Hands up if you have ever been bullied?

When I think of bullying, my mind typically jumps to images of a kid at school being picked on or workplace bullying. However, bullying does not only occur at school and work; a person can be bullied within their family too. I have met many clients who have been badly affected as a result of family bullying and being excluded from their family of origin.

Families are supposed to make us feel safe in the world, and be a place of belonging and nurturance. Sadly, this is often not the case and I have heard horror stories from some of my clients about how they have been bullied in their family.

Scapegoating is one of the worst and most common forms of family bullying. The scapegoating can begin in childhood and endure all the way through adulthood. The scapegoating always involves targeting the same family member with accusations, blame, criticism and exclusion. Incredibly, the family members who are doing this bullying, are often oblivious to what they are doing, the harm they are causing and they would deny it if they were confronted about their behaviour.

You may ask why any family would choose to scapegoat someone they love? I agree. It does seem incredulous when you think of what family means for most of us. However, scapegoating can be a way for families to avoid dealing with problems that they cannot face. I have worked with clients where one or both of their parents were abusive or where one family member was clearly unwell and it was clear that the scapegoating had become a pattern of behaviour that enabled them to avoid facing a few hard facts about themselves. Scapegoating is contagious too, such that other family members frequently join in and participate in the abuse.

The abusing parent or family member will typically have Borderline Personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder and their behaviour pattern is to project their own frustrations, aggression and hatred against the victim by ganging up and uniting the other family members who are made to think that the victim is guilty of absolutely everything. Often, victim is the child or sibling whose personality traits are similar to the personality-disordered parent and the parent sees in the child everything they hate about themselves.

What can you do if you are the one being scapegoated? It is likely that you are anxious and depressed, have low self-esteem and may even be suicidal.

It is pointless to try and convince your family that a single person cannot possibly be 100% to blame 100% of the time, and that they are at least in some ways partly responsible for the problem. Your family will want you to accept all of the blame and they will expect you to believe that what they are telling you is the truth without question and that it is entirely your fault. Pleading with them that you are innocent, asking to be believed or permission to have a voice and saying sorry even though you did not do anything wrong, typically fails because the family is not interested in a rational, logical and reasonable discussion. They are only focused on avoiding their own pain by fixating their blame onto you.

The good news is that family therapy can be a very good option if your family will agree to it. However, some families are so toxic that they would never be willing to go to family therapy. If this is the case in your family, then that leaves only one option. Walk away. This means severing all ties with your family, as painful and hurtful as that may be, and letting them go. No contact. 

Of course, this decision should be a last resort and you should seek the help of a psychologist with specialised training in relationships and family therapy before you decide to turn your back on your family and to give you ongoing support if you go through with it.

Like many of you out there, I used to believe that we have to absorb whatever our family does to us because they are our family. However, through my work, I have come to understand that that belief is untrue and families should be held to account for their abuse just as we would any other person who is abusive towards us. Your psychologist will help you gain clarity about what is the best decision for you in your circumstances. If you decide to cut all contact, it will be important to remind yourself that you are doing it for your emotional and psychological (and in some cases physical) health. You can remind yourself too, that you are breaking the cycle for future generations.

Scapegoating is abuse and it is not okay, whether you are a child or an adult.