top of page

Were You the Scapegoat Child with Your Narcissistic Parent?

When your parent is a narcissist, they tend to assign roles to their children. Growing up with a narcissistic mother myself, I felt this from a very young age. I didn't know all the psychological terms for it of course, but I always knew that my sister was "the good child" and I was "the bad child." No matter what I did, I couldn't change it.

This is true for many children of narcissists. They will arbitrarily choose to shower one child with love and affection, while leaving another out in the cold. When your parents don't love you, it can cause all sorts of emotional issues growing up, even into adulthood.

The Scapegoat Child is the term that is used in psychology for the child in the family who is blamed for all the family's problems. This child is chosen seemingly at random by the narcissistic parent, and it is no reflecton on the child themselves.

When a child is treated as the scapegoat by their narcissistic parent, they feel like they can't do anything right, no matter how hard they try. I felt like this as a child, and it can be incredibly emotionally damaging.

According to J Reid Therapy,

The symptoms of the scapegoat child are the ways the child must treat himself to comply with the scapegoat role. This can mean constructing An inner critic that is hellishly harsh. The child can feel like everything they do is embarrassing, stupid and/or wrong. It may be quite different on the outside but this is what goes on inside the child.

A lot of times, the scapegoat child will form limiting beliefs that stem from the things that are said to them by their narcissistic parent. This becomes their internal dialogue growing up, and they use it to explain why they are treated so badly. As a child I came to firmly believe that I am a bad person.

When you are a child dependent on your narcissistic parent for your very survival, you develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their constant abuse.

According to Very Well Mind,

Unfortunately, children tend to internalize that they are the problem and don’t have the life experience to recognize that parents who scapegoat them are the ones with the problem. They don’t know that loving and mature parents don’t divide children into “all good” or “all bad” roles but recognize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. 

As a child, you tend to believe whatever your parents tell you, true or not. It is your parents who shape your worldviews at a young age, as well as your views of yourself. When you learn unhealthy or untrue things as a child, it can be incredibly hard to unlearn as an adult when you try to heal.

Effects in Adulthood

Growing up as the scapegoat child in a narcissistic household can leave scars that last into adulthood. This happens because our attachment style with our parents becomes the template for our later relationships. When our first relationship is one with a narcissist, we learn that relationships are unsafe, and that having our needs met in a relationship is not to be expected.

According to Psych Central, some of the effects in adulthood can be:

  • Toxic shame. Toxic shame is internalized shame that lasts long and is usually accompanied by childhood memories. You might continue to blame yourself for parental neglect into adulthood, or take on the blame for things that aren’t always your fault in order to keep the peace.

  • Trust issues. Because of verbal abuse, scapegoated children rarely feel emotional safety and are often unable to trust people or their own instincts — not being able to distinguish what’s true and not.

  • Relationship issues. Since the scapegoat child is only tolerated when they bear the faults of the parent with NPD, they can grow up with a distorted view of relationships and love as only conditional or transactional.

  • Gravitating toward partners with narcissistic behaviors. Childhood scapegoats may end up in relationships with someone NPD because it feels familiar, verbal abuse is normal to them, and they’re used to being treated this way.

  • Low self-esteem. The combination of being shamed, verbally abused, and humiliated can create challenges with self-esteem.

Unfortunately, when you grow up with a narcissist, your sense of low self-esteem can lead you into toxic adult relationships as well. You latch onto anyone who shows you the tiniest scrap of attention, and try to hold on to partners or friends who may be emotionally unavailable.

As an adult, I fell into a relationship with a narcissist as well. This is all too common for people who have been raised by narcissists. We have low standards for our partners, and this can allow us to stay in bad relationships for far too long.

Additionally, it is common for children who grow up with narcissists to have Complex PTSD. This is a reaction to childhood trauma that has changed our brain's normal functioning, creating an amplified fear response and a sense of hypervigalence for threats.

Moving Forward

Often, we don't realize just how disfunctional our relationships were with our parents growing up. Many people go to therapy in adulthood for anxiety or depression - which are also common in trauma survivors - and finally start to see the role that their childhoods played in their adult problems.

Or, you may realize your parent was a narcissist when leaving an adult narcissistic relationship, or talking about your parent's behavior to others. I always knew I had a bad relationship with my mom, but I had never heard the term narcissist until I was on Reddit talking about troubles with my baby shower, and someone referred me to the Raised by Narcissists subreddit. (If you are a Redditor, I highly recommend checking it out!)

Once you realize your parent is a narcissist, you can finally begin to heal and move forward with your life. As you do so, your relationship with your narcissistic parent will change, especially when you begin to assert boundaries for yourself. When I did this with my mother, she went so far as to tell me that I didn't deserve to have boundaries.

According to Very Well Mind,

If your parents continue to be abusive in your adulthood, ceasing contact may be in your best interest. Some scapegoats might also decide to cut contact if they believe the childhood abuse they endured was unforgivable.  
Other people scapegoated in childhood may choose to go low contact, meaning they have firm boundaries about what types of contact they’re willing to have with their relatives. Low contact might mean communicating with family members only via text, email, or phone call. It might mean never or rarely visiting family members in person or limiting visits to special occasions such as holidays, weddings, graduations, births, or funerals. 

It may sound extreme to cut off or limit contact with your narcissistic parent at first, even once you realize the amount of harm they are actively causing you. Before you make the decision to go low or no contact, you can first try to assert boundaries to protect your mental health.

Reducing contact, or cutting contact completely is a difficult decision, and one that none of us takes lightly. After several years of trying to assert boundaries with my family, I went low-contact, then finally no-contact. It was something I needed to do for my peace, because I couldn't get the lies, gaslighting and emotional abuse to stop.

In addition to setting boundaries with the narcissist, a key step in your recovery is going to be finding a trauma-informed therapist. This will help you to determine if you have PTSD, anxiety or depression from coping with your narcissistic parent. Even if you don't, a therapist can help you to learn coping skills for your specific situation.

Depending on your circumstances, you may also see your doctor or a psychiatrist to be prescribed medications. This can help to alleviate some of the symptoms that are associated with experiencing trauma.

There is also work that you can do on your own to assist with your healing. Psych Central recommends:

At some point, you realize that the relationship you have with your narcissistic parent is never going to be what you hoped for. You aren't going to wake up one day to a normal, loving parent. It is OK and perfectly normal to grieve that loss. Your therapist can help you to work through these feelings as well.

Many of us also need to learn basic relationship skills that we never learned as a child, as well as how to cope with feelings. In some ways, even though we are in adult bodies, our childhood growth was stunted, and this means working to heal our inner child.

As you continue to move forward and heal in your own life, you will be able to learn to love and accept yourself, and to develop more positive relationships.

Let me know in the comments what issues you are struggling with, and I will be happy to address them in a future blog post!


bottom of page