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The Loneliness of the Family Scapegoat

The most dysfunctional families are those which favor some children and disfavor others. In the worst of such families, one child is completely disfavored and becomes the family scapegoat. This child is blamed for everything that is wrong in the family and is belittled and made to feel like the “bad sheep” by one or both parents and then treated that way by the other children as well.

The role assigned to this child is to serve as the family joke and to be the recipient of all the family’s anger. Being treated like a misfit, the scapegoat eventually begins acting out the anger that is unconsciously directed at him and thus proves to the family that they are right about the scapegoat. “You see,” they seem to say, “he really is crazy. Look how he’s acting.”

In one such case with which I became acquainted, the scapegoat, who I will call Harry, was the youngest of five children. He had two much-older sisters and a brother who was only 15 months older. From the beginning he was the unwanted and forgotten child. He described his mother thusly: “She seemed to be angry with me for being born.” His mother, he said, was critical of him and treated him as though all his thoughts, all his opinions, all his desires, were not only wrong but crazy. As he got older, he began to rebel against her and fight back.

He recalled that once he didn’t want to eat a certain kind of mushroom for dinner. She made him sit at the dinner table for two hours, while everybody else went to bed. He was 8 years old. “I’m not going to eat them. They’re disgusting,” he kept saying. “You’re not leaving this table until you eat them.” He finally was forced to eat a bit of the mushrooms and then was allowed to go to bed.

Often, when he got into fights with her and was thus not only disobedient but “idiotic.” It seemed to him he was the only child who was spanked by the mother, although he allowed that others must have been occasionally punished. But he, being the family scapegoat, got the most spankings. All the other children thus felt superior to him and began viewing him as pathetic. He was constantly in trouble because of his foolishness. He seemed to be the cause of all the problems in the family. What was the long suffering mother to do with such a child?

Meanwhile, the father had taken Harry’s older brother under his wing. The father groomed his older son to be the great athlete he never was. The father went to all his little league games and would curse him out if he struck out during the game. The father acted as if he only had one son. He scarcely noticed Harry. Harry had to just stand back and watch the father’s favoritism of the older son without being able to do anything about it. The designated scapegoat cannot complain about anything. If he had said, “Dad, I’d like to play baseball too,” the father would laugh and the whole family would laugh. They were all sure he would be totally inept at anything he did.

The parents were both totally unconscious of what was going on in the family. They were disturbed individuals with narcissistic features, which prevented them from looking objectively at themselves at how they were treating their children. They had both come from dysfunctional families and were unaware of their disturbances and rage, as well and their need to displace it onto their youngest child. So the child grew up in an atmosphere in which he was scapegoated and treated as if he were everything that was inferior in a human being, and the parents and older children all believed that he deserved to be treated that way. He eventually began to believe he was inferior and began to act that way. It all seemed normal to him, although a small part of him felt that things were unfair and became enraged about this unfairness. Because he was made to feel inept and inferior, he became dependent on the very family that had degraded him.

When he became an adult, he became a loner. He was unable to make any friendships with males or females. Although he was an attractive man, tall and fit with an above-average IQ, he lacked emotional intelligence. Because of his experience in his family, he always felt inferior to other people. He tended to throw himself at any woman he met. At first they were attracted to him because of his handsome features and a certain boyish charm. But after one or two dates, women would begin to look down on him and criticize him (just as his mother had done). When they rejected him, he would chase after them even more, wanting them to love him and respect him and make up for what his mother had not given him. It never worked.

In his relationships with men he had a chip on his shoulder because of his relationships with his older brother and father, who both had condescended to him. He was easily angered by other men. Once a coworker teased him about wanting a day off. “You can’t have a day off,” the coworker said, tongue in cheek. When Harry asked why not the coworker said, “Because I want a day off.” The teasing continued all afternoon and eventually Harry, who was working as a waiter, took a glass of beer and poured it in the man’s face. Harry ended up getting fired.

He had been left psychologically crippled by his upbringing. He had no ability to bond with others because he had never bonded with anyone in his family. He had little self-esteem and was caught in a pattern of becoming the misfit in any group and the scapegoat in any job. He had little self-respect and expected to be rejected by anyone he met. He was extremely sensitive to any slight and would over-react to such slights. He had no idea of how to set boundaries or assert himself, because he didn’t think he was worthy of setting boundaries or asserting himself.

It was only through years of psychotherapy that he began to understand what had happened to him in his dysfunctional family and the many ways his upbringing had damaged him. Fortunately his family, which was well-off, continued to financially support him until he was into his mid-thirties, while at the same time hardly ever calling him to see if he was all right. Indeed, his parents and older siblings all viewed him as an “undesirable,” as someone they needed to keep their distance from lest they become contaminated by his “disease.”

Because of his need to show them how wrong they were about him, he studied to be a doctor. In the beginning years he didn’t tell them what he was doing, knowing they would disparage and mock such an aspiration. He eventually did become a doctor, but when he told them they still found ways to discredit his accomplishments. One Christmas he saw one sister roll her eyes when he boasted of his talent as a doctor.

Growing up as the scapegoat in a dysfunctional family leaves a person with a lifelong psychological handicap. Some overcome it through therapy; some never do.

The Loneliness of the Family Scapegoat

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). The Loneliness of the Family Scapegoat. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 16, 2018, from


Last updated: 20 Jun 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Jun 2017
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