Today’s blog post describes why a malignantly narcissistic parent has to scapegoat a child, why certain children get picked as the scapegoat, the impact of getting scapegoated and how to use therapy to recover from this especially pernicious form of abuse. This article extends recent posts on the roles played in families dominated by a narcissistic caregiver.
Sometimes a client comes into therapy telling horrific stories of the chronic and systematic abuse. They recount how their caregivers criticized, humiliated, hurt, degraded and derided them at every opportunity. What’s made this suffering most destructive is the abuser’s conviction that it was what the child deserved. There is no sense of recrimination, accountability, nor guilt for what they put this child through. Rather there is an inscrutable self-righteousness in their cruel attitudes and behavior towards the victim. Without fail, there is also a concerted effort to keep this abuse private from the world at large. The adult child recalls seeing the abusive caregiver charm people outside the home and keep their demonic cruelty behind closed doors. All the better to discredit the victim’s credibility if they ever come forward to report the abuse. Welcome to the world of the narcissistic family’s scapegoat.
When a family is dominated by a malignantly narcissistic parent a tremendous strain is put upon the family system. A malignant narcissist needs a victim. They are only satiated when they feel superior to and in control over someone else. That makes anyone close to such a person a potential target. In a family system, the collective strain of the malignant narcissist’s need for a victim gets relieved when a single person is selected. The other members can breathe a sigh of relief – psychologically speaking – and join the malignant narcissist in blaming the selected child for all the family’s unhappiness.
If the malignant narcissist has chosen their enabling spouse correctly, then they enjoy unchecked authority in the family. Usually, a child cannot be scapegoated without the implicit permission of an enabler parent. The ringleader of abuse in the family requires that everyone sees things how she sees them. If she sees the scapegoat as the abomination then her partner and other children better agree with her. She uses any means necessary to coerce the enabler parent and the scapegoat’s siblings into agreement. These other parties are enticed by having the favor of the narcissistic parent and deterred by the wrath that will follow if they dissent.
A malignant narcissist loves the sense of power in making others suffer. In other words, they harbor sadistic intentions. They are exquisitely envious of those who do not put them first. Envy is an emotion that drives one to want to spoil the good they see because they do not have it. Lastly, they lack empathy for others. They do not see the fact that their child is suffering as a reason to stop their behaviors.
Chet* was a therapy client. His mother, Nancy, seemed to have cruelty in her heart from an early age. She told her classmates in fourth grade that she had cancer “to get attention”. Her younger brother one time accidentally broke a ceramic doll of hers and was bleeding profusely. Her face turned to a snarl and she screamed at him for breaking it. She became a special education teacher after college and curated an image of a nurturing, patient and kind woman. Meanwhile she would select one student in each of her classes to harass, control, and undermine. At one point her principal brought her up on disciplinary charges for “mistreating” one of her students. She transferred to a different school district and was able to continue her clandestine cruelty against new students. In relationships, she ensnared men into taking care of her monetarily and emotionally while complaining that they never appreciated all that she does for them. She married a man who was passive in their relationship and quickly set about triangulating with her ex-boyfriend. She would yell at her husband nightly that he was not communicating enough with her. His response was to grow more accomodating and ingratiating to her. She decided that she wanted to be a mother and gave birth to a son. Her son – Chet – was willful, loving, good-hearted, playful and tough. She hated him for these qualities. Three years later she gave birth to a daughter – Nathalie – who was much more compliant and admiring towards Nancy.
The arrival of Chet’s younger sister signalled a ratcheting up of Nancy’s scapegoating of him. In therapy, Chet recalled his mother criticizing him incessantly for eating too fast, picking his nose, not using correct table manners, leaving his toys out, and so on. Anything to keep him off-balance within himself. She bossed him around to do chores for as long as he could remember. He recalled one episode at age 5 when he went to MacDonald’s with his mother and sister. After they finished eating their happy meals his mother curtly told him “Throw this away” referring to the whole table’s trash. Chet remembered feeling enfuriated at her entitlement to his servitude and knew he had to protest but in a delicate way. His sharp mind thought he’d fashioned the right response so when he got back to their table he said, “I can’t wait til I grow up and can boss people around.” Nancy responded by snarling and squinting her eyes with a black look of murderousness. She bit off these words in a low barking tone: “How dare you say that I boss you around?! After all that I do for you and this is how you thank me? You are a selfish, mean little brat. Come on Nathalie, we’re going to the car. Chet you sit there.” Chet recalled feeling a searing jolt of shame and wanting to crawl out of his skin. He learned from that moment onward not to speak back – on his own behalf – to Nancy because her retaliations felt unsurvivable.
Scapegoating a child goes against the grain (thankfully!) of most of our schemas of parenting and even humanity. For a parent to go out of their way to blame his or her child at every turn, to revel in the sense of (false) superiority they derive, and to show no remorse is antithetical to the meaning of ‘parent’.
The latin root of the word ‘parent’ is ‘bringing forth’. We can think of parents as responsible for helping their children bring themselves forth into the world. They can do this in a lot of ways. They may notice and celebrate qualities of their child, take delight in the child’s displays of happiness, be available for support as needed, and show interest in what the child thinks, feels, and believes. That names just a few of how a child’s self can be ‘parented’ into the world.
A child who is scapegoated by a malignantly narcissistic parent actually has no ‘parent’ in the true sense of the word. He faces an adversary where biology tells him to expect an ally. More insidiously, a child is prone to believe their parent’s cruelty is their fault. So, the child earmarked for scapegoating faces one of the most unfair of fights. He must cope with the loss of an adult to help him bring himself forth and face the searing psychological torment of thinking he’s at fault for the loss. Thus, a malignant narcissist gets to land her ’emotional punches’ on the child with impunity and great effect.
In my personal and professional experience, children selected as scapegoats – like Chet – usually stand out. They possess a presence that is palpable to others. They often have a keen sense of fairness and instinctively protest injustice. They are perceptive and can see bad character when it’s present. They are often very empathic and care about others’ feelings. They are often protective of people they care about. They can be very intelligent. Most of all, they are tough. The malignant narcissist only chooses a child as a scapegoat who can take it. The former wants to see the child suffer but not so much that they cannot keep hurting them habitually.
Chet recalls one noble act that likely sealed his fate as the child to be scapegoated. Despite his younger sister’s alliance with his mother, Chet felt protective of her at a young age. On Nancy’s birthday, Chet and Nathalie at ages 6 and 3 respectively, made Nancy dinner as a present. In the course of making meatballs, Chet recalls they decided to crunch up some graham crackers and put it in the mixture. As they sat down to eat this precociously prepared meal for a couple of kids, they giggled with each other. Nathalie asked her mother if she tasted anything different. When Nancy said she did not, Chet and Nathalie laughed harder. Nathalie told her mother: “We put graham cracker crust in them!”. Nancy stopped chewing, slammed her fork on the plate, and looked with rage at her daughter. Chet saw this and forcefully exclaimed: “Hey! Stop it! Don’t treat her like that. It was just a joke. Why are you so upset?”. Nancy looked at Chet and seemed to realize she could not continue her planned tirade against Nathalie. Chet felt good that he could stop her abuse of his sister even though nobody stood up for him when he was Nancy’s target.
The courage and protectiveness that Chet displayed, likely made Nancy aware of how much more he possessed than she did. Her systematic abuse of him seemed driven by her hatred of him for being more decent than she could ever be as a human being. She knew that she was governed by the need to be cruel while he was driven by the need to love and protect.
A scapegoated child knows depths of private suffering that can only be described as ‘hellish’. They are born with the biological need for care from people who hate them. It is like being thirsty and the only person who has water instead gives you sand – then mockingly laughs. A scapegoated child is attacked for some trumped-up charge, mercilessly punished and then denied appeal. They are constantly invalidated in their perspective. The family’s goal is to convince the scapegoated child that he or she is the sole reason for the family’s unhappiness. The child may come to believe that life is only worth living if he can figure out how to not be who he is.
When a child is cast as the enemy in his own family there is tremendous pressure to turn against himself. The adage – tragically – can apply: “If you can’t beat ’em join ’em”. Except that the scapegoated child has to join in the collective hatred of his existence. As discussed elsewhere, the child fears loss of attachment worse than abuse. At least getting mistreated involves contact.
People who make it through childhood as a scapegoat often have to stow away their awareness of their good qualities. The child must hide his own appreciation of who he is lest he lose whatever connection is available or get abused even worse. The narcissistic parent wants the scapegoated child to believe they are as horrible as they are being told. If the child shows a sense of self-worth or self-possession the narcissistic parent will take this as an affront to their authority. In essence “How dare my child not think he’s as bad as I say he is! He must not respect me. I will make him pay.” To avoid this outcome, scapegoated children develop a set of self-defeating beliefs about themselves. These beliefs keep the narcissistic parent from attacking even harder.
Sometimes scapegoated children are more physically attractive than their narcissistic parent. Through no fault of their own, this simple fact about them can roil the parent. As the child meets positive receptions for his or her looks outside the home, he or she may feel a deep sense of fear and confusion. “Why are people saying I’m pretty (or handsome)?”. The child may be particularly wary of the malignant narcissist catching wind of this. He likely knows that something bad happens when others tell him he is handsome etc.
One way to undo the threat posed by his or her good looks is to – unconsciously – distort one’s perception of the bodily self. An otherwise good-looking kid may decide that he or she is fat, has a big nose, too many pimples, has ugly hair, etc. If the threat of reprisal is great enough from the narcissistic parent, the scapegoated child can simply take such distortions as brute facts of his or her existence. It’s not that she thinks she’s fat, ugly, etc. It’s that she just is this way. As uncomfortable as such perceptions are to live with, they are preferable to the cruelty that would ensue by the narcissitic parent who feels shown up. The psychology profession calls this phenomena Body Dysmorphic Disorder or BDD. Not everyone with BDD was scapegoated in their families of origin, but I do believe it can lead to this condition.
Scapegoated children can find the narcissistic parent’s hatred too violent to withstand. One way to cope with the horrific fact that your parent hates you for who you are is to substitute the idea that they hate you for what you do. Making this shift can afford the scapegoated child enough psychological breathing space to go on functioning. The reason is that this strategy offers hope that the parent might have a change of heart if the child can just “do right”. Things do not feel as unfixable.
The drawback to this survival strategy is that the scapegoated child is thrust in to an endless loop of trying in the face of failure. No matter what the scapegoated child tries: do his chores perfectly, buy the narcissistic parent a gift, get good grades, etc., the parent will ultimately find them to be objectionable. In this system the child may redouble her efforts to ‘succeed’ rather than surrender to the horrible reality they face. As adults they may feel ill-at-ease when not doing some activity to ‘better themselves’ in some way or another. Stretches of free time can feel foreboding because the privilege of enjoying their own company was one their parent actively worked to forbid them.
Scapegoated children often feel like their existence hangs in the balance of each moment. Something final, awful and dreadful could happen if they make the ‘wrong move’. A narcissistic parent who has scapegoated the child is already going to find them to be in the wrong. The ensuing onslaught of yelling, beating, or worse is how they terrorize the child. Somewhere in themselves, the scapegoated child knows that their fate is going to be awful: the narcissistic parent is going to thrash them, it’s just a question of when and how. The child must find a way to manage the monumental anxiety they experience in the face of such ongoing threat. One way to do this is to boil down their existence to each moment. No looking forward. No looking backward. Just what’s here right now. The looming dread of what could happen but it exists more in the shadows. The payoff to this strategy – again – is the ability to go on functioning in the face of chronic efforts to destroy their quality of life.
It’s important to note that boiling everything down to the present moment is different from being “in the now”. One can only be mindful when they feel sufficiently safe to do so. A scapegoated child is not afforded the necessary goodwill and space to be present in the mindful kind of way. This is more like taking a snapshot instead of a video. To only look at this moment rather than how they are being treated over time. To do the latter would bring to awareness how hopelessly mistreated they have been and the lack of any viable escape routes.
A malignantly narcissistic parent wants to drill into the scapegoat the notion that he or she is inherently defective. If a child is scapegoated from an early age, he or she may feel a deep sense that there is something wrong with them. Objectively, there is so much right with such children and so much wrong with the narcissistic parent but that is not what gets internalized for the child. The child may have natural social grace or a good sense of humor but fear social interactions. They may shy away from making friends and later relationship partners out of compliance with what feels like a fundamental truth about themselves. Similarly, they may be athletically gifted but feel overmatched in competitive situations and unable to utilize their potential.
Scapegoated children are forbidden to know what they are good at. To do so would be to defy the narcissist’s contention that they are good-for-nothing. As stated above, the narcissist would take the child’s possession of their skills or talents as an affront to their authority. Such children grow to know this. This belief protects them from the narcissist’s envious attack. It also protects the child from having something of value – like self-esteem or pride – and getting it ripped away by the parent. Managing such losses is a high priority for the scapegoated child. He or she can only bear so many. A low-level ongoing sense of diminishment is much preferable to the traumatic loss of a cherished sense of themselves.
This belief is a simple observation for the scapegoated child. They know that if they defy the malignant narcissist’s claims that the child is the source of unhappiness that they will suffer an even worse fate. Scapegoated children are often threatened with exile from the family – and to great unfortunate effect. Despite how torturous the child is treated in the family, the threat of being exiled can feel even worse. Such children learn to present a compliant and agreeable persona to the family members to avoid their hatred and expulsion. The child must police his impulses, reactions, and perceptions to suppress any expression that would be taken as disagreement.
As adults, scapegoated children may find themselves paralyzed with fear when they consider dissenting in work environments or with their partners. Disagreeing with someone brings oneself into the forefront. The act delineates the self in stark relief. It is what allows for ‘dialogue’ in the true sense of the word. Martin Buber would refer to this as the “I-thou” kind of relationship where two subjectivities are brought into authentic contact with one another. A person can feel safe to disagree when they can expect to be received with curiosity, non-defensiveness, and responsiveness. Scapegoated children were not afforded such receptions. Instead they had to hide themselves at all times. The bringing forth of themselves that an act of disagreement requires was simply too dangerous.
This coping strategy can (wrongly) lead the scapegoated child to conclude that he or she cares too much about what other people think. In fact, I hear this a lot from adults who were scapegoated as children. Importantly, we all care what others think about us when we disagree. Some people have had the fortune to believe that others will think good things about them for disagreeing. People who were scapegoated have the misfortune to believe that others will think hateful things about them for disagreeing. I believe that any human being who expects to be hated and exiled by those he needs most would avoid disagreeing. In therapy, the task is not to to shed the concern of what others think of them. Rather, the task is to consider how people today probably think quite well of them when they disagree. So, still care about what others think but find a way to pay attention to the good news that people outside of their family will welcome their perspective even when it expresses disagreement.
Chet was a twenty-something single successful software engineer when he came to therapy. He reported that although he is able to get done what needs getting done at work and has some friends, inside he felt miserable. He felt anxiety and dread at what others thought of him, difficulty knowing what to do in his free time, and a chronic sense of dis-ease in his own skin.
At first, Chet said he grew up in a supportive family. As a therapist, I have found that suffering at the level that Chet experienced usually does not spring from a rosy upbringing. And here went our exchange:
Me: How might your mother react when angry at you?
Chet: Well she would scream at me and slam things down. She’d call me selfish, inconsiderate, and that I don’t care about the family at all. But, I mean, she was right. She wouldn’t have yelled if I wasn’t such a bad kid.”
Me: Chet, there is no way you were bad enough to warrant that kind of abuse.
And so began Chet’s path to recovery from his malignantly narcissistic mother’s scapegoating of him. For individuals who have survived a childhood of being targetedly and chronically undermined in their development, the task of therapy is to bust the myths about themselves they were forced to believe and find it safe to know the truth about themselves – that they are a good and deserving person.
Therapy may begin with client’s identifying ways they are flawed. “I care too much about what others think”, “I can’t stay self-disciplined”, “I am not a good communicator”, and so on. It can be important to acknowledge these concerns while also challenging them. Scapegoated children have no trouble taking responsibility for their shortcomings – the problem lies in taking credit for their strengths. Over time – sometimes significant lengths of time – such clients can come to question their critical view of themselves. They gradually shift the focus of their inner torment from themselves to their families of origin. As this shift takes hold, the client will dare to find less wrong with themselves and look for the source of what feels wrong in their scapegoating family. Often clients who have been scapegoated are very empathic with everyone but themselves. As the legacy of scapegoating gets identified and challenged, clients can direct some of that empathy towards themselves. A massive achievement comes when clients are able to regard their own needs to be as important as others.
In essence, therapy helps client feel emotionally and psychologically safe to do, feel, and be the things that their malignantly narcissistic parent and enabling family members would have seen as an affront to their authority.
*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.