When the bully lives at home – a new book to help children with family scapegoating
Whilst all those who work in early childhood education and care would like to imagine that each and every child has a home life which is filled with calm and capable nurturers, we sadly know this is often not the case.
*Readers are warned that the following story outlines instances of emotional abuse and neglect, and are advised to consider their own likely response to such content before continuing to read.*
Abuse and neglect can take on many forms, some of which have obvious signs, and others which are far harder to see. Scapegoating, the process by which one family member is singled out as the main cause of issues faced by the family as a whole, is one example of a more hidden form of abuse.
For example, when a family does not have sufficient funds to pay the bills that month, the scapegoat child may be told “this is all your fault! If you didn’t need new shoes all the time, we’d have money to pay for this.”
Scapegoating is not an occasional or one off event, it is a recurrent and insidious pattern of blaming and shaming, and a lack of empathy and respect for the designated family scapegoat child.
As a result of being the target, the scapegoat child can be rejected, excluded, blamed, picked on and constantly put down so they feel different, bewildered and abandoned.
Scapegoat children don’t experience unconditional love and neither are they encouraged and validated by their parents. They are devalued with put downs such as “Can’t you behave like a normal child?” or “Get over it, you’re so sensitive.”
For many children who are in the position of being the scapegoat, their family can present as ideal and “normal” from the outside, but internally be causing inter-generational family violence and trauma.
It was the experience of being the family scapegoat which led South Australian author Ava Keys (a pen name chosen to protect her privacy) to write the book Scapegoat, about a family of goats who participate in this damaging behaviour.
“As a child, I often felt confused by the way my family bullied me. I was called a loser, wrong, useless, crazy, weak and told I had inherited my family’s “bad genes”,” Ava said, describing being left at home to keep her mother company more than her other siblings.
“I was ignored by my mother – sometimes for several days – and then I was criticised and physically abused. I would fret about how to win her approval again,” she added, explaining the confusion she felt when her mother would “suddenly be nice and, because I loved dancing, she promised I would be taken to a Calisthenics class. I didn’t attend one class.”
As she grew older, Ava came to realise the scapegoating cycle as being similar to the cycle of domestic violence. Ava began reflecting on her childhood, and thinking about how she could support children in the same situation. “There are simply no words for a young child to describe or make sense of the situation,” she said.
While she was working in mental health services, Ava described feeling “frustrated and horrified” by the obvious damage to people from family bullying.
“I wanted to do something to solve this problem. If somebody had told me that this wasn’t my fault at age six or seven, it would have saved my self-esteem. My inner critic would be silenced before my anxiety became excruciating and before I had absorbed the shame thrown at me,” she added.
“I went looking for something to help explain family bullying and its connection to mental illness, in particular a book in child-friendly language to help the family scapegoat child. But there were no resources available and services seemed not to understand or care for these scapegoat children. This type of child abuse was silent and invisible.”
The solution? Ava created her own book to help children realise it is not their fault. The messages in the book support their mental health and reduce the internalisation of shame and blame.
“I hope it prevents mental illness, intergenerational family violence and trauma,” Ava said, noting that often people external to the family will buy into the scapegoating mentality, and view the child as a problem to be solved.
“I have seen and experienced well-meaning professional people mirror and join in, identifying the scapegoat as the problem. As a scapegoat, you get to the point where you just give up, and disappear into mental illness,” she added.
“Families without this pattern are different, so much stronger, healthier, there for each other, peaceful and joyful. But I do understand that people cling to this scapegoat system through fear, trauma and shame; it is the best default mechanism for survival these families know, and services are not always equipped to provide an alternative option.”
Ava shared her hope that this work would be the start of something bigger, outlining a future where there is more understanding and knowledge about scapegoating, and more resources, empathy and advocacy for family scapegoat children.
Signs of the scapegoat cycle
There are behaviours early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals can look for to support children who may be trapped in this cycle, Ava said. These include:
- a parent who shows a pattern of disrespect, rejection, irritation, favouritism, negative and controlling or overly worrying behaviour directed towards one particular child.
- a child whose emotional needs are not met, and which are instead rejected with toxic and disapproving looks, criticism, passive-aggressive reactions and dismissive comments.
For those who have found the content of this piece unsettling or distressing, support is available from the following sources:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14 (free from mobiles)
- Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800 (free call)
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978 (local call)
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
- Domestic Violence Crisis Line on 1800 800 098
- 1800 Respect on 1800 737 732
- www.copmi.net.au Children of Parents with a Mental Illness