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‘Narcissistic parents have one face for everyone else and one face for the scapegoat child’

Surely an entire family can’t be wrong? The first step is to consider that they might be

In January, 2016, on his morning RTÉ radio show, Ryan Tubridy read a letter from a listener. It described encounters with people over the Christmas holidays who no longer had contact with a family member, such as a parent. It provoked an outpouring of correspondence from listeners. Some said they cut ties to preserve their mental health after years of battling an intolerable dysfunctional relationship, often with a narcissistic parent. The word narcissism came up over and over again.

The following day, clinical psychologist Dr Keith Gaynor came on air to discuss the topic. He called it “Ireland’s hidden secret”. Some people, he said, are born to parents who are unable to love them. We are programmed instinctively to seek maternal love, will do anything to evoke it, sometimes hanging on to an unhealthy relationship, chasing a glimmer. But, he explained, when a family relationship is toxic, the best thing to do is walk away. To observers, the break seems sudden, he said, but the behaviour is chronic.

“Narcissistic parents have one face for everyone else and one face for the scapegoat child,” wrote one person. “Often the adult scapegoat decides for their own mental wellbeing to go no-contact. However, these parents are masters at recruiting flying monkeys, even turning siblings against the scapegoat.”


The term “scapegoat” originates in an ancient practice. Every year at Yom Kippur, the ancient Israelites drove a goat into the desert to perish. The goat’s expulsion represented the banishing of all things bad, a symbolic purging of sin, guilt, wrongdoing, all the negativity that builds up in people and societies. The goat was innocent, but was selected to benefit the group by a process that Freud would centuries later describe as “defensive projection” – transferring unpalatable aspects of ourselves on to another object or person.


A scapegoat is a person, or group, who is blamed for another’s faults or problems. Historic examples might include the Nazi attempt to purge society of Jewish and other minorities, blaming them for economic downfall and for destroying the fabric of German society. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslim culture was identified by some as the cause of terrorism.

Scapegoating is to no small extent a blame game.

Family scapegoating

Dr Jane Hollingsworth, a clinical psychologist in Virginia, US, describes family scapegoating as typically involving a needy, narcissistic parent (often the mother) whose ego is grounded in portraying a certain image. A child who threatens this image is targeted by the parent to make them comply. What constitutes a threat can be a seemingly innocuous detail – birth order, similarities, differences, physical appearance, even the child having a birth date close to that of the narcissistic parent. The scapegoat child, for whatever reason, evokes a negative feeling in the parent – jealousy, dislike, regret – that the parent is unable to confront in themselves and is socially unacceptable. A more palatable explanation is that the child is to blame, and must change or be punished.

Dr Hollingsworth describes a case where a girl was scapegoated by her mother due to her resemblance to the husband who had abandoned her. The mother denied the child privileges compared to the other children, locking her in a closet for weeks at a time to make her behave. In another case, the perpetrator, an educated and well-respected figure in the community, scapegoated a stepchild who continued to miss his biological mother and refused to call her “mom”. The boy was fed less than his siblings, given fewer privileges and kept for a year out of school as he wasn’t good enough to go. Siblings are drawn into the parent’s perspective, blaming the child. Dr Hollingsworth found that families where a child is related to one of the parents only, such as a stepchild, are more prone to scapegoating. Mistreatment can be less overt, harder to identify, never reaching social services.

However, Dr Hollingsworth finds there are common themes in scapegoating families.

  1. The scapegoating parent is a fragile, needy, often narcissistic personality.
  2. A difference is noted in one child, who threatens the parent’s image and the family myth. The child may evoke a response the parent cannot accept in herself, such as jealousy or spite. She blames the child for evoking these feelings.
  3. The victim is targeted for not reflecting the “good-motherness” ideal.
  4. A double standard is set up with different rules for the scapegoat.
  5. The victim reacts to this underserved treatment.
  6. The parent distorts reality to negate the victim’s reality and presents the victim as the cause of the strife and of the narcissistic wounding of the parent.
  7. The victim reacts even more negatively, compounding the view both to themselves and others that they are the “bad one”.
  8. Siblings rally to support the parent’s view. If the victim changed, they reason, if they were a better person, did what Mother wanted, were nice to Mother, then all the problems would go away.

Outsiders are drawn into this narrative. After all, an entire family can’t be wrong. The first step is to consider that they may be.


In 2012, psychologists from the University of Kansas, led by Prof Zachary Rothschild, wrote a paper on why people scapegoat.

Firstly, according to the paper, it preserves one’s moral value. “We are good. He/she is bad. We are not to blame if the fault is somebody else’s.”

Secondly, it provides control over something that cannot otherwise be explained or controlled. Mother’s unhappiness with, or mistreatment of, a child needs validation within the family in order to preserve her as good, safe. Siblings therefore punish the culprit and preserve the family unit. The spouse/partner is typically a background figure, absent or uninvolved, unable to fully grasp what is happening, bowing to the other parent’s stance.

Parents who scapegoat lack self-awareness, abhor criticism and are masters at avoiding the truth. There is no motivation within the family to challenge the established narrative

There are other versions of scapegoating. The “ugly duckling” child is identified by both parents as different, upsetting them and/or the family creed. Mistreatment is often mimicked by the siblings. In his book Children Under the Influence, Dr Michael Hardiman describes the scapegoat child in the context of a family with an alcoholic parent. This child takes on the role to carry the burden of the family’s pain and lives a less fulfilling life, putting the family’s needs foremost.

According to French anthropological philosopher Dr René Giraud (1923-2015), scapegoating is a uniquely human mechanism whose function is to maintain group stability. In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s anthropological masterpiece, he chronicles how humans practise “transference of evil”, including human scapegoating, since early civilisation, across cultures. Western society is no exception.

A scapegoat is not the same as a black sheep. The latter is not driven away nor suffers maltreatment by their entire flock. The black sheep knows s/he is different and chooses to live outside the family norms. The scapegoat on the other hand has a traumatic account of living with confusing and damaging family relationships, initiated by a difficult relationship with one parent.

They are othered, ousted as a bad egg.

Different standard

If you google “family scapegoating”, you will find personal accounts similar to those described here. Many speak of being held to a different standard in the family. A sibling fails or becomes depressed and the family rally around them. The same happens to you, and you are treated with contempt. Your family speak badly of you to others. They show little or no interest in your achievements or plans. You have a difficult relationship with all your siblings. Your truth will not be heard. Your sense of who you are is eroded.

Scapegoats learn not to trust themselves, to subscribe to the family line that they are the problem. Unlike group scapegoating, there is no solidarity, no others to share the pain. Vimala Pillari, in her book Scapegoating in Families: Intergenerational Patterns of Physical and Mental Abuse, describes the life of the family scapegoat as “learning not to live and not knowing how to change”.

The rub is that parents who scapegoat lack self-awareness, abhor criticism and are masters at avoiding the truth. There is no motivation within the family to challenge the established narrative

Like victims of sibling bullying or other family abuse, scapegoats often don’t have the language to describe what is happening. They are often gaslit and doubt the reality of their experiences. And they know they will not be believed. Family scapegoating can sound too far-fetched to believe. Few without experience can grasp the insanity of it, particularly when that family is seemingly normal or well-respected. If all but one member are doing fine, then the logic goes: isn’t the one child the problem?

To untangle this knotted web requires complete honesty, challenging the responsibility of each member of the family. Crucially, it requires the parent/s’ willingness. The rub is that parents who scapegoat lack self-awareness, abhor criticism and are masters at avoiding the truth. There is no motivation within the family to challenge the established narrative. After all, the other siblings are doing just fine. Dr Hollingsworth found that siblings who scapegoat may show empathy to others, but that their lack of empathy towards their sibling and their ability to distort reality is a risk factor for repeated behaviour.

Family scapegoating endures into adulthood. Often scapegoats don’t thrive. They are stuck in a double-bind: being part of the family means accepting to live as the scapegoat, while leaving the family means having nothing, no one.

Some do break away and accept the loss that comes with freedom. A narcissistic parent will never initiate change. It is up to the scapegoat to gather their suffering, abandon it in the desert and head off to another village to start a new beginning.