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, 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). 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.  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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When I was about nine or ten years old, about two years after my parents had divorced and I was still living with my mother, she met a man called Iain McDonald at a singles’ bar and soon afterward invited him to move in with us (‘us’ being myself, my brother, who is three years older than me, and my mother). He accepted this offer with alacrity.

He was an alcoholic and used to go missing for periods of time. He also hired cars and neither paid for them (he wrote cheques he knew would bounce) nor returned them (until the police caught up with him)

Usually, too, he would drive these cars with way over the legal limit of alcohol in his blood – including when I was in the car.

Indeed, he once drove me, my older brother, and my brother’s friend, Leslie, to a funfair. Upon arrival, after he had parked the car in a haphazard manner, rather like a gorilla who’d only had one driving lesson and was blindfolded, he slumped forward in his driver’s seat, seemingly on the verge of unconsciousness.

Because of this kind of behavior (e.g. drink-driving, financial fraud, and stealing cars) he was frequently arrested. Indeed, I almost became used to the police coming around to our house or seeing them waiting in their panda car parked directly outside our house, adjacent to the small front garden.

As Iain’s criminal activities escalated, he started to receive harsher penalties from the Court. Whilst he was living with us, he served some short terms of incarceration at Pentonville Prison in London. From his cell, he would write to my mother. I remember seeing the letters with several words, phrases or sentences having been redacted by the prison censors – thick black blocks of ink.

The key element of this short tale from my past, and the one that is perhaps most pertinent to the title, is what we discovered after the first time we found out he’d been arrested, which must have been several months, possibly longer, after he had first moved in with us. This is what happened:

One night there was a phone call from the police. Iain had been arrested and was in their custody and they wanted my mother to go immediately to the police station, presumably in order to help them with their inquiries.

She duly went and did not return to our house until about 9 or 10 pm. I was in bed and my light was off. Nevertheless, she burst into my bedroom in a highly distressed and hysterical state, declaring that she had just been informed by the police that the man we all knew as ‘Iain McDonald’ had been living under an alias. His real name, apparently, was John Lee. Also, he had not been living in Australia before he met my mother as he had claimed, but, in fact, came from Kelso in Scotland. Furthermore, he had a family there (in Kelso) – a wife and children. (He had told my mother he was single and childless). It seems that one reason why he had been stealing cars was to enable himself to drive to Kelso in Scotland, a journey of perhaps five hundred miles, to see them.

My mother blurted out all this information, through her tears, with such speed and urgency that it was very hard to take in. I just remember feeling stunned and confused.

I was not yet even eleven years old.

Such experiences, of course, undermine our ability to trust. Indeed, without effective therapy, such experiences may mean we are unable to trust others properly for the whole of our adult lives, causing us tremendous problems both forming and maintaining relationships.

Other childhood experiences that can potentially seriously undermine our ability to trust others during our adult lives are being abandoned or rejected by our parents, being neglected by our parents (emotionally and/or physically), exploited or abused by them. All of these experiences could lead us to develop a profound sense of having been betrayed.

Being betrayed by one’s parents is particularly devastating as parents are the very people who are responsible for our psychological welfare and are supposed to protect us.

This is why parental betrayal can so profoundly alter and shatter our view of the world and of those who inhabit it.

Before betrayal occurs the child views the world as essentially safe. However, after the betrayal, his view of the world will frequently change in a very drastic manner:

S/he now views the world as unsafe and everyone in it as a serious, potential threat and danger. He is likely to always expect the worst where others are concerned; this is a psychological defense mechanism to make him feel safer – the rationale behind it (conscious or unconscious) being that if he expects the worst of others, at least s/he will be prepared for being badly treated rather than being taken by surprise.

Indeed, he is even likely to treat people who have earned a reputation of lifelong integrity and moral rectitude with deep suspicion. In other words, he becomes very prone to underestimating people’s trustworthiness.

Because of this, he is likely to be perceived by others as paranoid and cynical: Why do you always insist on seeing the worst in people? is a refrain s/he may not infrequently be subjected to hearing, or: Why do you take such a jaundiced view of everything? is another.

The answer may be simple: in large part, it is likely to be due to the conditioning s/he was exposed to in childhood.

Indeed, research has demonstrated that significant childhood trauma may lead to an area of the brain, known as the amygdala, being damaged, physically, and adversely, altering the brain’s development and priming the affected individual to be super-sensitive and hypervigilant in relation to a perceived potential threat.

Because the affected individual, through no fault of his/her own, finds it so exceptionally difficult to trust others, this makes the development of healthy relationships with these others impossible. This inevitably leads to a deep sense of loneliness, and, in all likelihood, concomitantly high levels of anxiety and depression.

How Can A Healthy Trust Of Others Be Redeveloped?

Whilst the affected individual may accept, on an intellectual level, that he has an unreasonably negative view of others, he may still find it all but impossible to accept this very same idea on an emotional level due to childhood conditioning (and, in some cases, due to damage to the amygdala (as referred to above) which is intimately involved in the brain’s processing of fear and emotion.

To rebuild a sense of trust, an effective therapy that may well prove helpful, which I have frequently, previously referred to on this site is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

The stages most people go through in gradually developing a healthy (i.e. neither naïve nor overly suspicious) trust of others are as follows:

  1. slightly on guard when we first meet someone new
  2. as we gradually get to know the person, we start to build an impression of their trustworthiness based on the evidence available to us
  3. form a firmer opinion of their trustworthiness in light of ongoing evidence
  4.  revise and adjust this opinion, if necessary, in the light of continuing evidence

A rule of thumb tends to be to trust a person in accordance with the degree to which that person has so far proved to be trustworthy, no more and no less.