Child Roles in the Narcissistic Family: Scapegoat
As in other types of dysfunctional families, children in the narcissistic home fall into roles orchestrated by their parents. Such parents assign the roles to reinforce their deluded self-beliefs and control family dynamics. Like other aspects of the narcissistic family, child roles are artificial and meant to serve the needs of the parents rather than support the children’s authenticity and development. Typically the dysfunctional family roles are scapegoat, lost child, mascot, and hero/caretaker, but in the narcissistic family there is an idealized golden child and the hero/caretaker role may mix with that of the scapegoat or golden child. In smaller families, children may play more than one role. Children defined by artificial roles experience distortions to their sense of identity and face emotional and physiological trauma that can last a lifetime if not addressed. Here we examine the role of the scapegoat and scapegoat/hero.
Narcissists always need a target, and the scapegoated child is it. Blamed for the ills of the family, scapegoats are treated to negative projection, criticism, and rage and are often burdened with excessive responsibilities as well as restrictions at home. If you are a scapegoat, no matter how hard you try or how capable you are, it is seldom good enough, and anything negative you do is viewed as proof of your failings. You are labeled a screw up or rebel so that any reaction you have against the injustice of the role can always be interpreted as confirmation of its accuracy. As the family bad seed, whether you argue, yell, cry, withdraw, or try to explain, it is seen as acting out. In a very real sense, as scapegoat you experience a character assassination that may amount to a lifelong smear campaign within the family and possibly beyond it to relatives, friends, and community members.
The child selected for scapegoating triggers the parent’s narcissistic injury, activating his/her most violent defenses. Your mere act of seeing causes the parent to lash out with projecting rage: You are called difficult, unfair, angry, disloyal. The narcissist’s disappointments become your fault. The narcissist’s abuses become your misdeeds. The narcissist’s responsibilities become your weights to carry. In short, the narcissistic parent uses you to deflect accountability and as a catchall for his/her disappointments and anger at the world.
As the family target, you as scapegoat have it hardest, at least on the surface. Your personality disordered parent sees in you what s/he hates about her-/himself. This may be because you are most like that parent, most aware of her/his shortcomings, and/or most questioning of or confrontational about the family’s unhealthy dynamics. Perhaps you are the most aware and strongest child and therefore the biggest threat to the narcissist’s architecture of lies.
Scapegoated children may react at home and school by fulfilling their role as underachiever, disaffected misfit, or rule-breaking rebel. They may struggle against family expectations by taking on aspects of the hero role, becoming highly capable, responsible, and perfectionist overachievers and/or self-effacing caregivers/rescuers. They may attempt to defend an abused enabling parent and siblings, recognizing the cruelty in the family and identifying with the pain of other family members. Some scapegoats internalize the narcissistic value system and become narcissistic themselves. Others endure so much assault that they experience a kind of emotional and/or physical collapse that leaves them unable to fully function in adulthood. In extreme cases scapegoats are so pathologized they end up institutionalized. However they respond to their circumstances, scapegoated children inevitably carry the emotional and physical fallout of abuse. As long-term trauma victims, they are most likely to experience symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress, including anxiety, depression, anger, phobias, addiction, and degraded health. Those who avoid becoming narcissistic themselves are vulnerable to codependent and/or abusive relationships, especially if an enabling parent has modeled codependency.
But scapegoats’ vulnerabilities are often also their most powerful strengths. As a scapegoat you may become highly empathetic, having been marginalized and trained to put others’ needs first. You also may become unusually self-reflective, seeking out insight and awareness to make sense of the abuse and cognitive dissonance you endured. As an outlier, you are likely to have greater perspective about the family dysfunction and motivation to break away from it. If you are able to carry such awareness forward into healthier relationships, you may end the cycle of blame and abuse with your own family. Often it takes having kids of our own to realize how far out of bounds our parents were with us. Scapegoats who become parents commonly experience an aha moment (or many moments) when they say, “I would never treat my kids the way my parents treated me!”
As the family scapegoat, your identity is distorted by your narcissistic parent’s false projections. Your challenge is to believe in your own perceptions and truths—no small matter for someone who has been systematically targeted, undermined and discredited. This means dissecting the narcissistic family system, recognizing its cruelties and lies, and nurturing the self within who was never properly loved.
Thank you Julie Hall for this awesome article!
By Julie L. Hall
This article is an adapted excerpt from Julie L. Hall’s book The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free coming from Da Capo Lifelong Books/Hachette Book Group December 3, 2019. Julie is the founder of the popular blog The Narcissist Family Files. Learn about her coaching.