Joshua Taber: An American Soldier who Waterboarded his 4 Year Old Daughter
On Being Defensive

Maintaining the Cycle of Abuse

People who were abused in their families of origin may practice the same abusive behavior towards themselves.  They may also pass it on to their children.  This creates a sick, and sometimes fatal, cycle of abuse that repeats itself generation after generation.

We tend to do what we know and what we know if what we were taught in our families.  If we were taught abuse we tend to grow up to abuse others or to pick out people who will abuse us.  If we were raised with lots of verbal abuse our Self Talk as an adult may be laden with this exact words and phrases.  People who have been labled "losers" by their family may actually sabotage efforts which result in success so they perpetually end up losing.  This is what therapists call a "Self Fulfilling Prophesy".  If we tell someone they are losers to the point they grow up to call themselves a loser they will often end up being just that.   

People who were sexually molested as children may engage in prostition, lap dancing or other sexual behaviors in an attempt to replicate the abuse.  They may engage in superficial relationships which only involve sex without intimacy.  They may actively purpose sexual sadism or masochism.  They may be obsessed with having sex, i.e. "sex addiction" or may develop a heavy dependence on porn.  In this way they continue to keep themselves and others in a sexual, de-humanized role. 

If the abuse was in the form of alcoholism, the adult child of an alcoholic may become an alcoholic themselves or marry an alcohol in attempt to rescue him or her.  If the parent's alcoholism was combined with verbal messages that the child was "no good" or would "never amount to anything" alcohol may be used to sabotage efforts to succeed.


I once worked with a man, Joe, who was a heavy alcoholic and worked in the salvage industry.  I was told he was so heavily addicted to alcohol his wife had to administer an alcohol enema every morning in order for him to function.  (A true enabler.)  The salvage business is either feast or famine.  If a train crashed yesterday it might be a feast.  If nothing needs to be salvaged - famine.  When Joe hit the jackpot he would walk away with a huge roll of cash stashed in his boot.  He went straight to the bar with his other "friends" who would quickly relieve him of his cash.  One Friday Joe stopped by the office before going to the bar with his huge roll of money.  He was already on his way to being full out drunk.  His real friends talked him out of the money and put it in the safe.  He went to the bar, stayed drunk all weekend and came in on Monday morning quite happy.  We were so proud of ourselves for having saved Joe from himself and quickly ran to the safe to retrieve his money.  His smile dropped and he looked at us with suspicion.  We could not understand why he was not happy.  He immediately took the roll of money to the bar and drank until his "friends" had relieved him of it. 

With people battling eating disorders you can often see this same pattern.  They may lose huge amounts of weight, but then gain it back.  Why?  It is not always the case, but sometimes being thin is scary, especially if they have put off living their lives until they were thin.  "I'll apply for a new job when I'm thin."  "I'll try my hand at having a relationship again when I'm thin."  "I'll leave this messed up relationship I'm in when I'm thin."  Getting thin means they will have to act on these promises they have made to themselves - and that can be very scary.  Hooking back up with friends you know will take you to the all-you-can-eat buffet, who notoriously overeat and who encourage you to overeat is a sure fire way of sabotaging a diet.

Look back on your own behaviors and those of your parents.  Do you see any patterns?  Completing a genogram can be very helpful in identifying patterns in your family and predicting patterns you might adopt.  Identifying maladaptive patterns can be an important first step in stopping them; not only in yourself but in your children.  See also, "The Voices in Your Head:  Tuning in to Your Own Self Talk" for ideas about identifying and changing your self talk.



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Thank you for your excellent website Kellen- it is a revalation to me.

Since I found this site, just a few weeks ago, I have been able to see so much more clearly all the problems that people have with their thoughts of themselves, thoughts and worries that they live so long with because they are unable to realise the role or roles they have had to play within the family- if this were common knowledge, so many lives would be so much better!Even some counsellors that I have spoken to do not seem to realise the importance of the family roles; must it be a fault of their teaching?

As well as heaping praise on youI do have a question that I hope you could help me with; I have a friend that has spent her life being the scapegoat and lost child. There was violence within the family from an early age, a pregnancy at the age of 17 and constant criticism. She has spent her life being a victim of abuse, firstly from her mother and later from a partner who also abused her daughter. I have to watch every word I say so I do not upset her because she is very fragile, but I want to let her know that I have discovered the psychology of family roles and I hope to help her realise that her negative feelings of self that she has struggled with for so long are not her fault; I want her to see that she has just had to play her part within a dysfunctional family and that the person she sees as herself is not her true self- her real self she can now discover and love. I also see the roles that her children play and I would love to break the cycle of neglect and abuse to free these people from further generations of sadness.

The problem is that she is so frail that I feel that if I tell her of this site and explain the roles her children play, I believe she could blame herself yet again and decend even further down the spiral of self hatred- please help; is there a kind way to help her see the simplicity of the necessary realisation?


Hi Felix,

Thank you for your kind words. I am very pleased this information is helping you make sense of things. You are right, family roles are not taught to all counselors. Counselors who are LMFTs (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists) or who are trained in Bowenian or Systems theory are more likely to understand the importance of the whole family system and everyones parts within it (rather than focusing on one individual as the source of all familial problems). I hope this will help you screen your next therapist. It is entirely appropriate and intelligent to ask them as many questions as they ask you. (smiles)

As for your friend, Im wondering what causes you to think she is so frail. It sounds like she has survived a lot, and if so, must be stronger than anyone thinks (including herself). I cant provide therapy for someone Ive never met. I can only give suggestions how you might help her as a friend. Perhaps you could present it as something which has helped you a great deal and ask if she would be interested in reading more about it. I wish there was a book to which I could refer you, but I dont know of a really good one on this topic.

One thing I have found about the Scapegoat in the family - telling them the story of the original scapegoat seems to reach them in a very moving way. I dont know if this will help, but Ill post it here for your use. Use your own judgment.

The Origins of the Scapegoat

(I always preface this with a statement that no animals are injured in the telling of this story. (Smile))

In olden times, when a community suffered from drought, famine, plague or other disasters, they often assumed that God was mad at them and punishing them for their sins. However, they could not know who in the community had committed the sin for which the entire community was being punished. So they came together and placed a goat in the middle of the town. They they went through a ritual in which everyone placed their sins (metaphorically) on the goat. The goat was then driven out of the community, into the desert. This drove the sins of the community away from it and left it appearing unblemished.

The Scapegoat role in a family works the same way. The sins of the family are heaped upon the Scapegoat, who is then driven away from the family. Sometimes the Scapegoat will develop an obvious affliction, often mental illness or a substance abuse problem. This makes it even easier to label them as the problem and separate them from the family.

Naturally this is all done unconsciously. The family doesnt hold a meeting and select Jane to be the family scapegoat. But which member of the family is most likely to become the Scapegoat?

The strongest. And the most loving. To live in isolation out in the desert and bear the burden for the entire family the Scapegoat must be the strongest. To sacrifice their own well being for the good of the family they must be the most loving.


Thank you for your reply Kellen,

I do agree that I too view this person as being the strongest and most loving. I feel that she may be tired of taking on all this burden and perhaps she is using her apparent frailty in an attempt to block further abuse. I see this possibility as good news; meaning that at some level she recognizes her strength.

You wonder why I believe she is so frail; I do accept that you cannot provide therapy, but do you believe I could be correct? I will think on this for a while.

I do find the theory of roles played within the family most interesting and also believe that when there is a divorce, leaving one member seperated from the main family unit that the family still continues to exist with the family roles intact, or at least changed; but with no less potency.


Hi Kellen,

I have decided on my course of action; I will do my best to describe the family roles and use myself and my past as an example. As we all know, that is the hard part- and I will have a job to explain my position of having an alcholic mother who neglected us on an isolated farm, with, I suspect, a very relaxed attitude towards potty training. We were neglected but only quietly abused- we just kept out of the way. I suspect that I was the hero of the family- with a touch of lost child.
I wonder that by taking this action it may arouse the loving and caring side of my scapegoat friend's needs and she may well gain the necessary interest in the family roles to enable her to help herself.

I will use the description of the scapegoat you kindly gave and live in hope for a while; a while because I too have a life to live- all for myself!

Be happy and smile!



Your friend sounds very lucky to have you. And I like what you say about maintaining your own self care.

I wish you the best of luck. Please let me know how it goes.


Dear Kelly,

I am glad that you said a scapegoat in the family is the strongest and most loving. My mum told me even as a very young child as 5 or 6 I allowed my older sister to beat me without hitting back. I would feel sad if anyone or animal was sad or hurt. I would ensure my family's time bomb my father will not blow up. I was the counsellor, peace-maker and I told all the sisters to go party and I would stay at home. But I grew up depressed all the time. Thankfully, I am healing from this role.


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