As a child, did you feel…
…like everything you did was wrong?
…like there was an aching hole inside that never seemed to fill up?
…like you were not allowed to have good relationships outside of your family?
Scapegoat children to narcissistic parents are familiar with such experiences. They are used to being known as someone who is defective and undeserving. In today’s post, I describe the experience of being the scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent. The scapegoat child gets devalued, deprived, and trapped by the narcissistic parent. The net impact is to prevent the child from growing and developing.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse.
Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse I try to offer a map that allows them to come back to the quality of life they know they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are 3 features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. Today’s blog falls under Pillar #1: Making sense of what happened
A great resource to help with Pillar #1: making sense of what happened is my free ebook on Surviving Narcissistic abuse as the Scapegoat. You can find the link to the ebook by clicking here.
Narcissistic Parents Exploit their Children
A narcissistic parent has an unconscious sense of being worth less than others. They cannot stand these feelings. They cope by denying these feelings and insisting that they are worth more than others.
In a family headed by a narcissistic parent the children get exploited. Some, like the golden child, are used to promote that parent’s inflated self-worth. The parent’s logic goes, “I am superior because my child reflects who I am.” Others, like the scapegoat child are used to suffer that parent’s self-hatred. The parent’s logic goes, “I am superior because my child does not reflect who I am.”
The narcissistic parent pressures the scapegoat child and the golden child to agree with the treatment they receive. A golden child must participate in a mutual admiration society with the parent – or else. Consider the fictional case of ‘Jessica’ – her narcissistic mother’s golden child:
Jessica always thought she was the apple of her mother’s eye. Her mother would take her shopping every weekend. They would try on clothes together and get ice cream. Upon arriving home, her mother would invariably find a reason to yell at her older brother John. For instance, she might claim that he had left something out in the kitchen and this meant he did not respect her. She would say that he was irresponsible and selfish and send him to his room as punishment. Jessica would ‘check out’ in such moments. She did not like seeing her brother treated this way. He seemed to be a good person. She felt something very strong pulling her to agree with her mother. She knew something would tear the fabric of the family apart if she did not go along with her mother.
Jessica felt extreme – yet subtle – pressure to agree with her mother’s perspective. In retrospect it was the only reality her mother offered her. Jessica and her mother were the special people and John was the lowly ‘bad’ child. To question this arrangement would be to occupy a different reality than her mother. That would have been too psychologically dangerous for any child to do.
The scapegoat child also has to conform to the narcissistic parent’s reality. This child embodies the narcissistic parent’s intolerable feelings of inadequacy. They project these feelings onto the scapegoat child. The parent then influences that child to experience these feelings as their own. The child feels like the worthless one because there is no other way to be in the parent’s reality.
The consequences for the scapegoat child’s development can be severe.
3 Ways the Narcissistic Parent Interrupts the Scapegoat Child’s Growth
The scapegoat child is deprived, devalued and trapped by the narcissistic parent.
1) Deprivation of Emotional Nourishment
To grow, all children need to feel encouraged and attended to by their parents. This lets the child know they continue to exist when they show their increasing capabilities. Children with ‘good-enough’ parents feel a sense of continuity with themselves as they grow. They get to enjoy the feelings of power that come along with growth without sacrificing connection to others.
The scapegoat child finds nobody around when they seek recognition and affirmation for their growth. Without these responses the child can feel like they do not have the necessary support they need to grow. Instead of getting to enjoy their development, the scapegoat child can feel more lonely and unloved.
A prominent psychoanalyst named James Masterson calls this The ‘abandonment depression’. He describes How children of narcissistic parents can feel worse when they demonstrate their capabilities.They were painfully deprived of the parental responsiveness needed to support their growth. As a result, expressions of competence by a scapegoat survivor as an adult can feel similarly painful.
Donald was born to a narcissistic mother and an enabler father. He came to therapy in his mid-20’s to address anxiety and feelings of emptiness. Donald presented as an athletic, well-kempt, intelligent, articulate and professionally successful young man. As therapy proceeded Donald confessed that he did not feel like he owned any of these personal qualities.
Donald had to orbit his mother who was prone to violent rages if she did not feel obeyed and admired at all times. He had no recollection of getting to occupy the center of the family’s attention in his childhood. At least not in a positive way. As a result he felt like he had to keep his growth as a person a secret to himself and to his family. Nobody asked him about romantic partners or acknowledged that as a teenager he would be appropriately looking to date. Without anyone noticing and encouraging Donald’s development he did not have a way to identify with himself. Instead he had to identify with his mother’s imposed upon identity as the defective and undeserving family scapegoat.
Donald’s case demonstrates the abandonment depression he would experience when he tried to take ownership of qualities as a person. He coped by feeling dissociated from himself and seeing his abilities as fraudulent. This can be a consequence of the emotional deprivation faced by the scapegoat child.
2) Devaluation of the Scapegoat Child
The narcissistic parent perceives and treats the scapegoat child to be worth less than everyone else in the family. The scapegoat child has to believe in their devalued status to share a reality with the family. This arrangement lets the parent feel better than the child by comparison.
Such devaluation can leave the child feeling defective. If the scapegoat child is convinced that they are defective then what is the point to growing? Becoming an even bigger defect? This is one of the tragic consequences for the scapegoat child.
Steve was the scapegoat to his narcissistic father. At home Steve could never do anything right according to his father. If Steve folded his clothes and put them in his dresser his father would storm into his room, accuse him of shoddy work and dump the clothes on the floor for him to re-fold. Such occurrences were common and led Steve to conclude that he was defective. As he grew up he found other ways to convince himself of his defectiveness. He believed himself to be unathletic despite playing several sports. He thought that he was going to fail the next assignment in his advanced classes despite having good grades. He could not think of himself without simultaneously thinking of something that was – supposedly – wrong with him.
Steve could not know himself in any way that was positive. To do so would have been to defy his father’s narrative of him. As poorly as his father would treat him, Steve felt something much worse would be in store if he saw himself as having worth. Doing so would have prevented his father from using him to embody his own worthlessness. He knew deep down that his father would never stand for that and would likely attack Steve even more. That was the ‘something worse’ he feared.
3) Trapping the Scapegoat Child in the Narcissistic System
The scapegoat child’s valued relationships threaten the narcissistic parent. If the scapegoat child finds friendships and relationships that they value and with whom they feel valued then they may feel less deserving of the narcissistic parent’s devaluation. The child can absorb the parent’s cast off feelings of inadequacy to the extent they feel deserving of them. Thus, a child’s good relationships are often in the narcissistic parent’s cross-hairs.
Narcissistic parents will seek and try to destroy the scapegoat child’s valued relationships. The parent may use punishments to prevent the scapegoat child from participating in friendships. Similarly, romantic relationships may be undermined by the narcissistic parent.
To cope, the scapegoat child may have to sever connections to people they care about. This strategy spares the child the pain of having the narcissistic parent take these relationships away. However it costs the child the kinds of relationships needed to counter the narcissistic parent’s devaluation. That is exactly why the narcissistic parent seeks to take them away.
John recalled a moment he lost a potential friendship because of his mother. As a sophomore in high school he worked at a car wash with a friend named Rick who was a senior. One day after their shift, Rick asked John if he wanted to come watch the Detroit Lions game at his house on Sunday? John felt a surge of good feeling. Rick had never asked him to hang out socially. He was an older kid too. This must mean he thinks I’m cool. John said he would be there.
As John pedaled his bike home he grew extremely nervous about telling his mother his plans. He feared she would not let him go. Tragically he was right. He told her about Rick’s invitation and she said, “Oh, you’re not going! They’re going to be drinking beer there. It’s no place for a 10th grader.” John was not sure where she drew her conclusions but there was no speaking back to her.
John had to make up an excuse to Rick the next day for why he could not go. He was too embarassed to say his mother would not let him. Rick said, “ah, next time.” John found himself hoping he would not ask again so John would not have to make up another excuse. He knew his mother would never let him go. John began subtly distancing himself from Rick at their job. Over time they drifted apart.
John’s narcissistic mother thwarted his attempts to find sources of happiness outside the family. This left John feeling trapped. Psychologically speaking he was chained to his family’s home.
How to Resume Growth
The 3 pillars of recovery all point to this question. By making sense of what happened so you know it was not your fault you can realize how the past ‘facts’ were false. You did not deserve to be devalued, deprived nor trapped by your narcissistic parent.
By gaining distance from your narcissistic abuser your system gets more and more information that you are now safe. That safety can make it easier to get closer to people who are safe. Closer connections to people who are safe will allow you to know that your own growth will not compromise these relationships.
By living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules for living you are engaging in bold acts of growth. Maybe you take up a sport that you gave up in adolescence and take note of your abilities in it. Perhaps you join a choir to resume the singing talent you had to hide from your narcissistic parent. Whatever the case, maybe you invite your friends and partners to your performance. They get to cheer you on as you display your true developed self. All of this is in defiance of the narcissist’s rules and promotes your conclusion that you will not be deprived, devalued nor trapped when you move forward in your life.
A resource for doing this is my online course on Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse. In it, you get original videos that go deep into the 3 Pillars of Recovery [show thumbnail]. Each video arms you with understanding and tools to effect these changes in your life. You also get membership to a private facebook group with others who are in the course. This invaluable support network offers a place to share and hear stories of recovery from people who really get it. You can find the link here.
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.