The Dysfunctional Family’s Scapegoat And Disenfranchised Grief

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash


I went to live with my father and obsessively religious step-mother when I was thirteen, having been thrown out of the house by my disturbed and highly unstable mother.

She and my father already had her own biological son living with them. She treated her own son, essentially, as a demi-god, whist viewing me as the devil incarnate; even at that age, (given I had the capacity to carry out elementary mental reasoning and was not intellectually retarded) I did not believe in God, and, consistent with this, refused to attend church with the other members of the household who regarded twice-weekly attendance as their pious duty.

Indeed, and I write these words in all seriousness, it is even possible that my step-mother believed I was possessed by some kind of diabolical spirit; after all, soon after I went to live with her and my father, during a trivial argument in the kitchen, she began to shout at me in what she believed to be ‘tongues’. And, when I was a bit older, if one particular friend had been round to see me and she returned to the house later, she would say she knew he’d been round as she could ‘sense evil’ (actually, he was a very nice person). You couldn’t make it up.

In dysfunctional families, viewing one child as being able to do no wrong, and the other as being able to do nothing OTHER THAN wrong, is not an uncommon scenario. The latter, of course, becomes the family ‘scapegoat’ or ‘family black sheep.’

Whilst I have grown up with a profound inferiority complex, my step-brother has grown up, I think it is fair to say, puffed up with an impregnable sense of self-love, self-belief and self-pride; expecting others to admire him is his default position. Expecting others to despise me is mine. (And, in this regard, I’m seldom disappointed). This outcome, of course, would not be entirely unpredictable to anybody with an IQ above about 70.

Sadly, it invariably tends to be the most vulnerable and sensitive child who becomes the dysfunctional family’s scapegoat. It is also not uncommon that the child fulfilling the role of the scapegoat has a characteristic, or characteristics, which a parent shares but represses, projecting their self-disapproval onto the scapegoat.

Denigration And Demonization :

The family’s scapegoat will be blamed for the family’s deep-rooted problems. Anger, disapproval and criticism will be directed at him, leading him to develop feelings of great shame, to lose all confidence and self-belief, and, in all probability, to experience self-loathing, depression and anxiety. And to expect everyone else to hate him, too.

The motivation of the rest of the dysfunctional family, both consciously and unconsciously, for denigrating and demonizing the scapegoat is that it enables them to convince themselves that they are good and right. By telling relatives and friends that all the family’s woes derive from him they are also able to maintain a public image of blamelessness.

In this way, the family’s scapegoat finds himself not only rejected by his own immediate family but, possibly, by those outside it too. He becomes utterly isolated and unsupported.

Also, by blaming the family’s scapegoat for the family’s difficulties, they not only evade their own responsibility but are also relieved, in their own minds, of any responsibility to support or help the scapegoat, who, because of the position in the family he has been allocated, and its myriad ramifications, will inevitably be suffering severe psychological distress.

Family Denial :

Because the scapegoat is blamed for the family’s problems, the rest of its members are able to stay in DENIAL in relation to their own contributions to this sorry state of affairs; they will tend to reinforce one another’s false beliefs that whenever something goes wrong it is the fault of the family’s scapegoat; in this way, a symbiotic relationship develops between them: they all protect each other from feeling guilty and from shouldering their rightful portion of responsibility, drawing the strength of their fallacious convictions from being in a mutually reinforcing majority.

If the scapegoat is brazen enough to protest that not everything is his fault, these views are dismissed with scorn and derision – in this way, he is denied the opportunity to express them, allowing the other family members to conveniently side-step any searching questions being put to them which might otherwise produce deep discomfort.

If the scapegoat becomes too insistent about expressing his point of view, the rest of the family may cut him off from it entirely, thus totally isolating him.

Projection :

Often, the rest of the family’s own guilt may be so profound that facing up to it would be psychologically overwhelming; in such a case there will be a powerful unconscious drive to maintain the illusion that everything is really the fault of the scapegoat; maintaining the illusion allows them to deflect blame which, more accurately, should be directed towards themselves.

It is likely, then, that they will not be fully aware that the projection of their own feelings of guilt onto the scapegoat is, in essence, a psychological defence mechanism necessary to allow them to maintain a positive image of themselves. Their views that they are in the right and the scapegoat is in the wrong become a necessary delusion.

Internalization :

Eventually, the scapegoat will come to INTERNALIZE (i.e. develop a core belief without conscious awareness of from whence this belief originates) that his family’s scathing view of him, and, therefore, his view of himself as a bad and unworthy person is in distinct danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He is likely to develop feelings of intense psychological distress, perform well below his best academically and, later, vocationally, encounter serious problems with social interaction, and become hostile, aggressive and resentful towards both his family and those outside of it. This plays into the hands of the other family members, of course, as it facilitates their desire to continue projecting their own guilt onto the scapegoat.

As the scapegoat goes through life, he is likely, due to the powerful conditioning he has been subjected to as a child, to see him as not merely unlovable, but, even, as unlikable – unfit to be part of ‘decent’ society. Believing himself to be a terrible person, he may not even make any attempt to develop close, let alone intimate, relationships. After all, in his own mind, rejection would be ‘inevitable’, serving only to confirm and reinforce his/her wretched self-view.


The term DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF was coined by Doka (1989) and refers to an experience of loss that is not acknowledged by society so that the person affected cannot mourn publically in a way that is socially acceptable.

In her book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, Psychotherapist and recognized Family Systems expert Rebecca Mandeville states that this disenfranchised grief is made up of five main elements. These five elements are as follows:


This may come about for various reasons including a decision made by the family scapegoat to cut him/herself off from the family as it is too emotionally painful to maintain contact. Alternatively, members of the family who have scapegoated another of its members may launch a kind of propaganda campaign against that scapegoated member so that the wider family also spurn and reject him/her.


The propaganda campaign referred to above may so ruin the family scapegoat’s reputation (e.g. his/her family may describe him/her to others as ‘irredeemably mentally ill,’ ‘mad,’ ‘psychotic’ or, even, ‘evil’, that s/he is forced to relocate to a different geographical area and, as a result, lose his/her social contacts.


In fact, the family’s propaganda campaign against the family scapegoat may be so effective that not only do others regard him/her as having no right to grieve but as ‘playing the victim’ and as being the cause of grief to those who have scapegoated him/her.


The scapegoated family member may not be consciously aware of his/her grief. Instead, according to Mandeville, it may be masked by feelings of betrayal, anger, and hurt. (To read about BETRAYAL TRAUMA, click here).


The family scapegoat will often have to cope with his/her feelings of grief in total isolation because the abuse s/he has suffered may have been extremely subtle and insidious – so much so that others neither recognize nor validate it. (To read about THE VITAL IMPORTANCE OF HAVING OUR TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES VALIDATED, click here.)

According to Mandeville, getting in touch with our feelings of grief in relation to having been made the family scapegoat and working through these feelings with an appropriate, trauma-informed therapist is a key part of recovery from this type of emotional abuse.

Click here to view my eBooks

Dysfunctional Families: Types And Effects

8 Dysfunctional Roles Within The Dysfunctional Family

Are You The Family Symptom Bearer But Also Truth Teller?



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE). is reader-supported. When you buy through links on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission.