In this week’s post I explore the potentially deadly nature of what I term Family Scapegoat Abuse (FSA) via sharing stories of adults identifying as family scapegoats who became injured or ill and had their injury or illness minimized or denied by their parent(s) or other family members (learn more about the family scapegoat role here).
Children who are scapegoated in families are in reality victims of abuse and neglect – Yet this is rarely recognized by those working in our Mental Health systems, Family Courts, or Educational systems.
There may be many reasons a parent or other primary caregiver or guardian would ignore or minimize a child’s injury or illness (see my own story, below), but understanding these reasons does not mitigate the fact that the child / adult child has been put in an extraordinarily precarious position when a parent denies their injury or illness, as they typically have little to no ability to help themselves, depending on their age and the circumstances they find themselves in. If the child is the ‘family scapegoat’, they are particularly vulnerable to having their reports and experiences denied or disbelieved.
This idea (or ‘story’) that the scapegoated family member dramatize their injuries and “fakes” illnesses is often adopted by some nuclear and even some extended family members, which only serves to reinforce the child / adult child’s deep sense of pain, confusion, isolation, and invalidation – something that is quite common with family scapegoats, as my research on family scapegoat abuse attests.
My FSA Research Findings
My research on FSA also suggests that children who are scapegoated and have their injuries and illnesses denied by a parent or primary caregiver are left struggling to validate their own physical experiences and reality as adults. For example, many scapegoated adults have shared with me that they deny their own body’s signals when they are not feeling well; they minimize their injuries; they feel a sense of vague or even acute shame when ill (as if they somehow shouldn’t be and/or it is a personal failing on their part that they are not well); and that they dread going to the doctor, believing that they will again have their injury or illness minimized or dismissed by someone in a position of authority.
While being in the family scapegoat role in a dysfunctional / narcissistic family is recognized as being harmful, the damage done is most often categorized as mental and emotional. The fact is, being in the role of the family scapegoat can also result in the targeted child being physically bullied, sexually abused, or denied medical care. We as a society need to acknowledge this and stop putting our heads in the sand so as to avoid overwhelming and unpleasant realities.
This article focuses on cases whereby the scapegoated child / adult child was told they were faking their injury or illness by those who should have been most concerned for their well-being: Their own parent(s). I’ll start with a story from my own life, and then share a few stories sent to me by some of my social media followers.
It is my hope that by publishing these stories we might begin to collectively grasp the seriousness of family scapegoat abuse and understand that it can in fact be the primary family dynamic that leads to life-threatening and even deadly situations for those who are the most vulnerable in a family system due to their age and/or dependency on their parent(s).
Rebecca’s Story: I was born with a mysterious digestive disorder that resulted in my being chronically ill and unable to tolerate most foods or liquids, including breast milk. I am not sure if this contributed to my becoming the family scapegoat, but it may have, given that my physical needs were likely terribly difficult for my busy, overworked, and emotionally distressed mother to manage (my father was an added burden she had to deal with due to his being alcoholic, unstable, and disabled).
Although I later ‘out-grew’ what was thought at the time to be a terminal illness, I often had stomach cramps that were so severe I would need to lie down on the sidewalk when walking home from school, even when I was only a few feet from my house.
No explanation could be found for these cramps, and so my mother believed I might be “faking it”. My mother was a Registered Nurse and so her denial of my very real physical distress carried a lot of weight with those she discussed it with. To make matters worse, she was supported in this conjecturing by the school nurse, who thought I might be trying to get out of class (despite my being an A+ student in the ‘gifted child’ program).
I remember clearly hearing my mother on the phone with various friends and relatives during my childhood and adolescence telling people I was “faking” being sick. I remember feeling a deep sense of shame (along with confusion, anger, and frustration, which I managed to suppress). Given my mother was a well-liked and highly regarded RN, why would anyone doubt what she had to say? Only later in life did I learn I was gluten intolerant and that various food allergies were likely one of the key contributors to my digestive issues in early childhood, along with my being an ‘empath‘ growing up in a terribly chaotic and dysfunctional home.
Two Later Incidents: When I was 15 years old, my mother thought I was “faking” mononucleosis symptoms. By the time she took me to the family doctor my spleen was in danger of bursting and I required 30 days of bed rest.
A few years later, after becoming partially paralyzed, she thought I was “faking” my symptoms and being “dramatic”. It turned out I had a septic infection related to an abscess from a spider bite. By the time my mother took me to the hospital I was just a few hours from death, according to the attending Emergency Room physician.
Stories From Other Family Scapegoats
Connie’s Story: In seventh grade I had pneumonia, which could have been fatal. I was miserable, couldn’t get out of bed. I missed the class party and Christmas with my cousins. Got cheated out of vacation from school because I was sick the entire week. My mother was a smoker and I believe this contributed greatly to my health issues. I had previously had bronchitis and frequent colds. My parents were not the least bit interested in my well being. My father screamed at me and my mother nagged me incessantly. When my mother saw me laying in bed, gasping for air, all she said was, “Why aren’t you doing schoolwork? Your teachers probably say she does a little each day.” It was horrible.
Belinda’s Story: When I was about 5, I fell over when playing and broke my wrist. My mother just told me to stop crying because she was busy; I was still crying when I was having a bath and got a slap for it. Eventually my father came home and insisted she call a doctor out, which is when they discovered my wrist was broken. Even afterwards she told me, “Well, it wasn’t a bad break, I don’t know what all the fuss was about.”
I once ran into a door-frame at night (I was about 10) and cut my head open. She heard me crying and again told me to stop making a fuss. It was only when my brother saw I was bleeding and ran to tell her that she decided to do something. After I had been stitched up, the doctor told her that I should stay at home for a couple of days, but in the car on the way home, she said to me, “You’ll have to go to school tomorrow, I’ve got things to do tomorrow, I can’t stop doing them for you”. (Incidentally, materially we were very comfortable, we lived in a big house with two live-in servants at the time and she didn’t work, so the ‘things’ she had to do were just social plans/shopping).
Daphne’s Story: I had severe earaches as a kid. I remember my mother laughing later saying, “Oh, you had terrible ears as a kid, maybe I should’ve got you grommets.” She also said, “I remember picking you up from your cot as a baby, and goop used to pour out of your ears.” I remember lying on a bean bag on the lounge room floor, unable to sleep and crying in pain from ear-aches all night. I was too scared to go to see her. Looking back, I had no idea that I could have been given some simple pain relief like paracetamol (Tylenol).
On another occasion, I chipped my front tooth in a pool accident. My motherwas so upset with me (I was 14 years old – I was mortified! – And dental isn’t free in Australia where I lived). She took me to a cheap dental hospital to have it repaired, and the filling/cap kept falling off of my front tooth. In the end, she made me walk around with a broken front tooth. She eventually paid a proper dentist to fix it. Later, one of her friends suggested how mean it was to let a 14 year-old girl walk around with half my front upper tooth missing (my parents both worked, money wasn’t extremely tight).
Linda’s Story: I had undiagnosed autoimmune vasculitis as a child. I was told I was attention-seeking even though my blood vessels were breaking down, causing huge mouth ulcers and holes in my legs. I was also told by my gran that the ulcers on my tongue were from telling lies…
Brenda’s Story: I spent a week in the hospital, no visitors. When I got out and spoke to a few people I was told they had asked about me, but my family said I was fine and making a big deal out of nothing. I was admitted for six days, they don’t admit people who are faking it. I didn’t understand how limiting my visitors or claiming I was fine benefited them. Lying there alone didn’t feel very good. If I mentioned to my family how I felt about it I would be accused of being dramatic, selfish, or somehow was to blame. It was a sin for me to feel cared about? While they openly spoke of their feelings. Since then not one person has asked me how I am, or my kids. Not one. If I don’t want to ‘play’ the denial game, I am cut off completely. Although I have no control – I will be blamed for choosing to not play along , that would be the reasoning. Always being my fault is no doubt part of what made me sick. Crazy making.
Peggy’s Story: I believe I got Lyme Disease originally at about 8 years-old and had mononucleosis. I was told it was in my head, to suck it up and get on with life. My mother was very scary to have around if you were ill because she loved the drama. I have at times wondered if she’s also Munchausen syndrome by proxy and contributed to my illnesses (I was a child abuse investigator trained in this so I’m not speaking lightly here).
My mother also gave me alcohol as a child to “calm you down”. As I got older, I escaped from the family. As an adult, I moved back, got re-infected with Lyme, and was treated as if I didn’t deserve to be treated as ill.
When my face was paralyzed with Bells Palsy, some siblings were shocked because it was outward proof of my being genuinely ill. My mother posted a very unflattering photo of my frozen face and told everyone how ill I was so she could garner sympathy.
Carla’s Story: I was about 8 or 9 yrs old. I was outside playing and fell on the sidewalk. I hurt my left shoulder. I was in a lot of pain but I never complained much when sick or injured, because it would set my mother off screaming and carrying on. I did tell my parents that my shoulder hurt, but they ignored me. Finally after several days of telling them repeatedly that my shoulder hurt, they finally took me to the doctor. I had a dislocated shoulder.
Julie’s Story: One day at the park with my brother and a friend I fell and hurt my ankle. I couldn’t stand on it without excruciating pain. My brother ran home to let our mom know that I was hurt. After over a half hour of waiting for help I realized that no-one was coming. A friend had to help me get home.
My mom didn’t ask how I was or anything. I asked why she didn’t come help me and she said I was being “dramatic”. I pulled up my trouser leg and my ankle was now badly swollen, discolored and with a bone protruding out. I was still made to wait hours for help until my father got home from work and took me to the hospital. It was broken.
Strangely enough, mom seemed to enjoy the attention from my having a cast. She likes repeating stories to people and changes the details each time making them all about her. I’ve been told for as long as I can remember that I am “crazy” and “overly dramatic”. I don’t like going to the doctor now as an adult or asking anyone for help as I feel I am not going to be believed or cared for… That they’ll think I am crazy.
The above stories may be difficult to read but it is critically important that the devastating impact being the family scapegoat can have on a child / adult child be appropriately acknowledged. Have you been accused of faking an injury or illness or had an injury or illness minimized by a parent or other family member due to your being in the family scapegoat role? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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