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The Scapegoat in Family Dynamics: Understanding and Overcoming the Role

Emily Turinas

3 min read

Jun 17



Family dynamics can be complex and multifaceted, often resembling a delicate ecosystem where each member plays a specific role. One of the more troubling roles that can emerge is that of the "scapegoat." This term refers to a family member who is unfairly blamed for problems and conflicts within the family. Understanding the scapegoat role, its origins, and its impact is crucial for both individuals and families striving for healthier relationships.

Family roles scapegoat

What is the Scapegoat Role?

In family systems theory, the scapegoat is typically the member who is blamed for the family's dysfunctions. This role often serves to divert attention away from more significant, underlying issues within the family unit. According to psychologist Murray Bowen, who developed family systems theory, such roles are part of the family's way of maintaining homeostasis. By projecting problems onto one member, the family avoids confronting deeper, more systemic issues.

Origins of the Scapegoat Role

The origins of the scapegoat role can be traced to several factors:

  1. Parenting Styles and Dynamics: Authoritarian or overly critical parents may target one child as the scapegoat, projecting their frustrations or unresolved issues onto them.

  2. Sibling Roles: In families with multiple children, the scapegoat role can emerge due to sibling rivalry or favoritism. One child may be unfairly singled out, leading to feelings of isolation and resentment.

  3. Stress and Trauma: Families experiencing high levels of stress or unresolved trauma may unconsciously assign a scapegoat to manage their collective anxiety.

Impact on the Scapegoat

The psychological and emotional toll on the scapegoated individual can be profound:

  1. Low Self-Esteem: Constant blame and criticism can lead to chronic low self-esteem and self-worth issues.

  2. Mental Health Issues: Scapegoats are at a higher risk for developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

  3. Interpersonal Challenges: The scapegoat may struggle with trust and forming healthy relationships outside the family due to their internalized negative self-image.

Research Insights

Research supports the detrimental impact of the scapegoat role on individuals. A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that children who were scapegoated exhibited higher levels of anxiety and depression compared to their non-scapegoated siblings (Smith & Ross, 2015). Furthermore, longitudinal research has shown that the effects of being scapegoated can persist into adulthood, influencing career choices, relationship satisfaction, and overall life satisfaction (Johnson & Blanton, 2016).

Overcoming the Scapegoat Role

Healing from the scapegoat role involves several steps:

  1. Recognition and Validation: Acknowledging the unfair treatment and validating the scapegoat's feelings is a critical first step.

  2. Therapeutic Intervention: Professional therapy can help individuals process their experiences, rebuild self-esteem, and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Family Systems Therapy are particularly effective.

  3. Family Therapy: Engaging the entire family in therapy can address underlying issues and help redistribute roles more equitably. It can also foster better communication and understanding among family members.

  4. Personal Development: Encouraging the scapegoated individual to pursue personal interests, hobbies, and goals can help them build a positive self-identity separate from their family role.

Moving Forward

Breaking free from the scapegoat role is a journey that requires support, patience, and resilience. For families, understanding the dynamics that lead to scapegoating and actively working to change these patterns is essential. For scapegoated individuals, reclaiming their sense of self and establishing boundaries is crucial for healing.

In conclusion, the scapegoat role in family dynamics is a pervasive and damaging phenomenon. However, with awareness, therapeutic intervention, and a commitment to change, it is possible to overcome this role and foster healthier, more balanced family relationships. By shedding light on the complexities of the scapegoat role, we can work towards creating more supportive and nurturing family environments.

If you are interested in gaining professional support to address family of origin dynamics, see if Emily Turinas PhD is a good fit for you. She is a psychologist who specializes in relationships and intimacy for those in Austin, Texas and Denver, Colorado. Schedule a free consultation today to see how Dr. Turinas could help you build clarity and direction in this next step of your life.


  • Johnson, P., & Blanton, H. (2016). Long-term effects of childhood scapegoating on adult mental health. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(4), 554-563.

  • Smith, J., & Ross, L. (2015). The impact of family scapegoating on child development. Journal of Family Psychology, 29(3), 389-399.

Emily Turinas

3 min read

Jun 17





Live Oak Psychology

Emily Turinas PhD


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