Last Updated on July 22, 2021 by Alexander Burgemeester
It’s often said that all families are dysfunctional in some way. If this is true, then narcissistic families must be among the most dysfunctional families.
If one or both parents in a family are narcissists, they will put their own emotional needs ahead of those of their children. This is bound to cause some tension among the other members of the family – and indeed, research shows that children of narcissistic parents are at greater risk of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
But what is this “tension” I’m talking about here? What happens in a narcissistic family that doesn’t happen in other families?
While there is very little research in this area, we do have reports from people who grew up in narcissistic families – and from the psychotherapists who treat them. And some common themes have emerged. As trauma counsellor Shannon Thomas told INSIDER in 2019:
“[Narcissistic parents] will triangulate siblings, they spin stories, they tell half truths, and you start to notice the pattern, just like in a romantic relationship, of how they create that chaos.”
One of the “pattern” that Thomas refers to here is known as the “golden child scapegoat dynamic.” Here’s what we know about the Golden Child and Scapegoat Child dynamics and how it affects the family.
The golden child and scapegoat child
As I said earlier, narcissistic parents put their own needs ahead of their children. In fact, their need to be in control and at the center of attention is sometimes the reason they choose to have children in the first place.
In order to fulfil those needs and get their narcissistic supply, narcissistic parents sometimes push their children into specific roles within the family. Two of the common roles that have been identified, are the “golden child” and the “scapegoat.”
Let’s look at the characteristics of each role in turn, and see at what they actually entail.
Golden child characteristics
The golden child role is just what it sounds like – it’s the favoured child of the narcissistic parent. However, this isn’t your ordinary, garden-variety favouritism – as is often the case with narcissists, it’s taken to extreme levels.
Most of the time, the golden child can’t put a foot wrong. Anything they do well will be celebrated exuberantly. The narcissist will pile on the praise for even minor successes. They win the diving competition? “That’s fantastic, you’re so talented!” They get a C in English? “Great work, you’re so smart!” They tell a joke at the dinner table? “That’s hilarious, you’re so funny!”
Often the golden child is chosen for the role because they do actually possess some qualities or abilities that would reflect well on the narcissist. They may be the most attractive of their children, do well in school, or have some potential in a skill such as a sport or musical instrument. This is not always the case though, and sometimes the child who simply identifies the most strongly with the narcissistic parent will become the golden child.
Scapegoat child characteristics
Scapegoating is a group dynamic where one person is singled out by the rest of the group, and becomes a target of blame, abuse, and other negative treatment. And again, unfortunately, this is taken to the extreme by narcissistic parents.
While the golden child can do nothing wrong, the scapegoat can do nothing right. They win the diving contest?
“Did you? Oh OK. Oh by the way we’re going to have to stop your diving lessons, we can’t afford them on top of your sister’s violin lessons”. They get a C in English? “Just a C? Is that all? Why am I not surprised?” They tell a joke at the dinner table? “That was terrible, maybe you should just be quiet.”
The nature and intensity of the abuse varies from family to family, depending on the type of narcissist we’re talking about, and how severe their NPD is. Direct, overt verbal abuse such as insults, blaming, and put-downs are commonly reported, but in more extreme cases there may also be physical abuse.
In other cases, the abuse may be much more subtle. Take the diving example above. The narcissist failed to praise their child for something they did well, and then removed the diving lessons to prevent them doing it again. They might have done this so that the scapegoat stealing the thunder from the golden child – but they’d never admit that.
The Golden child-scapegoat child relationship
As you can well imagine, the relationship between golden children and the scapegoat is likely to be strained at best, but downright toxic more often. This comes down to how the golden children treats the scapegoat children.
In some cases, mainly where the golden child identifies with the narcissistic parent, or has a narcissistic side themselves, they will join in the abuse directed towards the scapegoat. This is obviously no basis for a healthy relationship, and the narcissistic parent will do nothing to bridge this gap. In fact, they will likely encourage rivalry and hostility, using triangulation as a tool of control.
Scapegoat child syndrome
When we experience stress, neglect, and abuse early in life, it can have long-term effects on us. In one study of 21,000 people in Australia, those who experienced childhood abuse were at greater risk of poor mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, and poor physical health, including a higher risk of heart problems. The striking thing about this study, is that the participants were all over the age of 60. The researchers concluded that “the effects of childhood abuse appear to last a lifetime.”
In the case of the scapegoated child in a narcissistic family, there are some other more specific issues that might spring up. Some have referred to these as “scapegoat child syndrome,” although this isn’t a recognised condition in the way that disorders like depression are. Psych Central lists a few of the longer-term impacts that the scapegoated child might experience:
1) An altered view of relationships/difficulty trusting others.
2) Internalising the negative views that are pushed upon them, leading to excessive self-criticism.
3) Little or no sense of belonging, due to never experiencing a safe and stable family life
4) Damage to their sense of self
5) Repeating the pattern – they may be drawn to friends and romantic partners who are controlling or narcissistic themselves.
Golden child syndrome
Again, “scapegoat child syndrome” isn’t a recognised condition – rather, it’s something that popped up online, it’s a label given to the negative effects of being the golden child.
Negative effects? Yep, you read that right. You might think that life is pretty great for golden children – and in terms of day-to-day overt abuse, that’s almost certainly true. However, there are downsides to the this role too. The School of Life gives some examples:
- They never learn that flaws and weaknesses are OK. To flourish in life, we need to be able to make mistakes. We need to learn that we will be forgiven, that the love and esteem we receive from others won’t be compromised if we mess up. This is known as “psychological safety.” But the golden child often has their mistakes and faults swept under the rug. So they can become terrified of failure in the future.
- Insecurity. If you are given high praise and told you are special, gifted, talented, and so on, it’s usually in response to something you’ve done. However, the narcissist showers such praise on the golden child without them having done anything to warrant it. This is called “overvaluation.” The problem here is that the golden child comes to need that praise, but they don’t know why they deserve it. This can cause insecurity because they have no basis for knowing if the praise will come in the future.
- Lack of control. Being a golden child comes with responsibilities – namely attending to the narcissistic parent’s needs. They are an extension of their parent, not allowed to be themselves. For this reason, they may struggle to develop an identity of their own.
- Guilt. Remember that they are still a child. They are being pushed into the role by the narcissistic parent, and they go along with it because they lack the maturity to understand any differently. However when they get older, some develop great guilt when it dawns on them that they were participants in the abuse of the scapegoat child.
But there is another potential impact of being the golden child that we should discuss…
Does the golden child become a narcissist?
Although there is very little research on these two family roles, there is reason to believe that children placed in the golden child role are at greater risk of developing NPD themselves – certainly compared to the scapegoat. Here’s why.
The development of disorders like NPD is a bit like baking a cake (although the outcome, of course, is much less pleasant). To bake a cake, you need to put the right ingredients together (flour, eggs, sugar, etc.), and then put them into the right environment (a hot oven), for the right amount of time.
If you use sawdust instead of flour, you are not going to get a cake – no matter how long you bake it for. Likewise, if you mix flour, eggs, and sugar together, but then put them in a refrigerator instead of an oven, you also won’t get a cake.
So it is with NPD.
The “ingredients” of NPD are genetic – a particular combination of genes work in tandem to produce the psychological and behavioural effects that we call narcissism. We all inherit half of our genes from our mother, and half from our father. So it really is a roll of the dice when it comes to whether the children of narcissists inherit these genetic ingredients or not.
The research so far suggests that these genes are necessary for NPD to develop – or at least, they make it much more likely. If the golden child doesn’t inherit these ingredients, it’s like mixing sawdust with eggs and sugar – not going to make a cake.
If children do inherit these genes, they’ve got the right ingredients, but they still need to be “baked”. So what’s the equivalent of the hot oven in this analogy? What are the environmental factors that might “activate” these genes, and cause NPD to develop?
One of the key factors identified in the research is parental overvaluation – this is where parents shower their children with praise, even when they have done nothing to warrant it. If you’re thinking, “That sounds exactly like the description of the golden child,” then you’re right – it is!
The theory goes like this – when children are told continuously that they are special and better than other people, but they don’t understand why, then the only way they can get that feeling of being special, is through praise. So, the child develops a need for verbal praise from others.
At the same time, the fact that a narcissistic parent doesn’t provide any unconditional love or affection, creates a low self-esteem. They don’t know when or how the praise will come, so they start learning how to elicit it from other people, through things like bragging, and lying. If you’re thinking “That sounds like a description of a narcissist,” you’d be right again!
Some research also suggests that the siblings of scapegoated children display lower than normal levels of empathy. It could be that siblings with low empathy end up being the ones who join in on the abuse of the scapegoat. But, the researchers also propose that it could be the other way around – siblings who join in on the abuse could end up with lower empathy. For example, the child may suppress their empathy to hide from themselves the fact that they are being abusive – to avoid the self-guilt and self-shame that this might trigger.
Since impaired empathy is another characteristic of NPD, this shows another potential reason why we might expect more golden children than scapegoats to develop NPD themselves.
However there’s another important thing to point out here – the impact of the second parent can be crucial. If the second parent is non-narcissistic, and is able to show the golden child the warmth they don’t get from the parent with NPD, while also not engaging in overvaluation, they might act as a barrier, preventing NPD from developing.
What happens to the golden child when the scapegoat leaves?
Although it might sound strange, there are some advantages to being the scapegoat child.
Although they receive the brunt of the narcissistic abuse, the golden child is certainly more controlled – they have more expectations put upon them. Their role is to serve the narcissist’s needs and give the narcissist something to brag about. Because of the narcissist’s low opinion of the scapegoat, they have less expectations placed on them.
The golden child in this dynamic is being manipulated and abused too. But the abuse is more subtle, more confusing. They may not really realise what’s going on, and may not see their situation as unfavourable, at least relative to the scapegoat.
This means that, of the two roles, the scapegoat has the most incentive and opportunity to leave the toxic family environment. When they leave, they may also take a stronger sense of who they actually are with them – something they may not fully develop, as they are being shaped by the narcissist.
So what happens when the scapegoat child leaves?
The writers over at “Silence is not OK” suggest that discord in the family can increase after the scapegoat child leaves. As we’ll see, the scapegoat child can form as a kind of pressure release valve. When that valve is taken away, the anger that the narcissist previously it directed at the scapegoat, will find alternative targets.
They may also find someone else to fill the scapegoat role. If the narcissist set up the golden child-scapegoat dynamic in the first place, it is probably because they have a need for it (we’ll discuss these needs a little later on). So with the family now a scapegoat down, what does the narcissist do?
Well, often the original scapegoat will remain the scapegoat, even if they are not physically present. Much like Napoleon did to Snowball in George Orwell’s animal farm, the narcissist may continue to use, blame, insult the scapegoat, even in their absence. If there are any more children in the family, another sibling may take up the scapegoat mantle, and in some cases, they might switch roles.
Can the golden child become the scapegoat?
It’s important to note that the two roles we’re discussing here say more about the parent assigning then than they do about the characteristics of the children themselves. Some people who have reported experiences have said that in their family, the roles were more fluid. They were based on which child was the flavour of the month – in other words, which child had been most effective at providing narcissistic supply, and the most able to avoid triggering a narcissistic injury.
Although it’s more common for the roles to be fixed than fluid, a fixed role is not necessarily a permanent one. Often a narcissist’s opinion of someone is influenced more by their most recent interactions with that person, than a rational, long-term evaluation of their interactions over time.
So, if the golden child was to trigger a sufficiently painful narcissistic injury, they could certainly find themselves out of that role and perhaps the new family scapegoat. Of course, the action that would trigger such a role change will vary from person to person, but imagine if the golden child directly challenged the narcissist’s abuse of the scapegoat – it’s hard to imagine them remaining in this role for too long after something like that.
Why do narcissists have a golden child and a scapegoat child?
Before we get into this, let me make a quick little side point. This family dynamic is not guaranteed to occur in families with a narcissistic parent. At the time of writing, there is very little research on these roles, so we don’t know for sure how common they are. The main thing we have to go on are people’s reports, and this can make the dynamic seem more common than it actually is.
For example, how many reports, online or off, have you read where someone said “I grew up in a household with narcissistic parent, and we didn’t have a scapegoat or a golden child.”? I’ve read a few comments to this effect here and there, but not many. But is that because this dynamic is super-common, or is it because people who didn’t experience it aren’t speaking up as much?
We have no way of knowing. One fair assumption we could make, is that this dynamic is more likely to occur in people with more severe NPD, especially those who we might classify as “malignant narcissists.” We’d expect to see it less in narcissists with less severe symptoms of NPD, and much less still in people who are narcissistic, but don’t meet the criteria for NPD.
So the key driver behind this dynamic will be the severity of the parent’s narcissism. But just remember that not all narcissists have NPD, and not all narcissists with NPD have malignant narcissism.
Anyway, with that point made, let’s explore why a parent with NPD might be inclined to push their children into them…
Why do narcissists have a scapegoat child?
Here are a few possibilities as to why a narcissist might have a scapegoat child.
The emotional lightning rod
When one key member of the family puts their needs (far) ahead of everyone else’s, this can create dynamics where stress, fear, and conflict are more common.
Now, to a narcissist, image is everything – and this applies even within the family, where they are largely the one in control. Since narcissists view themselves are pretty much perfect, they have a bit of a dilemma here – if they are so great, why would there be there stress and conflict within the family?
Enter the scapegoat as a ready-made solution to this problem. As Peg Streep explains over at Psychology Today,
the scapegoat “permits the narcissistic mother to make sense of family dynamics and the things that displease her without ever blemishing her own role as a “perfect” mother, or feeling the need for any introspection or action. She has a ready-made explanation for fractiousness or any other deviation from what she expects her family to look like.”
(note: Streep was talking about narcissistic mothers in this article, but the point applies equally to narcissistic fathers).
So one reason narcissists create scapegoat role, is for them to serve as a lightning rod, attracting negativity so they don’t have to experience it themselves. This can sometimes become a team effort where the rest of the family joins in – commonly known as “family mobbing.”
Another reason is narcissists have a scapegoat child is more simple – to serve as a source of narcissistic supply. Narcissists sometimes insult and put other people down so that they can feel better about themselves. It simply enables them to think better of themselves, knowing that there’s someone else that they’re superior to.
One interesting theory around why narcissists create these two roles is that they are projecting different aspects of themselves onto their children.
As you may know, people with NPD have two “selves”. One is the the grandiose image of the perfect person that they present to the world. The other lives much deeper in their mind – the insecure self who lurks beneath the surface. The insecure self is deeply worried that they aren’t as important as they like to think. Narcissists hate this aspect of themselves, and put most of their energy into avoiding ever having to face it or accept that it is real.
Yet it’s there underneath, nonetheless. So what do you do in that situation? Well one thing you can do, is to project your insecure self onto someone else – the scapegoat. Any hatred towards the insecure self can then be directed at the scapegoat. They turn an inner conflict into an outer one – something they can attack and control more easily. They “externalise” their pain, so that it’s no longer a part of themselves.
Why do narcissists have a golden child?
Here are a couple of ideas as to why narcissists have a golden child:
Very often, to understand a narcissist’s behaviour, you just need to come back to their two key needs – to obtain narcissistic supply, and to avoid narcissistic injury.
So how does the golden child provide supply? It comes down to the family image. They don’t just just praise the golden child directly, they brag about them to others, too. They understand that to have intelligent, successful, high-achieving children is something that gets you a little status in the eyes of other people, so they use the golden child to get that status. It’s the offspring equivalent of a trophy wife.
The golden child will also be a direct source of supply to the narcissist – they are the narcissist’s chief assistant, there to serve their needs. The golden child will often come to identify with the narcissistic parent, and then reflect their positive view back at them. They are like a familial “yes man/woman”.
As the scapegoat is the projection of the narcissist’s insecure self, the golden child is the projection of the narcissist’s grandiose self.
It’s often said that narcissists see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as individuals in their own right. So in a sense, the golden child – or at least the narcissist’s image of them – is who the narcissist would like to be.
Does this sound familiar?
As I said earlier, while these dynamics do appear to be somewhat common, they won’t show up in all narcissistic families. And where they do appear, each instance will have its own unique flavour and severity.
Did you grow up in a family where one or both parents were narcissistic? If so, what was your experience? Do these roles match up with what you experienced?