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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, 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, after 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).

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.  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, lose all confidence and self-belief, and, in all probability, 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 defense 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 who are 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. 


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.  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.

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.’

It is often the youngest, most sensitive child, who becomes the scapegoat of the dysfunctional family and becomes 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 behavior 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 center.

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 behavior 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.

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