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Understanding Family Scapegoating And Its Interplay With Survivors Of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Written by: Laurie Bedard, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Over the years, while working as a clinical counselor with survivors of childhood sexual abuse CSA one recurring statement resonates deeply with me: 'I'm the black sheep of the family.' It’s like an echo reverberating through the chambers of countless survivor stories and paints a vivid portrait of the lasting imprint of CSA and how it can create a thread that can weave itself into family dynamics – whether the family knows, or is unaware of the abuse.

girl with her hand extended signaling to stop useful to campaign against violence, gender or sexual discrimination

For the purpose of this article, I will utilize the term "family scapegoat" instead of the traditionally employed phrase “black sheep.” Family scapegoat refers to a role or position that a person is designated, often in childhood, within a family dynamic. In this context, the scapegoat is a family member who is consistently blamed, criticized, or made to feel responsible for various problems or conflicts within the family system. They are often the target of negative projections, accusations, and punishment, regardless of their actual contribution to the family issues.

In the past, family dynamics and roles were often overlooked or dismissed, and the focus was more on individual psychology rather than the larger family system. The experiences of family scapegoats were sometimes minimized or attributed solely to individual pathology, rather than recognizing the systemic factors at play. The recognition and understanding of the family scapegoat role have evolved over time. Family systems theory and the study of dysfunctional family dynamics have contributed to a better understanding of this role and its effects on individuals.

The Impact of Being the Family Scapegoat: Unveiling 7 Common Consequences

As the field of psychology has progressed, there has been increased recognition of the significance and impact of the family scapegoat role. Therapists, researchers, and experts in the field now acknowledge the detrimental effects this role can have on individuals' well-being and mental health. The following are 7 common consequences of being labelled the family scapegoat:

  1. Emotional distress: Being the family scapegoat can lead to feelings of isolation, rejection, and shame. The individual may experience low self-esteem or other emotional difficulties as a result of the negative perception and treatment within the family.

  2. Strained family relationships: The family scapegoat may face strained or even estranged relationships with other family members. They may be scapegoated, blamed, or excluded, leading to a breakdown in communication and a lack of support from family members.

  3. Role reinforcement: Once labeled as the “black sheep”, family members may continue to reinforce this role over time. The individual may feel trapped in this identity, which can limit their personal growth and perpetuate negative patterns within family interactions.

  4. Self-fulfilling prophecies: The expectations and judgments associated with the family scapegoat role can influence the individual's behavior and life choices. They may internalize these negative labels, leading to self-sabotaging behaviors or conforming to the role ascribed to them.

  5. Impact on self-identity: The family scapegoat’s may struggle with their sense of self and identity. They may struggle with defining themselves outside of the role assigned to them by the family. This can create a conflict between their authentic self-expression and the expectations placed upon them.

  6. Effects on mental health: The experiences of being the family scapegoat and the associated family dynamics can contribute to mental health challenges. Individuals may develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other psychological issues due to the ongoing stress and strain of the family dynamics.

  7. Impact on social relationships: The family scapegoat role may also affect relationships outside of the family. The individual may have difficulty forming healthy and trusting relationships, as the negative experiences within the family system can influence their ability to connect with others and establish boundaries.

There are a myriad of reasons family systems create a scapegoat. Family scapegoating can serve as a mechanism to externalize and attribute internal family issues, family secrets, conflicts, or challenges to an individual. It can become a way to avoid addressing deeper family problems, such as dysfunction, abuse, addiction, or unaddressed trauma. In some families, creating this role for someone in the family allows the other members to project their own unresolved emotional issues, insecurities, and shortcomings onto the scapegoat. By displacing their negative feelings onto the scapegoat, they can avoid facing their own personal challenges and taking responsibility for their actions. Scapegoating also affords family members the ability to exert control and power over the scapegoat. By placing blame and criticism on the scapegoat, they can maintain a sense of authority and superiority within the family system.

The Intertwined Web: Childhood Sexual Abuse and the Family Scapegoat

You may be wondering what the point of my opening statement is. Why do many of my clients, who are survivors of CSA often report being the family scapegoat? What does one have to do with the other? To explain this connection, let's explore how the burden of family secrets, which are often used in dysfunctional family systems to maintain control, avoid accountability, or protect the family's image, can fuel the cycle of scapegoating.

Family secrets can create a toxic environment where the scapegoat may become the repository for the family's unresolved problems or the truth that the family is trying to hide. This can intensify the scapegoat's feelings of isolation, shame, and confusion. In some cases, the scapegoat may hold knowledge of family secrets or be aware of dysfunctional patterns and dynamics that others in the family wish to keep hidden. This knowledge can make the scapegoat a perceived threat to maintaining the family's facade, leading to further scapegoating and isolation.

Interestingly, this can also apply to families where there is no abuse occurring in the family within the present generation and the scapegoat has no knowledge of the family secret. If one or both parents lived in an abusive environment, the pattern of secret keeping may exist outside the awareness of the parent or parents who were subjected to a dysfunctional and abusive environment. In essence, they may be trying unconsciously, to maintain the secrecy surrounding their own abuse, or the abuse of family members.

Vulnerabilities and Dynamics: Factors that Increase Scapegoat Likelihood

While there is no definitive set of traits that universally make a child more likely to be designated as the family scapegoat, certain individual characteristics or dynamics may increase the likelihood. If a child is more vulnerable within the family due to factors such as emotional sensitivity, physical or mental health challenges, or perceived weaknesses, they may be targeted as scapegoats. The family may use the child as an outlet for their frustrations or as a distraction from their own unresolved issues.

Along the same lines, scapegoats may be more likely to display their emotions openly or intensely, which can draw attention and negative reactions from other family members. Their emotional dysregulation may be seen as disruptive or problematic within the family system. The child’s inability to regulate their emotions may pose a perceived threat to the family's image, reputation, or stability, because the child could bring attention to family secrets, challenge dysfunctional patterns, or expose hidden issues outside of the confines of the family.

A non-conforming child may also be more susceptible to becoming the family scapegoat, particularly in a secret keeping family if they don’t fall in line with the established norms of the family. This child may question rules or challenge authority and refuse to adhere to established expectations, thus disrupting or threatening the family's dynamics.

Lastly, scapegoating dynamics can be influenced by sibling relationships. If there are rivalries, jealousy, or competition among siblings, one child may be singled out as the scapegoat. This can be based on factors such as birth order, perceived favoritism, or some of the aforementioned personal characteristics.

With this knowledge, it is not difficult to recognize the interplay between childhood sexual abuse and the scapegoat role. For instance, survivors of CSA often experience intense feelings of shame and self-blame. They may internalize the abuse as their fault, leading to a diminished sense of self-worth. This self-blame can make them more vulnerable to being scapegoated within the family, as they may already believe they are deserving of mistreatment.

Childhood sexual abuse can also erode trust in relationships and authority figures. Survivors may struggle to trust others, including family members, and may be viewed as "difficult" or "distrustful" by their family. This lack of trust can make them more susceptible to being scapegoated, as their hesitancy to fully engage or comply with family dynamics can be seen as defiant or problematic, especially if the child struggles with emotional dysregulation, which is very common in survivors of CSA. Their emotional reactions may be viewed as disruptive within the family, making them more likely to be targeted as the scapegoat.

A child who has been sexually abused will often have difficulties establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries due to the violation of their boundaries in the past. This can make them vulnerable to being taken advantage of or manipulated by family members seeking to reinforce their role as scapegoat.

Generational Trauma and Family Scapegoating: Unresolved Pain Passed Down

As noted above, there are many cases where unresolved generational trauma and abuse issues contribute to a family scapegoating a child. Often families are unaware of their scapegoating dynamics. If previous generations within a family have experienced significant trauma but have not addressed or healed from it, the unresolved trauma can manifest in unhealthy dynamics, including scapegoating. Unresolved trauma can shape the family's beliefs, behaviors, and coping strategies, perpetuating patterns of dysfunction and mistreatment.

Scapegoating can become a repeated pattern across generations. One or both parents may unconsciously recreate the dynamics they have experienced or witnessed in their own upbringing. The unresolved trauma and associated emotional pain can lead to the identification of a scapegoat within the family, as a means to divert attention from the deeper issues and maintain a sense of control or stability. I am putting the finishing touches on a chapter in a book that discusses breaking generational cycles such as family scapegoating.

BROKEN: Women Breaking Ancestral Chains and Generational Cycles to Create a Brighter Future Themselves and Their Families will be available late summer 2023, if you’d like to read more about generational trauma.

In the context of generational trauma, the family may unconsciously displace their unaddressed pain, anger, or guilt onto the scapegoat. The scapegoat becomes a target for the unresolved emotions and conflicts within the family, absorbing and carrying the burden of the family's collective trauma. You may know someone, or you may be someone who has been designated family scapegoat. You might not be referred to as the family scapegoat, but you or someone you know may be referred to as; a troublemaker, a loose cannon, or as having a chip on their shoulder among other terms suggesting there is a problem with the individual, all signs that the dysfunctional family dynamic of scapegoating is at play.

Seeking Understanding and Support: 8 Steps for Survivors of CSA and Family Scapegoats

If you have experienced the dual consequences of being the family scapegoat and/or childhood sexual abuse (CSA), it is crucial to prioritize your well-being and seek appropriate support. Here are a few recommendations for actions to consider in order to begin the process of managing your emotional, physical or psychological symptoms:

  1. Seek professional help by reaching out to a mental health professional, such as a psychotherapist, psychologist or counselor who specializes in trauma and abuse. They can provide a safe space to process emotions, develop coping strategies, and facilitate healing.

  2. Consider all of the modalities and therapeutic approaches that are known to be effective for healing from trauma. These include; trauma-focused therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Find the one that appeals to you the most.

  3. Recognize and validate your experiences. Oftentimes, survivors of CSA or family scapegoats minimize their experiences. Acknowledging the impact of family scapegoating and/or childhood sexual abuse can help you understand that your feelings and challenges experienced as a result are valid and deserving of attention and care.

  4. Build a support network and surround yourself with supportive and understanding individuals who can provide validation, empathy, and encouragement. This can include friends, support groups, or online communities of survivors who have had similar experiences.

  5. Educate yourself to learn more about the effects of family scapegoating and childhood sexual abuse. Understanding the dynamics and impact can help you make sense of your experiences and find ways to transform your trauma into something you can derive meaning from.

  6. Engage in self-care and prioritize self-care activities that promote healing and well-being. This can include engaging in activities you enjoy, practicing relaxation techniques, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and exploring creative outlets.

  7. Learn how to establish healthy boundaries with family members who may have contributed to the family scapegoating or have been involved in the abuse. Setting and enforcing boundaries is an important part of self-care and creating a safe and supportive environment.

  8. Practice self-compassion by being gentle with yourself throughout the healing process. Recognize that healing takes time and that you deserve compassion, understanding, and self-care. Challenge any self-blame or negative self-perceptions that may have resulted from the experiences.

Overcoming the manifestations of being the family scapegoat and/or having been sexually abused as a child can be a lifelong journey, and it's essential to be patient and kind to yourself along the way.

The Family's Role in Healing: Breaking Harmful Patterns and Fostering Supportive Dynamic

The family may also be involved in the healing process with the main caveat being the willingness and commitment of the family members involved. It may be a challenging and complex process, but with the support of trained professionals, families can work towards breaking harmful patterns, fostering healthier relationships, and creating a more nurturing and supportive family environment. This would need to take place in a safe and supportive environment. A trained therapist can facilitate discussions, promote understanding, and guide the family in exploring the underlying issues that contribute to the scapegoating dynamic. The therapy process can help family members improve communication, build healthier relationships, and develop more balanced and supportive family dynamics.

If you’d like to know more about family scapegoating or would like to book an online, one on one, or group therapy session for symptoms manifesting from childhood sexual abuse or dealing with the family scapegoat role and live in Canada, you can book an appointment here.

For those interested in booking a 1, 2, or 3-hour workshop covering a variety of mental health topics can write to me here for more information.

Those who would like more information and/or to secure a spot at The Healing Journey Retreat in Mexico can sign up for more information here.

Follow LJB and Associates Counseling Services and Laurie on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Youtube, and visit her website for more info!


Laurie Bedard, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Laurie Bedard is an experienced educator, certified clinical counselor, and the founder and director of LJB and Associates Counselling services. LJB and Counseling services is a private practice that offers individual counseling, psychoeducational workshops, and co-facilitates neuroscientific mental health retreats in Mexico and Portugal with Anna Li, CEO of Healing Journey Retreats.

As a survivor or childhood sexual abuse, Laurie suffered with anxiety and depression for most of her young life into adulthood. She has devoted her teaching and counseling career to creating a safe space for her clients and/or students to be who they are.

An introvert and deeply introspective, Laurie connects to her spirit and makes sense of the world through her writing. Apart from being an executive contributor with the online magazine Brainz, she writes The Psych Prof blog, and is a contributing author to the book BROKEN: Women Breaking Ancestral Chains and Generational Cycles to Create a Brighter Future Themselves and Their Families

When she isn’t counseling, teaching or writing, you can find her hanging out with her husband and 5 grown boys, snowboarding or hiking.



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