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The "Problem Child", Scapegoating and the Family System

Another family brings by the "problem child" and drops them off for me to fix.  She* is the oldest child of five and has been exposed to severe domestic violence, physical abuse and substance abuse.  And she is responding to it as any teenager would - by acting it out. 

The family's first attempt to treat the child was, of course, to take her to the psychiatrist who diagnosed her with "Bipolar Disorder" because of her "mood swings" and put her on Risperdal to tranquilize her in an attempt to reduce acting out behaviors at school.  I'm still amazed at how many teens are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder because of mood swings.  Isn't that the definition of adolescence?  Mood swings?  Geez, they must all be Bipolar then.  Naturally she continued to act out.  So they are now trying therapy.

Most parents want to drop off the "problem child" to be fixed.  I don't do this.  I insist on seeing the entire family - together.  Many therapists don't do this and I really have to wonder why.  Is it because it makes it harder for them?  Or they just don't know how to deal with that many people in the room and all the dynamics which come into play?  Or have they not been trained in family therapy?  Seeing the entire family together puts the "problem" child's behavior into context.  She is clearly being scapegoated.  The entire family ostracizes her because of her "anger problems".  Her only problem is that she is clearly carrying the anger for all the other children at the situations and conditions of violence and chaos they have experienced.  Like a typical scapegoat she is the truth teller, complaining vociferously about her mother's boyfriends and the problems they create for her and her siblings.  She confronts Mom.  She says what the other children stay quiet about.  This allows the other children to sit and smile and look like angels by comparison.  She grabs her sword and shield and does battle against the things that are wrong in her family.  She openly defies her mother and the two of them are locked in a power struggle.  She is able to do this because her mother puts her boyfriends ahead of her children and this compromises her children's respect for her.  The oldest daughter steps up to the plate to claim some of this power, and the struggles begin.  The second oldest child is clearly the caretaker.  She totally gives of herself to all the other children and provides the nurturing and care that the mother does not.  She gives away her food, her turn, her toys, whatever, to keep the peace and please the others.  The third child in line is the comedian who makes everyone laugh when things get too tense.  Everyone has their role.  But you can't see this unless you have the entire family in the room together interacting with and reacting to each other. 

If this family can be educated about the parts everyone is playing and change those roles there is hope that the "problem child" won't have to keep acting out the dysfunction of the system.  Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen.  But that is what will actually "fix" this situation and this child.  Fixing the dysfunction of the system fixes the "behavior problems" of the child.

If you have a "problem child" I really encourage you to face the fact that the problem may not be the child.  It's most likely your parenting or the family situation.  Find the courage to enroll the entire family in counseling if possible instead of scapegoating one child.  If there is a boyfriend or stepmother or grandparent closely heavily involved in the family dynamic be sure to invite them to come too.  I once worked with a family who had a grandmother living with them who was the major source of much of the family dysfunction.  But she refused to come to therapy.  What a surprise.  We were still able to do a lot of good work about establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries and strengthening the parental bond so that grandmother wasn't able to jerk the parents' chains quite so much and that made a huge difference in the family's interactions.

Search until you find a therapist who specializes in family counseling.  Therapists trained in dealing with the entire family may use words like, "Bowenian", "structural", or "systems" therapy to describe their specialty - which is the family as a system. 


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This is interesting. I was the third of six children in a house with an alcoholic father and an older brother who bullied me since the day I showed up. I started with the acting out in early adolescence and it picked up some real steam into my teenage years. Many, many angry outbursts. My mother still refers to me as the problem child and I'm in my 40s now. And they all kept asking me what was 'wrong with me'. And the funny thing is I had no idea.

We do allow ourselves to walk through life completely blind don't we?


Hi Jss,

Yes, that is the pattern! I'm not so sure that we allow ourselves to go through life blind. We can't see what is not put before us. We can only be responsible for it once it is pointed out to us. It sounds as if your eyes are wide open and searching.

I hope your family allows you to get out of that role. If not, I would have to ask why they need that role to exist. They may fight heartily to keep you in that role fearing that if you step out of it one of them may have to take it up.

Many ex-"problem children" find the articles on this blog regarding the Scapegoat Role to be helpful. You can find them using the navigation bar on the left of this post.

Thank you for the feedback. I wish you all the best.


I've been searching on information in the use of family therapy when the parent is the abuser. I totally disagree in putting the victim and abuser together without providing therapy for the victim first. I also believe that the abuser needs their own therapy but why is it that I continue to see case after case where family service providers are forcing children into family therapy with the abuser so they can rush reintegration? I would be interested in your thoughts and any research that you are aware of on this topic.


Hi John,

That's an excellent question. In writing this article I was focused primarily on older teens. But your question about reintegration when a child has alleged abuse, especially a small child, is very relevant.

I can only answer from my experience. A lot depends on the age of the child - and the family court system. An older teen might be able to hold their own in a family therapy session if the abuse was not sexual. That would have to be assessed by the therapist, or should be. For a younger child is makes no sense. They should be seen individually. The abuser should be seen individually. Then a decision about whether the abuser should have further contact should be made. That is how it should be.

Unfortunately, therapy where abuse is alleged either through Child Protective Services or during a divorce dispute, isn't guided by what's psychologically best for the child. As one family attorney put it to me, "Parents have rights. Children have no rights." And I have found that to be true. The court seems to place as the priority protecting the rights of the parent, even the abusive parent. The current father's rights movement further pushes the court to protect the father's rights regardless of what is alleged by the child or what is best for the child.

As a result, the therapy provided to abused children is often mandated by judges who have no education or training in child psychology or therapy. They often mandate reintegration thinking the therapist can "save" the family if they simply put them all together. There seems to be no awareness or concern for the effect this will have on the child, especially a child who has made an outcry.

And you are right. This is highly detrimental to the child. It totally denies the child's outcry. I am currently working with a 7 year old who has alleged sexual abuse by his father. Because it took him several months to work up the courage to make an outcry (due to his father's threats if he told) any physical evidence was destroyed by time. The judge has ordered the family into therapy for reintegration because the father's lawyer is screaming that his client has visitation rights which have been denied. So the therapy occurs and the child sits there completely terrified. The child is currently scheduled to be returned to his father for a monthly visitation because his father has visitation "rights".

The mother has been totally devastated by this. She has always assured her son that if anyone touched him in a way that felt "funny" he should tell her and she would protect him. The court has rendered her helpless to protect her son, totally destroying her role as mother, the protector.

My biggest concern is this: What does this teach children about making an outcry? If the father hurts this child again, will he tell again? I doubt it.

And that, I fear, will be the worst thing that could happen. If a child is convinced that nothing will happen if he makes an outcry, the abuser (father or mother) now has license to do as they please. This gives the abuser carte blanche not only to continue the abuse, but perhaps to increase the severity of the abuse. They know the child will not tell again.

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I want to take this moment to say that I really love this blog. It has been a good resource of information for me. Thank you so much admin.

Dr. Stephen Doyne Phd

I agree with much of what you've said, but I'm curious... do you see the entire family first or do you provide the "problem child" an opportunity to speak with you privately first?

Confronting a highly dysfunctional family w/violent behaviors seems a risky environment for a teen trying to escape such behaviors and knowing that honesty inflames them... unless you've had a chance to debrief one another, if you will.


Hello Dr. Doyne,

I couldn't agree more and each situation has to be assessed individually. I usually go along with whatever the family can handle to start with and "plant seeds" about what needs to happen to actually address the problem. A lot of parents are extremely resistant and sensitive to being labeled as the problem by a clinician. Some will absolutely refuse to participate in the process at all and refuse to consider any suggestion that anyone but the child has a problem. Other parents, even parents who have been abusive, are more willing to own their part in what is going on and want help - for themselves and their family.

If I can create a safe environment with strong boundaries and clear rules which limit blaming that is the ideal. I also work very hard to explain the concept of family systems theory and be very balanced in my listening and feedback.

However, if there is a power struggle, if there is a risk of violence or if the parents are unwilling to participate then I work with the child.

I've learned through the years that there are many times when all I can do is "plant seeds" that may come to fruition some time in the future.

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