Have you realized that one of your parents was scapegoated by the other?
Do you want to relate to your scapegoated parent with appreciation instead of contempt?
Do you want to live without the presence of scapegoats or superior people?
Today’s post is the second in a two-part series on recovery from parental alienation. I focus on the child who had one of their parents scapegoated by the other. Recovery involves finding it safe to question longheld views towards both parents. Survivors had to believe that the other parent deserved the narcissistic parent’s cruelty. The narcissistic parent threatened abandonment or attack otherwise. Safety happens in relationships that allow one to think their own thoughts without such threats. I describe three steps in the recovery process: deprogramming, surrendering ownership of your attitudes towards the scapegoat parent and healing your moral injury. An anonymized case example will be used to illustrate throughout.
The Process of Recovery: Knowing It Is Safe To Be Wrong About the Scapegoat Parent
The secret wish of children with a scapegoat parent is that they can be wrong about that parent. In a variety of ways the narcissistic parent made the child see them as the only viable parent. Next they insisted the child despise the scapegoat parent for them to bond with the child. To feel attached the child had to sacrifice their relationship to their own reality, to the scapegoat parent and to themselves.
The child has had to insist to themselves that the narcissistic parent is right about the scapegoat parent. Yet their freedom and healing lies in knowing that they and their narcissistic parent were wrong about the other parent. So, the very thing that would have left them with no viable parent to attach to earlier in life is what can set them free today.
Derek had been in therapy for many years in his adult life. He was aware of how his narcissistic mother treated him as the scapegoat. He was less aware of how she had previously scapegoated his father.
Derek’s father separated from his mother when he was twelve years old. Prior to that she would explode into rages at his father on a nightly basis. She lamented how he did not communicate with her, how he did not care about her, and how he was selfish. Derek’s father was a softer spoken man who did not know how to respond to his volatile wife. He would remain quiet as she raged and when he did respond she would grow even more furious.
Derek remembered being captivated by these nightly screaming bouts from his mother. She was the boss of the house. All the decisions went through her. Derek felt like his mother was generally positive towards him although she could explode at him at times. He looked up to his father who was an accomplished military man, smart, very handy around the house and a great athlete. Derek would always look to spend as much time with his father as he could.
He was put into a state of severe conflict as he listened to his mother rail against his father. Was his mother just a mean person? Something in him really did not want to believe this. Was his father as bad as she was claiming? That’s not what his experience told him but his mother seemed so convinced. Something in him felt it could be easier to believe this.
When Derek’s father finally decided to separate from his mother, Derek had a reason to finally see his father the way his mother did. He echoed his mother’s sentiments that his father was leaving the ‘family’ not just their marriage. The fact that his father showed up faithfully to every planned visit could not dent Derek’s resentment towards him. Derek fell squarely into line with his mother’s attitude of contempt and devaluation towards his father for what felt like just cause. His father’s supposed abandonment “proved” that he was as bad as his mother had always claimed.
What Does the Child Survivor Need to Safely Be Wrong About the Scapegoat Parent?
A new relationship that feels solid, ongoing and accepting is required to recover. The child survivor needs to have someone in their lives who is unconditional in their support. They get to be free to care about whomever they care about and it poses no threat to this relationship. The survivor needs this kind of relationship as a foundation from which to question their antipathy towards the scapegoat parent.
The survivor must create psychological and emotional distance from the narcissistic parent’s influence. This aligns with the second pillar of recovery. Distance allows the survivor to absorb what is offered in the new safe relationship. If the narcissistic parent stays influential then the pressure to be in opposition to the scapegoat parent remains.
Ever since his parents separated Derek felt a seething anger – even hatred – towards his father. As an adult when his father would visit him, Derek would be seized with a visceral hostility towards him. In therapy, Derek described a sense of being possessed. “It’s like in my head I am looking forward to seeing him. But when he shows up at my door I’m gripped with an anger that I just can’t shake. No matter what he says or does it’s not right.”
Derek’s therapist was male and they had a good relationship. His therapist would remain neutral a lot of the time to let Derek work through his thoughts and impressions. As this relationship felt secure it allowed Derek a foundation from which to question his attitude towards his father.
One day Derek was hanging out with his friends and they were talking about a timeshare vacation rental. Derek felt a pang of sadness, tenderness and warmth as he recalled his father once offered to get a timeshare rental for them to vacation at together. Instead of dismissing this feeling, Derek paid attention to it. He saw his father in a much more loving light in that moment. He also felt tremendous grief at having had to deny these feelings towards his father for so long.
At his next therapy session, Derek brought this experience up. He and his therapist explored and Derek began to question his longheld hostile opinions about his father. He had learned from his mother – mostly indirectly – that his father was emotionally unavailable, dangerous and selfish. This experience related to his father’s desire to spend time with him broke through these “lessons”. Derek had started down the path of being able to see his father without the distortions his mother had made necessary.
Steps in the Recovery Process
The child of a scapegoated parent has to deprogram what they have been told to believe. In essence that what they thought was bad was actually good. And what they thought was good was actually bad.
There’s a line from a rap song in the 1980’s called ‘Peter Piper’ by Run-DMC that goes:
“He’s the big bad wolf in your neighborhood…
Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good.”
The narcissistic parent tells their child that the scapegoat parent is the ‘big bad wolf’. The implication is that if the scapegoat parent is so bad and dangerous then the narcissistic parent is proportionately good and safe. The process of deprogramming puts this lyric into action in the survivor’s life. The survivor swaps out what ‘bad’ means to see that just because a creature is a wolf does not mean they are dangerous.
You might work on being mindful of reactions to the scapegoat parent. Catching the thoughts and attitudes that arise towards them. Next, you can gently remind yourself that they are not who they seem in this way. Each time you can do this a sliver of light enters the darkness that has had to shroud your love for the scapegoat parent.
The survivor is aligning themselves back to the truth of who they are. The child who had to disavow the scapegoat parent also had to disavow the part of themselves that identifies with that parent. Every expression of contempt towards that parent is an act of contempt towards oneself. Deprogramming from hostile attitudes towards the scapegoat parent moves the survivor closer to feeling love for that parent and for themselves.
Surrendering Ownership of Your Attitudes and Thoughts
The child of a scapegoat parent has had their own thoughts and attitudes hijacked. This experience is not common in life and can very difficult to accept. For our mental and emotional stability we have to assume that we own our thoughts and feelings. To be aware that our private thoughts have been dominated by the purposes of another is very disturbing.
The child of the narcissistic parent has to use everything at their disposal to maintain the parent’s attachment to them. This includes the integrity of their own perceptions and beliefs. Their private thoughts and attitudes become a means towards the end of keeping the bond with narcissistic parent intact. If holding contemptuous thoughts towards the scapegoat parent keeps the narcissistic parent satisified then so be it.
The child survivor grows familiar with such negative reactions to their scapegoat parent. These thoughts may have been around for years. It is destabilizing to consider that such thoughts were never one’s own. That they are and were the product of the narcissistic parent’s manipulation. This means that their perception of reality where this parent is the bad one has been wrong all along. Although there is a promise of freedom and healing in this wrongness, it can initially be very scary.
Within the context of an ongoing safe relationship the survivor can surrender ownership of these thoughts today. It requires the security of such a relationship to do so. This part of the recovery process involves considering that you do not know your scapegoat parent – or yourself – as well as you thought you did. That the thoughts and attitudes you have held towards them for so long were implanted by the narcissistic parent. You recognize that your psychological sanctity was violated by the narcissistic parent.
It is crucial to feel connected to and grounded in a good ongoing relationship to be able to go through such change. Therapy can offer such a support.
Healing the Child Survivor’s Moral Injury
The child forced to participate in the narcissistic parent’s scapegoating of the other parent may feel like a bad person for doing so. The child usually has no one to help with the guilt and shame they feel over having to be cruel to a decent person. As a result they can harbor a deep feeling of badness that goes unchallenged for years.
There is a term for this called ‘moral injury’. A moral injury happens when we are forced to act in ways that conflict with our moral beliefs. So a child who believes that they are a loving person can experience moral injury if their narcissistic parent pressures them to hate their other parent. If that other parent has seemed good but the child loathes them then how can the child still be a loving person? The child’s conclusion that they are not a loving person is the moral injury in this case.
Similar to how child soldiers are often inducted into service by being forced to murder an innocent person. Now the child feels like they are at a crossroads. They can either go on being a murderer as they have just – supposedly – shown themselves to be. Or they can try to live as a loving person who has murdered someone. The latter can only be concluded with enough relational safety. Such safety is typically absent in the lives of child soldiers and children of scapegoated parents.
It serves the narcissistic parent’s interests for the child to feel morally injured. Since the child sees themselves – often unconsciously – as cruel they have less grounds to object to the narcissistic parent’s treatment of the other parent. The child reasons that their narcissistic parent is not doing anything to the parent that they are not doing too. The child’s moral compass becomes distorted and they feel like a corrupted person.
Moral injuries can be healed in the context of a new safe and ongoing relationship. Compassion was missing in circumstances that produced the moral injury. The narcissistic parent showed no compassion towards the other parent. The child was coerced to deny their own compassion towards this parent too. All the while, no compassion was shown the child for what a terrible position they were being put in.
A survivor who is in therapy, for instance, can experience the therapist’s compassion for the impossible situation they faced. As they deprogram the negative thoughts about the scapegoat parent they can also feel compassion for this parent. Over time the survivor can feel less shame over what they were forced to participate in. Talking about these feelings and being met with compassion is a powerful antidote to shame.
Derek built on the momentum he experienced in this memory of his father’s loving stance towards him. He was able to catch his automatic negative thoughts about his father and question them. He did this in therapy sessions and on his own. He was deprogramming the hostility that his narcissistic mother insisted he hold towards his father.
Derek called his father and talked with him without being seized by hostility this time. He regarded his father as a person who deserved his respect. They spoke on a weekly basis and Derek experienced his father as an ally for the first time since his childhood.
Therapy gave Derek a place where he could relinquish ownership of the negative feelings towards his father without feeling too destabilized. “It’s amazing to me how thoroughly I have had to believe in my father’s badness. These thoughts really seem like my own when they come to me. I’ll think of my Dad and a memory of how he supposedly disappointed me will immediately spring up. But when I look closer at that memory it is not nearly as damning of him as I thought it was.” Derek was in an important stage of growth in this recovery by letting go of the ways he had known his father and himself all these years.
As Derek got used to his new reality where he could feel love for his father, he also discovered a lot more love for himself. He realized how the hatred he had been forced to feel towards his father resulted in him feeling hatred towards himself. The parts of Derek that were similar to his father had always seemed like they had no value. Now Derek could see and appreciate his own intelligence, athleticism and even began to take on DIY projects around his own home.
A few months later, Derek shared in therapy how he had felt like such a bad person throughout his life but never knew why. He knew now that hating his father when his parents separated made him feel like he was bad. How could he be so mean to someone who was loving towards him?
Derek’s therapist asked him what he thought his motivation was at the time. Derek said, “Well I thought I had to protect my mother. She seemed so wounded by their separation. When I would think of her feeling rejected by him I would grow enraged. I guess it seemed like the right thing to do to hate him.”
His therapist said, “I bet it did. You see now how your mother manipulated you to feel this way. But what twelve year old kid could see through such tactics?”
Tears welled up in Derek’s eyes as he felt a surge of relief run through him. “It wasn’t just my Dad who was wronged here. So was I!”. This began the healing of the moral injury Derek had suffered.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.