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The Scapegoat as Truth Teller for the Family

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. - George Bernard Shaw

The Scapegoat in a family system is often the one who tells (or acts out) the truth in the family, the elephant in the living room that no one is talking about.  It is this act of truth telling that makes them the target for family rebuke and this is why they are often the first person the therapist wants to talk to.

To read more about the Scapegoat role see my main article, The Scapegoat or see  all my articles about the Scapegoat Role.   

Juanita was molested by her father as a child.  Her father also molested both of her younger sisters.  Juanita told her mother about it when it was happening, but her mother called her a liar and denounced her as a "slut".  Juanita was 9 years old at that time.  As Juanita grew up, the molestation continued until she ran away from home at the age of 16 with her boyfriend.  Juanita developed a drug habit as a result of trying to numb her emotions and memories about her abuse.  She moves from relationship to relationship acting out the sexual abuse in her adult relationships that she experienced as a child.  Her family will have nothing to do with her, citing her sexual promiscuity and drug addiction as the reasons for her banishment.  They deny knowing anything about the molestation that she describes at the hands of her father and say that she is "making it all up".

Nathan grew up in a household with a father who drank heavily and was very abusive.  Nathan's mother has always denied his father's drinking for fear that she will lose him and the financial stability which he provides.  Nathan's father always keeps his drinking in the home where outsiders cannot see it.  When his drinking gets out of control or he becomes abusive, Nathan's mother covers for him.  Nathan's father is a pillar of the community and well respected by his colleagues and friends who never see him drunk or violent.  Nathan sees the hypocrisy and despises it.  Nathan secretly began drinking at the age of 14.  He is now 26 years old and has a serious alcohol problem.  He has never held a job longer than 6 months and moves from place to place living with friends or roommates.  Nathan is frequently seen in bars, heavily intoxicated and often starts brawls with other drinkers.  He has two assault charges and one DUI on his record.  He tries to tell anyone who will listen about his father's drinking, but no one wants to hear it.  Nathan's family has ostracized him because of his behavior and his refusal to keep quiet about his father's alcohol problem. 

Both Juanita and Nathan are the Scapegoats of their family.  They both tell the truth about their family dysfunction and act it out in their own lives.  Their families denounce them for exposing this truth.  Therapists refer to truths like this as "the elephant in the living room".  There is something huge here that no one is talking about, except the Scapegoat. 

If a family enters into therapy, it is often the Scapegoat they bring to be "fixed".  The Scapegoat will be what therapists call, "the identified patient".  A young Juanita or Nathan might have been brought to therapy to "fix" their promiscuous behavior or drinking.  But an astute therapist knows these are the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.

If you are the Scapegoat in your family, take heart.  A trained therapist will see your truth.  However, your family may never be willing to face it.  And if you continue to speak of it, they may continue to disown you.  This leaves you a choice to make;  be silent and live with the hypocrisy or walk away.

If you try to step out of the Scapegoat role in your family you may also meet with resistance.  The Scapegoat is also the target of the family.  The Scapegoat draws all negative attention to themselves and away from the family.  The family can then stand back and look horrified at what the Scapegoat is doing, as if they have never witnessed such behavior before.  (They have.  Where do you think the Scapegoat learned to act that way?)  The Scapegoat exists because the family needs one.  If you decide to resign your role you will find enormous pressure being brought to bear for you to get back into character.  Even if you sober up, hold a job, get married and have a family of your own, they may never let you forget you are the "screw up" or the "black sheep" or the "problem child" of the family.  If not, you have a choice to make.  Stay - or go.

If you are the Scapegoat you may also recreate this role in your other relationships.  Juanita may cheat on all her boyfriends.  Nathan may show up at work drunk and start a fight with the boss.   If Juanita gets married and has children, she may molest her own children, or try to date her daughter's boyfriends.  Nathan may become the drunken violent father he despises.  If Juanita has female friends, she may sleep with their husbands.  Nathan may get violent with drinking buddies and assault them when drunk. 

The good news?  With awareness you can stop playing this role.  How?

1.  You have to realize you are in it. 

2.  Look at what you do to recreate the role in other relationships.  Do you sexually act out?  Do you drink too much and get too aggressive?  Do you insist on cramming the truth down people's throats instead of letting things go and letting things be?  Do you go on crusades against people, situations or issues?  Are you righteous, judgmental or intolerant of people or situations?  The Scapegoat role can be recreated in many ways, but it requires that you make yourself a target.  Look for ways in which you do that - and stop it.

This second one is the hardest part to face.  You have to take responsibility for doing to yourself what was originally done to you.  But you can do it.  You are the truth teller.  You are the one who had the guts to face what was really going on in your family.  You did it then and you can do it now.  Only this time, you will be doing it for yourself.


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Rick Belden

I was very encouraged to find this post today while searching the web for good information about scapegoats in dysfunctional families. I feel that this is a subject that still hasn't received the recognition, attention, and understanding it deserves. As a result, a lot of scapegoats (maybe most) remain less than fully conscious of their role in the family system, and continue to suffer without even knowing why.

I like your writing style. It is clear, concise, direct, and practical. After reading this post, I explored your blog a bit more and was impressed enough to post an entry about it on my own blog. You've posted a great deal of useful, high-quality material, and I hope you get lots of readers.


Hi Rick,

Thank you so much for the feedback. I too have had trouble finding anything about family roles, especially the Scapegoat, and it is a role I see being played out quite a lot. I appreciate your comments about my blog and the link is greatly appreciated. I'm currently working on another article about the scapegoat and a few other things. I hope you find it equally helpful.

Thank you for your support.

Dallas Iannone

Thank you very much for your article on scapegoats. I to was the family scapegoat but I chose not to walk away. I am now 51 years old but I have been determined to gain my parents love, support and acceptance. I now am the only child that lives near my parents and the only child that will have anything to do with the parents. They are both sick and dying and I take care of them. Sometimes I feel alot of anger and resentment for making me their scapegoat and all the physical and mental abuse that I have endured over the years. I am not sure that I am doing the right thing for myself by being there for them now when they were never there for me. But I do try to treat them with all the love, support, kindness and non judgement that I always wanted and I am hoping that this will help me heal. Again thank you for your help and keep up the good work. Dallas


Hi Dallas,

Thank you so much for your feedback. I have seen people walk away and I have seen people stay until the end and both methods can work toward healing. I wish you all the best luck.




Thank you so much for this article. I have always been the family scapegoat of the family, even after moving away from them some 25 years ago at the age of 17. Heck, I live over 2000+ miles away from them, have *very* limited contact, and they are still affecting my life. Now that I am in treatment for depression and they know about it, the scapegoating has taken on a whole new level of them referring to me as "crazy", "not well", and that they "hope I get the help I need". Thankfully, my therapists help me to see that I am not the crazy one, just the easiest one to gang up on, talk negatively about, and shift blame. It saddens me that this is the case and that I trusted one of them with my diagnosis of depression which somehow spread like wildfire into a diagnosis of craziness.

While I am in the process of once again separating from them because let's face it, who needs the abuse, I like what you said about not recreating the scapegoat environment and allowing yourself to be a target even when you are out of the family dynamic. While I do not "sexually act out, drink too much and get too aggressive, go on crusades against people, situations or issues, are righteous, judgmental or intolerant of people or situations?" I definitely speak my truth, after careful thought and choosing my battles, but realize that even with such careful thought the ultimate result is putting myself in scapegoat position. So I guess it's better for me in the long run to keep quiet, even though it feels very wrong to do so.

Thank you for enlightening me to the concept that I very well may be creating the same situations.


Yes I was definitely the truth teller of the family. My aunt was pregnant with my cousin, I was a child. She was smoking pott when we got there. She saw us and her reaction was a cutsie "oops...caught me!"

My cousin (who has passed away since) was born with significant defects.

My parents convered for her, saying that he got that way because my aunt ate Macaroni and Cheeze while she was pregnant.

Everyone else went along with this but me, I would say "uh no, she did drugs while she was pregnant" or "I don't think so, I am sure if macaroni and cheeze did that to developing fetuses it have been pulled of the shelves a long long time ago"

I was the one that did not let go of the truth and oddly enough, my parents defined me as if I was this very aunt. I was even *mistakenly* called her name several times.

It was like my dad made me his sister and then punished me like I was his sister, so I even scapegoated for the dynamics in my Fathers Family of Origin.

I am nothing like my aunt, nothing at all, but they still maintain that and the times that my life shows that I am not just like her, infact not like her at all, I am actually disowned for not playing the role they have defined for me.

This is the one example that I think of when I read this post.

I am happy to have found this blog, not much written on the topic of scapegoating at all.

Thank you...


Wow, that was a great article. I am 50 now. I had quite a bit of therapy and I think I am better. I don't associate with my family anymore. The scapegoating was so bad it was ridiculous.

But enough about all that, I was a single Mom and my daughter is now 24. She is awesome and she is growing more and more everyday. She has struggled along and found her way. She has problems with cutting, depression and alcohol. But her main problem is:

"Do you drink too much and get too aggressive? Do you insist on cramming the truth down people's throats instead of letting things go and letting things be? Do you go on crusades against people, situations or issues? Are you righteous, judgmental or intolerant of people or situations?"

Oh my God, am I scapegoating her? That would be the worst possible thing. I tried so hard to turn things around for us. We have both had extensive therapy but around 17 she gave up all meds and stopped therapy.

I was angry for a couple of years, but she pulled herself together after trouble with the law. She is progressing. I see less and less of the above behavior. She has even started school without me prompting her. I am very supportive when her behavior is acceptable, but pull away when she is acting out. Maybe that is the wrong approach. I see her very regularly, at least once a week and often visit at work or school.

What behavior would I be having? She only minimally associates with my family. I am truly all the family she has.

Margie Ohmer

Me and my oldest sister are the two scapegoats in our family of five girls. We have a history of alcoholism and drug abuse on both sides of our family. I am 48 and have been doing recovery work since I was 30. I have come a long way! Me and my sister have been keeping a distance from our family for years because of the negative comments and abuse. We have always been labeled the crazy ones! My father recently passed away and the issues came surfacing up like a big ole turd! Lol!! Because me and my sister confronted the REAL issues ....we naturally got blackballed instead of the rest of the family wanting to resolve it. This site has been very helpful in helping me to understand why I take on that role. The very sad thing is....that me and my sister would LOVE to resolve this stuff and have real closeness in our family. I realize that the best thing to do for my self is to detach and let them go. The only way back in the family right now is to take ALL the blame for the crap going on in our family and be pretentious....which I just do not want to do. I see no point in having fake relationships. It comforts me to know that I am not alone! Thanks for this site!


I'd like to hear more about this "crusading against others" and why it's a problem. Thanks.


Hi Sandra,

Could you elaborate a bit? I'm not sure what you mean.

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