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The Effects of Scapegoating

This second blog about scapegoating in families looks at the effects of scapegoating. Within a family, one member becomes the target of accusations, blame, criticism or ostracism. While it’s happening, family members are often unaware of what they are doing and would deny it if confronted with their behaviour. Becoming the scapegoat can be a temporary role (and family members may rotate in and out of it) or a permanent one. Often, scapegoating begins in childhood and continues into and throughout adulthood.

Hiding dark secrets

 Scapegoating is often a way for families to hide problems that they cannot face. Where there is a family history of abuse (usually emotional) by one or both parents,  scapegoating can become a way for adult children to hide the dark family history by blaming everything on one vulnerable member who becomes the repository of everything that is wrong in the family.

It’s not me, it’s you

It allows all the other members of the family (parents plus siblings and sometimes even wider family) to think of themselves as emotionally healthier and more stable than they actually are, since they’re not required to take responsibility for their behaviours or actions. The one thorn in the family’s side (so they maintain) is the presence of the scapegoat, and if he or she could be “made to act better,” then life would be perfect.

So scapegoats grow up to be the black sheep of the family. What efforts they make to try to dislodge the family mythologies will be met with vehement denial and reprisal and what often happens is a hardening and solidification of the party line (“She was always difficult/mad/over-sensitive, even as a child”)

The effects of scapegoating on an individual

It is common for them to believe, for many years, at least, what the family tells them so that they accept all of the blame and finger pointing at them despite the fact that it’s untrue.There’s no question that significant emotional and psychological wounds are sustained.Being robbed of a sense of belonging in their family of origin leaves a real mark, and may affect them deeply right into adulthood. 

As with all forms of bullying, the effects of scapegoating can be deeply traumatic for an individual and they can suffer all the effects of post traumatic stress. Some are able to put up impenetrable walls around themselves and can become high achievers, on the one hand, actively working to disprove their family’s vision of them. Others may have so internalised the negative messages about themselves that they set their sights low, avoid failure at all costs, and have problems both setting and accomplishing their own goals. 

Plenty of hope

However, in my own experience of working with people affected by this, there is also a lot of hope:  in many cases it is the scapegoated child who is more likely to come to terms with and recognise the toxic family patterns. He or she is more likely to seek help healing from these patterns and their effects than other family members who have bought into the family story, lock, stock, and barrel. With support and help, these individuals will often ultimately thrive, firmly rooted in a life of their own making.

Cutting ties

Sadly it seems that strategies used by the scapegoat to address what is happening with members of their family, usually end in failure.  They simply refuse to engage in rational and reasonable discussion or go to family therapy. Even worse the individual can find themselves further blamed and persecuted. In many cases, the individual who is scapegoated has to step back, set strong boundaries and keep contact to a minimum. In some cases they have to completely cut contact with some or all family members. This is not a decision that is easily made but the effects of scapegoating can be so severe that only way to preserve one’s emotional health is to cut ties.

Contact Me

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541


Book a counselling session today!

See also: Scapegoating, Ways to cope With a Toxic Family, A Toxic Family