The Family Scapegoat: When The Scapegoat Fights Back

In families with one or more narcissistic members, the dynamics are inherently dysfunctional. Children often grow up feeling confused, insecure, and afraid. They may not know who to trust, and they usually blame themselves for the problems occurring at home.

Many times, a narcissist will use scapegoats to project their anger. Family Scapegoats allow them to displace all the blame onto something else. Rather than own personal accountability over their actions, the narcissist can continue to live how they normally live without any real consequences. Let’s get into what you should know. 

What Are Family Scapegoat Children?

Family scapegoating refers to the group dynamic where everyone blames one person for the dysfunctional family. Instead of looking at all the potential factors in a particular situation, the family can quickly assume one person has caused the distress.

Sometimes, these family scapegoats are fixed and permanent. That means the scapegoat may remain in that role indefinitely. 

The parent may choose any child to fulfill this role, but common family scapegoats include:

  • Children with chronic sicknesses or handicaps
  • Children with emotional sensitivities. 
  • Children born as a result of an unplanned pregnancy.
  • Children who struggle in school or in sports.
  • Children who naturally rebel against the family’s structure.
  • Stepchildren, fostered children, or adopted children. 

Any of these traits can provide the narcissistic mother or father with leverage to scapegoat their child. The narcissist can point to their behavior and blame them for the family’s problems. 

Family scapegoating can start as early as infancy. For example, a Narcissistic parent may blame a newborn for keeping them up all night. Or, they may lament to a friend about how difficult the baby is. This pattern may continue for many, many years. 

Sometimes, scapegoated children start out as golden children. They may receive all the praise and affection- until they don’t. It may take just one event for the narcissistic father or mother to dethrone their golden child into a scapegoat. 

Some common offenders include:

  • The child suddenly starting to struggle in school.
  • The child dating someone that the parent doesn’t like.
  • The child getting into trouble with the law.
  • The child becoming “too successful” (which results in the narcissist’s jealousy).
  • The parent having another baby who becomes the golden child.

In some cases, the narcissist will rotate the scapegoated child based on their mood and daily events. This rotation often happens when there are multiple children living in the same home.

The rotation can make things especially confusing for children- they never know if it’s going to be a good day or a bad day. Additionally, they never know if what they get away with today could land them in serious trouble tomorrow.

The rotation can also cause massive rifts between siblings. They become highly competitive with one another to gain the narcissist’s approval. Rather than bond and connect, they aim to tear each other down. The prize- winning the narcissist’s attention- becomes their top prioritiy.

Family scapegoat child: The Narcissistic Family

What Happens to The Scapegoat Child?

During childhood and adolescence, many scapegoat children may struggle with the following issues:

  • Poor self-esteem.
  • Increased anxiety symptoms.
  • Depression.
  • Reckless behavior (substance use, self-harm, unprotected sex, shoplifting).
  • Poor academic performance.
  • Issues with other authoritative figures like teachers, neighbors, or the police.
  • Aggression and bullying other people.
  • Disordered eating.
  • Limited or no motivation in outside hobbies or interests.

With family scapegoating, the behavior often reinforces itself. For instance, a child may receive a poor grade in school. The narcissistic parent explodes and tells them how dumb they are. The child internalizes that they are dumb and that it’s not worth even trying. As a result, they continue to receive poor grades and “proving” the narcissist’s claim to be true. 

When they grow up, scapegoated children may experience the following:

Difficulty expressing their needs: From a young age, the scapegoat child learned to hold things inside. Anything they said could and would often be used against them.

As a result, many scapegoat children have difficulty expressing their needs and feelings with others. On one end of the extreme, they may come across as cold and insensitive. On the other end, they might be seen as overly dramatic or irrational.

Excess people-pleasing: Many scapegoats grow up assuming that love is conditional. Therefore, they spend a great deal of time trying to keep other people happy. They assume that if they keep the peace, they will be liked.

Difficulty forming secure relationships: Many scapegoats struggle with emotional and physical intimacy. They may find themselves attracted to other narcissists or abusers because it’s familiar to them. If they end up in a healthy relationship, they may unconsciously sabotoge the dynamics.

Substance use and other addictive behaviors: Scapegoats often try to escape their pain in various ways. They may turn to certain vices like drugs or alcohol in an effort to numb their feelings. Likewise, because they’ve often been told they’re “bad” or “useless,” they may assume they’re doomed to addictive behavior.

Problems with real-world launching: Scapegoats may struggle in many settings, including the workplace, school, and in social interactions. They might try to defy authority or argue when they disagree with something. Or, they may be so used to being perceived as a failure that they don’t even try to succeed. 

Impaired self-esteem: More than anything, almost all scapegoats struggle with a damaged sense of self. They may feel entirely worthless or burdensome to others. This low self-esteem can act as a launchpad for poor decision-making and impulsive behavior. 

Can a Scapegoat Become a Narcissist?

Family Scapegoats can certainly become narcissistic as they get older. Many family scapegoats experience immense rage due to their status in the family. They know their role is unfair, but they are powerless to this dynamic when they’re young.

That said, abuse is highly generational. Many parents who abuse their children were abused when they were young. Additionally, abused children are at a greater risk of inflicting harm on their children.

Although one would think someone would never want to repeat abuse, this pattern is far more insidious. Sometimes, the child often grows up idolizing the narcissistic parent (even if they can’t stand them), and they naturally start to orient their thinking in a way that matches theirs.

Family Scapegoats often desperately want a sense of power and control over their lives. After all, they have spent so much time being belittled. On a subconscious level, they understand that narcissists gain attention and validation. They may believe those narcissistic methods are the only effective ones. 

What Happens When The Scapegoat Leaves the Narcissistic Family?

What happens when the scapegoat fights back? Most of the time, tension increases after the family scapegoat leaves. With nobody to automatically blame, the narcissist scrambles to find an outlet.

Many times, narcissists quickly find something or someone else to blame. If there is a golden child, they may start there. Suddenly, the golden child may take over the scapegoat’s role.

But usually the narcissist continues to blame, complain, and insult the scapegoat. They often talk about the scapegoat incessantly, even if they have been out of the home for years. Any present issue can be traced back to the scapegoat. 

For example, if they lose their job, they may blame it on helping their family scapegoat child with their homework, which resulted in lost productivity. If they have marital problems, they’ll turn to the scapegoat for causing so much stress. Even getting a flat tire may trigger the narcissist to blame the scapegoat for not taking the car to the mechanic five years ago.

Keep in mind this blame isn’t rational. To an outsider, it often sounds erratic, and that’s because it can be. Narcissism isn’t based in logic. It’s based on the narcissist’s logic, which is skewed by their own worldviews and ego. Their narcissism allows them to justify and rationalize their decisions, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. 

What Happens When The Family Scapegoat Child Goes No Contact?

At first, the reaction may seem paradoxical. The child often feels like the parent wants nothing to do with them. But once they go no contact, the parent suddenly becomes extremely interested in their whereabouts. Many times, the parent begins hoovering excessively to gain entry back into their life. 

The hoovering often involves some form of gaslighting. The narcissist may deny ever harming their child. They might insist on how much they love and care about them. At times, they may even beg for forgiveness and make lofty promises to change. 

Scapegoats give the narcissist a sense of control and power. Since they can focus all their attention on their child’s problems, they never have to look inward. They never have to consider the part they play in the dysfunctional dynamic. For a true narcissist, this deflection is paramount. They can continue behaving in their usual ways. 

How Other Family Members React

Without the scapegoat, things may feel “too quiet.” At this point, the narcissist has usually smeared the scapegoat child mercilessly. They will take great lengths to spin the story in a way that makes them appear to be the victim.

Family members often understand that the narcissist is “off,” but they rarely want to confront the behavior directly. After all, they don’t want to step into the path of destruction. Most of the time, they would much rather keep their peace and stay quiet.

The golden child may start acting up once the scapegoat goes no-contact. They may feel resentful that their sibling  has “broken free” from the cycle of abuse. Golden children are under immense pressure to remain perfect- the scapegoat’s absence only reinforces this pressure.

Finally, it’s not uncommon for parents to split up and divorce once the scapegoat child leaves the house. Without the common chaos of “dealing with the scapegoat,” the narcissist’s partner may decide that enough is enough. 

In other words, a scapegoat going no-contact tends induce chaos. The family has become so used to pinpointing issues onto one person that they now feel completely off-guard. 

How Do You Survive Being The Scapegoat Child?

It may take you a long time to realize that you were scapegoated as a child. This is normal. Narcissists are experts in manipulating people to believe their truth.

Scapegoat sons and daughter of narcissistic mothers and fathers must learn how to reparent themselves. At first, this can sound like a tall order. It’s painful to realize that you didn’t receive the essential needs all children require for emotional support. 

Reparenting yourself means recognizing your worth and honoring it as best you can. You aren’t a bad person. Even if you’ve made poor decisions in the past, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve love and forgiveness. It also doesn’t mean you can’t change.

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Many scapegoats benefit reaching out for professional support. Therapy can help you understand your family dynamics and improve your confidence. It also offers you a safe place where you can explore your feelings without judgment or recourse. If you struggle with mental health issues or addiction, it’s important to gain the appropriate coping skills to manage these issues. 

In addition to therapy, it’s important to recognize your patterns of self-sabotoge. Do you still internalize the narcissist’s criticism towards you? Do you continue to live in a way that tries to defy and rebel against them?

Finally, boundaries are imperative. You deserve to respect your integrity.  If you continue to allow the narcissist to define your identity, you’ll continue to be scapegoated. At the same time, you’ll continue to feel resentful and frustrated. This is a miserable cycle, but you have the power to make the first change. 

Surviving Scapegoat Abuse and Moving Through Scapegoat Recovery

There’s no doubt that healing from narcissistic abuse can be heartbreaking and complicated. It’s challenging to truly recognize the perils of your childhood. It’s also challenging to decide how you want to proceed moving forward.

Regardless of your upbringing, things can get better. You can have ownership over what happens next. 

Remember that you are now an adult, and this is your life. You can choose which people you want to have around you. You can embrace boundaries and respect your personal autonomy. If you have a narcissistic parent, this freedom is invaluable.


Written by Alexander Burgemeester on

Alexander Burgemeester has a Master in Neuropsychology. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and has a bachelor's in Clinical Psychology. He devotes himself to writing important information about certain mental health topics like Narcissism and Relationship problems. He is the main author of all content on Want to know more? Read by author bio page.