door and the dog wouldn’t have gotten out.” Lost sweaters and keys, lateness, broken objects and rules—every crack in the veneer of family life that the controlling parent needs to be perfect—are pinned on the scapegoated child, though in some families this may be a revolving role. The truth is that it’s bullying dressed up as something else.

The author of one study on scapegoating observed that having someone designated to take the blame allows a parent to paint much rosier picture of the family’s dynamic since, presumably, life would be just grand if it weren’t for that pesky troublemaker. Needless to say, having a scapegoat around also makes it possible for the parent not to take responsibility for how the family functions. For the parent high in narcissistic or controlling traits, this is a win-win situation.

Needless to say, there’s no way to win for the child who is blamed for everything. Not in the moment, not after, and—here’s the big deal—not even in adulthood.

How the messages of childhood get internalized

As I’ve written before, the world the child inhabits is very small, and her mother has great power to shape not just how that world functions but how it is understood. Scapegoating always includes verbal abuse, including generalizing about a child’s character or personality. Needless to say, in the absence of other voices imparting positive messages about who she is, the daughter internalizes what’s said to her as essential “truths” about herself. She may be told that she’s “too emotional or sensitive” when she shows she’s been hurt, or that she’s careless or uncaring, difficult or lazy. These messages undermine her sense of herself, and co-exist with other messages she may hear from teachers, neighbors, friends, or members of her extended family. Alas, they do not “balance” out; it’s a psychological truism that a painful experience delivers a more lasting impression on the developing brain than a positive one.

5 lasting effects of childhood scapegoating

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the adult may normalize his or her experiences as the family scapegoat, wrongly believing that all families function in similar ways. Because the adult still wants maternal or paternal love and support, he or she is more likely to rationalize the behavior than to confront it head-on. Since society tends to feel that our parents “did the best they could”—yes, honor your parents—it takes an act of will along with an epiphany or two to actually admit what went on. It often takes a third-party—a friend, a lover, a therapist—to point out the toxicity of the family dynamic and the maternal or paternal behaviors. The following observations are drawn from the interviews conducted for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

  1. A warped view of relationships

The take-away from these families of origin is that love is a transaction, earned or denied and as long as that unconscious mental model persists, the adult will approach all relationships with hesitation and doubt. Often, the daughter or son armors himself, choosing to go solo rather than risk rejection or pain.

  1. Becoming a fault-finder him or herself

The scapegoated child doesn’t learn mental flexibility or resilience when things don’t go as planned, and he or she may either resort to self-criticism when things go south—this is the mental habit of attributing setbacks to fixed character flaws—or to blaming others. It’s ironic but it’s hard world-view to shake.

  1. Lacking a sense of belonging

Being an outlier in your family of origin—the very people who are supposed to love and support you—leaves lasting scars unless they are addressed directly. Feeling as though he or she doesn’t belong may actually co-exist with close adult relationships.

  1. Damage to his or her sense of self

The internalized messages of being somehow inadequate, lacking, unlovable, or incorrigible may co-exist with real-world admiration and achievements, along with the habit of self-criticism and blame. Therapy is the best way to address these issues but they can also benefit from self-help, especially learning how to have self-compassion and turn off the critical tape in your head.

  1. Repeating the pattern in adult relationships

We are all drawn to the familiar and unless the adult becomes consciously aware of how he or she was affected in childhood, the chances are good that he or she will be drawn to partners and friends who are high in narcissistic or controlling traits, alas. Breaking the pattern is possible through relearning behaviors and conscious awareness.

Scapegoating is cruel and abusive. Period and end of story.


Photograph by Vlynn. Copyright free.

The Lasting Pain of the Scapegoated Child

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). The Lasting Pain of the Scapegoated Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Feb 2018
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