What Does It Mean to Be the Family Scapegoat?

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Commonplace in toxic families, scapegoats are children blamed for all of the problems in dysfunctional households. The term “scapegoat” originates from the Bible. In the book of Leviticus, the Israelites conduct a ceremony in which they direct their sins onto an “escape goat.” Afterward, they set the goat free into the wilderness to metaphorically cleanse the wickedness from their community. The scapegoat, then, bears the burden of taking on the misdeeds of a tribe, community, or family. 

When children are assigned this role, the impact can be detrimental to their mental health and emotional well-being for a lifetime.

In addition, it results in an upbringing in which the scapegoated child’s inherent worth, goodness, and lovableness are ignored. Instead, insults, bullying, neglect, and abuse are deemed appropriate for the child forced into this position.

How Scapegoats Are Chosen

There is no rhyme or reason for how parents or caregivers decide to scapegoat a child. Factors as arbitrary as birth order, gender, looks, or intellect may influence an adult to scapegoat a child. For example, the only boy in the family might be the favorite or golden child, while the second-born daughter is assigned the scapegoat role. 

Why a parent decides to scapegoat a child tends not to make any sense because this behavior is rooted in dysfunction. For example, a child who is sensitive, inquisitive, attractive, and smart might be perceived as a threat and scapegoated by a parent who lacks these qualities.

On the other hand, a narcissistic parent might prefer the child who brings the most glory to the family while scapegoating the child who does not boost the family’s public image.

In some cases, parents might mistreat children who resemble or remind them of their ex-partners. For example, biological children might be treated differently from stepchildren or adopted children in the home. Parents might also scapegoat children based on skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

There are myriad reasons why a parent might choose to scapegoat a child, but it is never the child’s fault.

It’s clear how nonsensical scapegoating is when one considers that some parents rotate the role of the family scapegoat. Perhaps, for years, the son was the golden child, and then he upset the parent in some way that led to the long-scapegoated daughter becoming the favorite.

Only children of dysfunctional and abusive parents report that they are sometimes the golden child, and other times, the scapegoat. The same child can have these roles projected onto them, indicating just how troubled parents who engage in this behavior are.

Being a scapegoat or a favorite is never about a child’s inherent worth as a human being. 

Parents who scapegoat their kids might have been raised in dysfunctional families in which some children were scapegoats and others were golden children. They might also have a personality disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, which leads them to idealize and devalue others or engage in black-and-white thinking.

Unfortunately, children don’t have the life experience to recognize that parents who scapegoat them are the ones with the problem. They don’t know that loving and mature parents don’t divide children into “all good” or “all bad” roles but recognize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. 

Effects of Being a Scapegoat

Clearly, being a scapegoat puts children at a disadvantage. Being deprived of a family’s love, singled out as the “bad one” in the household, and having one’s positive attributes overlooked can set up a child for a lifetime of emotional and psychological distress. It can also result in these individuals entering friendships, romantic relationships, and working environments that are abusive and harmful. 

Dysfunction and abuse often feel “normal” for family scapegoats, making it difficult for them to spot dangerous people and places before harm is done. In addition, the fact that gaslighting is common in dysfunctional families makes it challenging for abused individuals to set boundaries and recognize when other people's behavior crosses the line.

Growing up, family scapegoats may have been told that they were just too sensitive or that the abuse they were experiencing was not actually happening. Parents may have claimed to treat all children in the family equally while showing blatant favoritism to the golden child and mentally or physically harming the scapegoat.

Scapegoats are also at a disadvantage because they tend to internalize the harmful messages they’ve received about themselves from birth or early childhood onward. This could result in the child engaging in self-sabotage or self-harm, such as doing poorly in school, neglecting self-care, engaging in risky activities or behaviors, and acting out in ways that indicate they deserve the title of the scapegoat (even though no child does).

Other scapegoats may go on to excel in some aspects of life, such as graduating college with honors or accumulating professional accolades. Still, they may be drawn to partners as unloving as their parents, struggle with addictions and self-care, or allow themselves to be used or exploited. 

Learning From Your Painful Childhood

Being a scapegoat is a lonely, heartbreaking experience for a child, but it may also yield a more desirable outcome in some cases. For example, the maltreatment scapegoats endure in families is often the impetus that drives them to leave the dysfunctional, high-conflict home. Meanwhile, the golden child typically remains enmeshed in this harmful family system.

In other words, being a scapegoat may give someone the ability to see a toxic family for what it is. This can result in scapegoats distancing themselves from their families of origin and getting help to recover from the abuse they experienced.

Moreover, scapegoats very often decide to end the generational cycle of abuse when they start their own families. They might vow to never treat their own children as they were treated or to be a source of support for the vulnerable children in their lives. 

Moving Forward as Adults

Scapegoats bear the burden of recovering from a childhood full of bullying, put-downs, unequal treatment, and abuse generally. They were deprived of the experience of growing up in a safe, stable home where they had the unconditional love of their parents or caregivers. Rather, the dysfunctional adults in their lives singled them out for maltreatment and pitted them against their siblings or other family members. 

Healing From Childhood Trauma

Attempting to heal from this reprehensible behavior can take a lifetime, which is why it’s important to consult a mental health provider who specializes in dysfunctional families and childhood trauma about starting the recovery process.

There is also no shortage of books about dysfunctional families. Classics include Susan Forward’s Toxic Parents and Mothers Who Can’t Love; Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More; and Lindsay Gibson’s Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents.

Healing will look different for each individual, but people who have been scapegoated as children will have to decide how to interact with their families as adults.

Prioritize Your Mental Health

If family members continue to abuse them or refuse to get help, scapegoats need to prioritize their mental health and emotional well-being and decide to go “no contact” or “low contact” with their relatives. No contact is just what it sounds like. It means ceasing contact with family members altogether—no phone calls, texts, emails, visits, or interaction on social media. 

Be prepared for other relatives, friends, or even strangers to convince you to remain in contact with your toxic family. Many people know little about the psychological toll that dysfunctional families or parents with personality disorders, substance use disorders, or other problems have on a child. It’s easy for outsiders to assume that because they had loving parents, everyone else did as well .

Some people may also get confused by a parent’s public persona. For example, if a parent appears to be loving in front of an audience, the idea that this person could be abusive in private may result in cognitive dissonance

You, however, know what your childhood was like, and if your parents continue to be abusive in your adulthood, ceasing contact may be in your best interest. Some scapegoats might also decide to cut contact if they believe the childhood abuse they endured was unforgivable.  

Other people scapegoated in childhood may choose to go low contact, meaning they have firm boundaries about what types of contact they’re willing to have with their relatives. Low contact might mean communicating with family members only via text, email, or phone call. It might mean never or rarely visiting family members in person or limiting visits to special occasions such as holidays, weddings, graduations, births, or funerals. 

How you move forward is up to you. With a support system, including a mental health provider, you can decide what will serve you best.

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  1. Ed Stetzer. The Atonement and the Scapegoat: Leviticus 16 by Dr. Kenneth Mathews. Christianity Today. 2014 April 15.

  2. Peg Streep. How Narcissistic Parents Scapegoat Their Children. Psychology Today. 2017 Nov 1.