When people, groups or societies do not examine their conscience, they choose a scapegoat to bear all the blame and thus free themselves from their responsibilities. In the case of families, the person chosen to play the role of scapegoat is unfairly tied down and forced to shoulder the weight of shame, anger, frustration, or guilt projected by family members.
Unfortunately, also children sometimes play the role of scapegoat in narcissistic families. In these cases, they are forced to carry the negative projections of the parents and their daily responsibilities as well. As a result, that family ends up robbing their children of their childhood, though the psychological consequences of being the scapegoat can carry over into adulthood.
The psychological profiles of those who have been used as scapegoats
These children are the ones to provide emotional and/or physical care for their parents. They are forced to play the role of friend, therapist, nurse, or even partner. Not only do they take on domestic responsibilities that correspond to parents, such as cooking or taking care of younger siblings, but they also try to solve problems that arise in the family. They take charge of crises, make decisions in place of parents and manage the day-to-day life of the family.
However, despite being the breadwinner of the narcissistic family, these children are seen as the “cause” of problems, so they do not receive recognition for everything they do. Many parents simply take it for granted that it is their duty and even criticize and punish them when they don’t do it well.
Children who assume the role of caregivers or protectors are usually very intuitive, empathetic and responsible, but if they do not learn to prioritize their needs in adulthood, they are likely to end up trapped in relationships of emotional dependency or that others take advantage of their good faith. As a result, they won’t devote enough time and attention to each other, and because they often find it difficult to ask others for help and take on responsibilities that don’t belong to them, it’s not surprising that exhaustion, frustration, and resentment creep into their lives.
Not all children are resigned to playing the role of scapegoat in a narcissistic family. Some are able to recognize that it is a dysfunctional family and rebel against unfair treatment and the attempt to blame and discharge the responsibilities on them.
However, although they are perceptive enough to understand that they are becoming the scapegoat of the family, they do not have the psychological tools to deal with it, so they end up expressing those feelings of helplessness and frustration through challenging behaviors.
These children tend to react rebelliously to any form of control and authority in general. And if they aren’t able to process those emotions as they grow older – recognize the cause of their anger and find assertive ways to channel it – they can become maladjusted adults who don’t quite fit in with the world because they see it as a hostile place who are in constant struggle with.
During the first years of life, parents represent the main attachment figure for children, so it is not surprising that they need and seek their love and approval. Therefore, some children will try to fight against the scapegoat image by trying to change their parents’ minds.
These children turn to avoid criticism and reproaches from the family. They develop perfectionistic behavior patterns and aspire to high achievement in different areas to refute the negative narrative that has been built around them and win the affection of their parents.
However, those efforts can end up making them overly dependent on external validation, trying to avoid negative attention and criticism, so they get little recognition or value for themselves. In fact, they often become intelligent and successful adults, but dissatisfied with themselves and their lives because they continue to fight against their inner critic, wearing themselves out with excessive and unrealistic standards for themselves.
– Eternal victims
Some children made scapegoats by their family end up assuming the toxic discourse. They introject the parents’ words and make their guilt and recrimination their own. As a result, these children live with emotional abuse and neglect, which prevents them from developing strong self-esteem and self-confidence.
In the long run, these people will find it very difficult to recover from childhood abuse, so it is not unusual for them to continue identifying with the labels placed on them by narcissistic parents with little empathy. Obviously, it is difficult for them to prosper psychologically and develop the necessary mental stability, so they can jump from one emotional crisis to another.
Many of these children can become dependent, self-accusing and blaming themselves for the problems of others. They drag their role as victims to receive empathy since it is the only way they know to attract attention and relate. In this way, they do not develop a strong “self”, but instead establish dependency relationships with which they try to replicate the pattern they learned in their childhood.
Certainly, it is difficult to let go of the damage caused by narcissistic families who use children to deal with their difficulties. These people must do hard work in adulthood to recognize what has happened to them and to shed the dysfunctional labels and patterns that are limiting them.
Many times the path to healing is complicated because it involves recognizing that the people who were supposed to care, love and protect them actually used them to project their fears, insecurities and immaturity. However, it is never too late for people who were scapegoated in their childhood to begin to love themselves and build healthy self-esteem, set protective boundaries, and replace learned maladaptive coping patterns with self-awareness and self-compassion.
Hall, J. (2022) 8 Types of Children Who Are Scapegoated in Narcissistic Families. In: Psyhology Today.