The story of the young kid who’s a family scapegoat
SAMHC Featured Blogger:
South Australian Author
At first glance, writing a children’s book about a family of goats which bullies one kid may not seem related to mental health or mental illness.
But there is a huge connection between mental health and family bullying/scapegoating yet it’s often invisible to the world.
When I look back, my whole life experience has compelled me to write this book to advocate for the child who is the family scapegoat.
Because I was the family scapegoat.
So what is scapegoating?
It’s the recurrent and insidious pattern of blaming and shaming and a lack of empathy and respect for the designated family scapegoat child. The scapegoat child can be rejected, excluded, blamed, picked on and constantly put down so they feel different, bewildered and abandoned.
Scapegoating is not the occasional blaming or anger by a parent of a child because they’re stressed. Scapegoating is contempt and disdain that is sustained over time; it is not a ‘one off.’ There is, for example, a difference in how the parent treats the scapegoat child, compared to other people and children.
Scapegoat children don’t experience unconditional love and neither are they encouraged and validated by their parents. They are devalued with putdowns like: “Is there something wrong with you?”, “Thank goodness for pharmaceuticals“, “Can’t you behave like a normal child?” or “Get over it, you’re so sensitive.”
From the outside, my younger years were ideal and normal but I experienced secret, intergenerational family violence and trauma.
As a child, I often felt confused by the way my family bullied me. I was called a loser, wrong, useless, crazy, a lunatic, insane, weak and told I had inherited my family’s “bad genes.”
I was the one who was left at home more than my other siblings to keep my mum company. 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.
Then, one day, she 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.
In contrast, one sibling was encouraged and coached to follow their interests. They were given a horse and allowed to make scones and cook in the kitchen. I was punished if I tried to do any cooking.
In my older years, I realise scapegoating is similar to the cycle of domestic violence and that there are simply no words for a young child to describe or make sense of the situation.
In fact, people are quite accepting of different parenting styles and often they can believe that the family scapegoat child is the problem. 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. 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.
Some of the behaviour to look out for is a parent who shows a pattern of disrespect, rejection, irritation, enmeshment, favouritism, negative and controlling or overly worrying behaviour directed towards one particular child.
The scapegoat child has emotional needs like all children. The difference is they are rejected with toxic and disapproving looks, criticism, passive-aggressive reactions and dismissive comments.
During my time employed in mental health services, I felt 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.
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.
So I created my 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.
I had a lot of help from many kind people: poet Jo, the editor, publisher Little Steps, illustrator, graphic designer, my partner, friends, family, professionals who work with children, writing groups and thank you also to the seven-year-old who asked, “I don’t understand?”
And I am optimistic that, in the future, there will be more understanding and knowledge about this subject and more resources, empathy and advocacy for family scapegoat children.
By Ava Keyes*
South Australian Author
*Ava Keyes is a pen name used by the author to protect her privacy.
Ava has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Flinders University.
Her debut picture book, Scapegoat, aims to provide a valuable resource for children who experience a specific kind of family bullying – family scapegoating.
The book is available at www.littlesteps.com.au
If this blog has raised any concerns for you, please seek support from your family, friends, health professional or from these services:
- Emergency Services on 000 (free Call)
- 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
SAMHC Featured Bloggers
The SAMHC presents our series of guest featured bloggers who generously share their personal thoughts and experiences of mental health and wellbeing.