When One Family Member Is Scapegoated, Whole Family Needs Therapy

The following article is based on Family Systems Theory (Bowen), a theory that puts forward the idea that each individual member of the family can only be understood in the context of the family as a whole and with reference to all interacting family members who, in entirety, make up the family ’emotional unit.’


I have already written several articles on how one individual in the family, often the youngest, most sensitive child, can become the scapegoat of the dysfunctional family and become the family ‘symptom bearer’, acting out the sum effect of the entire family’s dysfunction. In this way, the family may decide it is s/he (i.e. the child that has been scapegoated) who is in need of therapy, not anyone else.

For example, the scapegoated child may be abusing drugs and alcohol and getting frequently suspended from school for fighting. However, such behaviour needs to be considered in the context of the family as a whole.

This is because the family acts as an interconnected system in which each part affects, directly or indirectly, each other part. No one part (i.e. family member) develops in a vacuum, uninfluenced by the other parts in the system (i.e. other family members).

For instance, the scapegoated child may exist in a family in which his parents are preoccupied with themselves and have a strained marriage. The father may attempt to cope with this through workaholism and the mother by throwing herself into charitable works, concentrating on caring for others at the expense of nurturing her own family relationships.

In such a scenario, let’s imagine that the youngest, scapegoated child is sent away for a month to a rehabilitation centre. Let’s also say he is lucky and is assigned to a therapist whom s/he feels able to trust and who empathizes with him/her and listens to his/her psychological needs and why he ‘acts out.’

Now let’s imagine, that after this effective therapy, there is a significant improvement in how this child functions and returns to his family.

But then it is found, a few more months down the line, that his functioning has dropped back down to what it was before he underwent the therapy (i.e. he again starts to drink heavily, take drugs and get into fights) because the dysfunctional behaviour of the other family members has not been addressed and so continues to have its toxic effect upon the scapegoated child.

In other words, for the child to recover, the whole family requires therapy. And, indeed, this is not solely for the good of the child but for their own good as well.

In cases in which the scapegoat is an adult child, the therapist may recommend that if the family contributing to his psychological difficulties refuses to address their own difficulties with therapy then he should consider breaking away from such a family and creating a new family system (e.g. by becoming a member of a support group).

Finally, it should be noted that it can be hard to break free from the mold one has been cast in by one’s family system as, like any system, the family system is always trying to return to its original state through its own kind of homeostasis.

To read more about the family as a system in which the behaviour of each member is intrinsically linked to the behaviour of other family members see my articles:

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



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