Today's post is just below the END OF INTRODUCTION line.
Some key points:
1. Many confusion-defenses fail to reduce confusion, or actually make it worse.
2. This sets up a vicious cycle: Confusion sources--> Defenses--> Failure to resolve sources-->More defenses, etc., on and on
3. One of the most common --and malignant-- defenses is
Find-An-Enemy-and-Lose-Your-Confusion. When you find-an-enemy, you bury your own confusion about a given issue, and project it onto the other side: not we, but they are confused. Of course the other side thinks the same about you.
Scapegoating can sometimes be a form of Find-an-Enemy defenses against confusion.
END OF INTRODUCTION
TODAY'S POST: Scapegoating as a cause of confusion in families.
Scapegoating is one of the most difficult and painful patterns that develop in families. This pattern generates confusion about where the problem lies: is it "in" the scapegoat, or "in" the family, or "in" both?
Here is an excerpt from my e-book Stressed Family, Strong Family. The entire e-book is available free of charge from this blog in a December 2009 post. This excerpt might help some families with scapegoats sort out the possible causes and consider ways to ease the stress.
I have not removed some cross references to other sections of Stressed Family, Strong Family. You can find those other sections or chapters in the complete copy in the December 2009 post.
This is one of the most serious patterns that can develop in a family or classroom. Scapegoating means that all the problems in the family or class get blamed on one child. Or the family blames one of the parents for all their troubles. People might say: “If only Stan would straighten out, our family (class) would have no problems.” Or “Everything would be fine if only Sarah didn’t get into trouble all the time.”
Some scapegoats are always in the “hot seat” because they have a mental or emotional problem. The youth (or young adult) is depressed, hyperactive, suicidal or homicidal, or in trouble with the law. Or they might be psychotic, hearing voices, feeling like people are out to get them. In some of these families, the rest of the family has not had therapy to help them understand the scapegoat’s condition. And sometimes no one helps the one in the hot seat.
If one of those serious conditions exists, and all the problems in the family get blamed on the scapegoat, this is a somewhat different situation from the usual scapegoating pattern. In this case my suggestions about scapegoating may not work. You will need to talk to a counselor or therapist to find the best approach. You can use my suggestions if the counselor agrees, but the ideas here cannot take the place of expert help.
I would like to set aside those serious mental illnesses. We will look at the other families who get stuck in a scapegoating pattern. Any family can slide into this pattern--they may not even notice. They think every family has a problem kid or parent.
Causes of scapegoating
What causes scapegoating to develop? Often the parents have conflicts they have not dealt with. But the parents don’t argue with each other about in-laws, money, sex, work, etc. They fight about how to discipline one of the kids, who has become the scapegoat. Therefore the parents don’t deal with their own adult conflicts. Sometimes one parent really would like a divorce but feels they can’t. Sometimes the reason is that the problems with the scapegoat are so pressing that the parent can’t bring themselves to leave the other one saddled with all the care and anguish.
So the scapegoat has become the problem that draws attention away from the parents’ problems.
Any kid caught in the middle of parents’ fights is apt to get into trouble or have temper outbursts or other problems. Those symptoms confirm everyone’s belief that the scapegoat is the sick one. They see is the problems with the scapegoat, but not the other problems in the family.
Arguing and blame patterns go along with scapegoating
You can look on scapegoating as a severe form of the blaming pattern: all the members blame the scapegoat for all the problems and painful feelings in the family.
In a family I saw years ago in the office, Josh got blamed for all sorts of things. This went on for years during his childhood and teen years. His parents had conflicts in their marriage and took some of those out on Josh.This mistrust of the scapegoat hurts everyone. Parents and often teachers stop seeing any of the kid’s good points. Strengths get lost. The kid gets to the point where he or she gives up, and shows fewer and fewer strengths.
When he was about nine or ten, he would wake up in the morning determined to stay out of trouble that day. But sooner or later something would happen. He would get blamed by one of his parents for something he didn’t do. Or a brother or sister would “set him up” by blaming him for something they had done.
Parents will usually believe the brother or sister. Then they punish the scapegoat for something a sibling’s misdeed. This makes the scapegoat even angrier.
Of course, Josh did things for which he deserved blame. This would happen even when he was trying to behave. So he got punished, both fairly--for what he did--and unfairly, for things he didn’t do. After a while he quit even trying to behave. Even when he did something good, the parents didn’t believe he was sincere. They just figured he was trying to butter them up, to con them. His parents suspected he was being good so that they wouldn’t punish him when they heard about yet another misdeed.
Parents or teachers don’t deliberately scapegoat one kid. This pattern is a cycle, like the other cycles we’ve seen. Maybe the scapegoat is a kid from an earlier marriage. Maybe he or she reminds the parent of some relative they hate. Somehow the scapegoat gets into the role of “the only problem in this family.”
A scapegoating cycle breeds tragedy. If a scapegoat does not have a mental illness to start with, he or she will often develop one after a few months or years of this pattern. Depression, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual acting out, rage outbursts, school failure, and delinquency are common reactions.
Back to Josh: He used his brains to earn praise and support from teachers. This is unusual, because many family scapegoats get into the same trouble at school. Josh’s teachers may not have realized how vital their support was. It helped him survive the hell he felt in his family life. He went on to college, escaping from the family web. He did well, and became a psychologist working with kids and families. He sometimes tells a scapegoating family about his own experience, so many years ago.Too many scapegoats lack the abilities Josh had; they end up as scapegoats in school and in the community. I once had a letter from an adult prisoner who had read my description of scapegoating. He said that he recognized exactly what had happened in his own family. He took his anger out on the community and wound up with a long jail term.
His parents have long since stopped blaming him, and feel very proud of his accomplishments. But the sad memories from childhood will never fade for Josh.
What to do:
1. Look at your family or class. Ask yourself, what other problems do we have? Do we have problems we overlook in our focus on the scapegoat. Make a note of those problems and talk about ways to work on them together.
2. If you don’t see any problems except those of the scapegoat, ask someone who knows your family or class. Do they think the scapegoat is getting blamed too much for whatever goes wrong?
3. If the answer is yes, talk to the family or class about this. Tell them that you see that the scapegoat has been getting too much of the blame. Say that you expect everyone to follow the rules, and to admit it when they do something wrong. They need to stop blaming the scapegoat for their own misdeeds. You will also expect the scapegoat to admit it when they do something wrong.
4. You need to spell out clearly what is OK and what is wrong for everyone in the family or class.
5. If you don’t have a system of rewards, even such a simple one as saying “Thanks” to your kids, then start doing this. You will need to give fair rewards to everyone, the scapegoat included, when they follow the rules.
6. Some scapegoating families don’t trust anyone outside the family. They may not even trust a counselor until they really get to know them. One of the family members may have to go to the counselor by themselves at first. After the counselor hears about the scapegoating pattern, he or she may ask the entire family to come in.
7. If you have lost sight of what’s right about the scapegoat, look at the next chapter, titled “370 STRENGTHS.” That long list might help you find some good qualities you have overlooked.
8. Parents need to take a look at the other problems that got pushed aside in the focus on the scapegoat. If your marriage or partnership is in trouble, get some help with that. If there are in-law problems, begin to tackle those. These problems won’t take care of themselves, and they will take a lot of work. If they were simple, they would not have gotten pushed aside.
9. If you’re a teacher, are you getting frustrated “teaching to the test?” This pressure to make the school look good creates stress for teachers, administrators, and students. Are you taking your anger out on the kids?
Ask yourself the tough questions: What can teachers do to support each other? How likely is an easing of the pressures you are feeling? Do you need to change careers?
You and the other teachers can find kindred souls on the Internet. Check out the teachers’ chat rooms and other resources.
When a parent is the scapegoat
This is a difficult situation, often involving an addicted parent. The same ideas apply. Look for other problems hidden behind the anger and fear swirling around the scapegoat. But that scapegoated parent will need to get help for his or her own problems. And the family needs to stop scapegoating. The family with a parent scapegoat will usually need a therapist.
Some families have a series of scapegoats
Some families or classrooms will have one person in the hot seat for a few days, weeks, or months. Then the focus shifts to another. The shift in a family may be from one kid to another kid, or (infrequently, in my experience) from a kid to a parent or teen. You can handle the situation in the same way as above. A counselor or therapist can help you untangle the binds that keep everyone snarled and snarling.
What if you are the scapegoat?
If you are the scapegoat, you will have a difficult time changing the pattern. The rest of the family or class may mistrust whatever you do when you try to make things better for yourself. I advise you to talk first to a counselor for guidance.
Otherwise you may find that family or class undermines your efforts. They may feel suspicious of anything you say. They may not be able to hear your views. Even if you make a genuine effort, they may think you’re conning them for some hidden purpose. (And you may have done that in the past.) The counselor can help figure out what to do and say.
Remember: trying to “straighten out” or “clean up your act” can take a long time. The family may do things that end up provoking you back into the old ways. (They may not realize they are provoking you.)
They may continue to blame you for everything. They may not even notice when they do this. But they may be able to “hear” this from a counselor who gains their trust.
If scapegoating has gone on for a long time, or if mental illness, drugs, or alcohol are involved
If the scapegoat is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they and the family need to get involved in AA, Alanon, Narcanon, Alateen, etc. And you know what I will say next: therapy! The longer the scapegoating has been going on, the more effort you will need to put into changing.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill gives families hope, courage, and knowledge.
Scapegoating combined with physical or sexual abuse
One of the most destructive of all patterns in a family is the scapegoating of a physically or sexually abused child. A victim of physical or sexual abuse will often misbehave, take out their anger on others, or develop depression or other signs of emotional distress. The family may not see that the beatings are feeding the misbehavior. No one may know about the sexual abuse. And they don’t see that the scapegoat is getting blamed for everything.
Sexual abuse is usually hidden; only the victim and the abuser know about it. (Occasionally a parent, or one of the other kids may know or suspect.) The victim may misbehave or get depressed as a way of handling the anxiety about the abuse. If their behavior leads to scapegoating by the family, this creates extreme stress. Most people can’t imagine the daily hell the child or teen suffers through from a combination of abuse and scapegoating.
Suicide or homicide by scapegoats
By now you can understand why some scapegoats try to kill themselves or someone else. Their anger, loneliness, depression, despair, or self-blame can become unbearable. Finally they lash out at themselves or someone else. Some may suffer a psychotic break from the stress in the family and at school.
Bullying and Scapegoating
A youth being bullied and a scapegoat have a lot in common. In the last few years, schools have begun to pay more attention to the destructive pattern of bullying. Both the student being bullied and the bullying schoolmate have emotional problems, sometimes severe enough to require professional help. Your school should have an anti-bullying program you can turn to. If not, the counselor or assistant principal should be able to assist you in finding a path to help, perhaps together with other parents and school staff concerned about bullying. Bullied kids have in some instances carried out their suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
If You Need Help Finding Strengths in a Scapegoated Child
A child who is coping with scapegoating has had to develop the ability to survive in the midst of pain and heartache. No surprise: Some scapegoated, triangulated kids grow up with a lot of empathy for the underdog. That’s a Group 4 strength, in the next chapter. I’ve mentioned above a scapegoat who grew up to be a child and family psychologist. He can really feel what kids are going through.