Rebels and Scapegoats: How do They Heal?

The second role in this discussion is the rebel, discussed in some detail hereBut there is another point of view about the role of this troubled child and that is that they play the scapegoat for the family.

From this perspective, this child takes on the family’s problems and acts them out, to ensure that the family secret is held tightly within the family.  Obviously this is not a situation of a parent working too much, but it might be the case of troubled families where any of these, among many others, exist:

  • Alcoholism
  • Incest
  • Mental illness
  • Sexual addiction
  • Poverty that is held in secret for some reason
  • Domestic violence,
  • Child abuse

This child protects the truth of the home situation from coming to the attention of anyone

outside the family.  Outsiders look to the behavior of this child and focus on that, rather than the family as a system.

Ironically if a therapist or counselor tries to look at the child in the context of the family system, the entire family will walk away, willingly sacrificing the child to save the larger organism.

Behavior symptoms of the scapegoated child are, ironically the same as that of the rebel.  It always centers around self hate, rage and self harm, whether that’s by drugs or alcohol, promiscuity or actual self harm like cutting.

The child is lonely, afraid, frustrated, hurt, hopeless and riddled with feelings of inadequacy and self hate. There is some thought that they act out in relation to the depth of these feelings. This child is unaware of any emotion other than rage, lacks the ability to genuinely connect with others, refuses opportunities, and ignores success and accomplishments.

Although often very bright, not much is expected of this child and they are happy to live down to those expectations.  Even as adults, they are often under-employed, usually making failures of even these simple opportunities.  Everyone knows they could succeed if they would just apply themselves.  Unfortunately, they’ve bought the family belief that they’re the problem, the failure.  And as a result they’re stymied unless there is a drastic change in the family system.

What kind of change in the family system could cause the rebel or scapegoat to move from their role to a different place in life?  Ironically, it is not uncommon for this adult to take over the role of the hero, if something happens to the sibling in that role.  Whenever you hear of a death of a child in a family, watch and see if the ‘problem child’ comes around and straightens up.  There will be lots of reasons for this dramatic change but it’s as if the breadth of the success of the hero draws in the rebel, as if in a vacuum, if the hero can no longer fill that role.

To be successful in this new role or to recover from the childhood beliefs and values he or she learned the rebel/scapegoat will have to move through their anger to the hurt it

covers.  The hurt of the abandoned child who took on their role to give the family a focus other than the main problem presented by their parents.

As they move from anger to hurt, they will also have to learn to negotiate rather than rebel.  To communicate, not react.  To listen rather than talk.

The role of the rebel/scapegoat provides, in the midst of the acting out, a tangible service to the family, who is willing to sacrifice one of the children to keep the secret of their dysfunction.

Remember these roles only solidify in families where one parent is emotionally absent and the other is focused on him or her.   Not every acting out child is filling this role, but for the sake of the child, it’s always worth asking about the family system.

Have you met people in this role? Can you recognize the symptoms in co-workers or your town? Have you met anyone who had an amazing turn-around in their life?  Any thoughts about what prompted the change?

As always, it’s best not to diagnose our families of origin or our current family.  But your comments are always appreciated.  and if there’s something personal you’d like to share, feel free to contact me directly.


About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
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24 Responses to Rebels and Scapegoats: How do They Heal?

  1. Louise, I see far too much of my own early history in this post. I find it completely fascinating. Wish I had met someone like you a long time ago. Ah well, perhaps this will shed light for a few more folks. I hope it does. Self understanding is the key to unlocking the door of the prison.

    Awesome post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. “The hurt of the abandoned child who took on their role to give the family a focus other than the main problem presented by their parents.”

    Wow. I’ve never thought of it this way. I have a relative who seems to have done precisely that. Your post shed light on her pain and helps me understand why her hurtful behavior may have taken shape. Thanks, Louise. You are a wealth of knowledge!

    • Understanding is such a good thing, isn’t it August. I believe that all behavior is explainable, if we can get to the details of a child’s life. having said, I do know that is not always possible.

      I’m so glad you understand your relative better,

      thanks for stopping by.

  3. Patricia says:

    What a sad post. I’m not sure I recognize these traits in anyone I personally know, but I have seen these types of people portrayed in movies and television shows. So sad that the entire family as a whole would abandon the hurt member to protect their little secrets.

    Very interesting post again, Louise. Thanks for sharing your knowledge in this area.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  4. Another insightful post full of good info! I know people I suspect might be scapegoats, but not sure. In many cases, there’s no “hero,” just the scapegoat and rebel there with the absentee parent(s). Thanks for sharing.

    • Glad this made sense for you Jennette. I’m sure we all know scapegoats – they proliferate. I will talk about how a family ends up with only one role after I finish this series.

  5. You’ve explained this so well, Louise. Such a poignant and intelligent post. Thanks.

  6. Lee Lopez says:

    Wow, Louise, you’ve described a close a family member of mine, that I never had a answer for her behavior. She is now older, and has never found success in her life, although intelligent, she had numerous opportunities she never took advantage of, college, parents paying for her full tuition, etc. Instead, she’d get married to yet another loser. She’s had several marriages, and now blames the world for her problems and is in a minimum wage job and is alcoholic. I believe it came from her mother who was emotionally absent due to her own problems. Her father was focused on supporting the family. There excuse for her was, “She’s so smart, it’s hard for her to get along.”
    What struck me was the ‘Hero’ I watched her suddenly become this ‘good girl’ during family drama such as a death or when she was trying to impress someone new in the family life. It never lasts long. The funny thing, a lot of this behavior she still acts out, even at 60. I’m finding this post so enlightening, so right on target. It left me with a big ‘WOW’, moment. Thank you for sharing…I have a different view of her now, and less resentful, but more understanding. She really could make our everyone close to her live miserable.

    • Yes, that transformation happens. It is very hard for them to maintain. Some succeed, but many, as your family member, succeed briefly, only to fall back again. It is very sad to see. And it always makes me wonder what is the family secret that they are unconsciously protecting.

  7. Joan Leacott says:

    Your comment reminded of a book I read long ago, DANCE OF DECEPTION by Harriet Lerner. It had a huge impact on me–probably why I like to uncover secrets in my writing. Thanks for thought-provoking post.

  8. thanks for stopping by Alicia

  9. Boy, oh boy, oh boy Louise. I don’t know how you deal with this everyday. But for you to be talking about this tells me that this is common. And I do know someone personally who is like this. So it does help to be aware of this trait. Thank you for explaining this. It puts a whole new light on things.

    • Karen, the nice thing about my work is that it’s about the client and not me. My job is to help them recognize and recover from these locked in roles. I’m not surprised you know someone like this – it’s a very common role.

  10. Louise,

    wow. ok.

    Can a child in a family be each of these children? I can relate to many of the characteristics of each of them. I always identified mostly with the hero child but…..

    How can that work?

    Thank you for this. It is hard but it is good.

    Peace, Jen

  11. the depth of the role, the hardening of it, is usually dependent on the emotional absence of the parents, Each child always has some of each role, but the amount or influence of those other roles is usually determined by the family dynamic.

    most likely, your sibs have roles they have adopted and may integrate elements of other roles at times, but the predominant role and predominant emotions are fairly steady.

    I did rebel a couple of times, but it was usually rebellion that no one else (or very few) saw as such. and when the chips were down, I’d always revert to hero.

    Does that make sense?

  12. Amy Jo says:

    Louise, as always extremely interesting and very inciteful. Roles in families do change, especially if one of the other family members change, or for example, if a parent dies or the older perfect child moves away.

    I think that the hero, being driven and judgemental, may take on roles as the family enforcer or the family bully. Often two sides of the same coin. Sometimes with the best motives. In romance fiction, where we try to create strong heros, what are the boundaries between driven and abusive?

    I am particulaly interested about bullies becasue I write about bullies in our schools, which is such a huge problem. They learn their bullying behavior from somewhere. What impact does family role have on thier behavior. And how does someone from outside the family change that behavior.

    • Amy JO, you’re right, roles do change, especially if a sibling is disengaged from the family or dies. The hero has a certainty that they’re
      right’ and will always try to convince others of that certainty – regardless of the topic . And yes they may become bullies, as an adult, because they’re so certain they know what’s right for everyone.

      Heroes at a school age are rarely bullies. that is more likely to be the rebel child. As youths, heroes are always looking to look good – to be successful, so the typical bullying behavior in schoolyards would not generally be in their play book – because they have to look good. They might lecture other students on the need to follow rules; they might try to help steer them right, but they wouldn’t usually get physically directive with another child because that would be a blot on their record. (remember I’m speaking in generalities)

      and yes school bullies learn their behavior from somewhere and that’s usually the family. So to help the bully we’d have to intervene with the family – who usually doesn’t want our help. Nor do they likely see a need for it.

      If bullying is a learned behavior (and I think it is) then an outsider is the most unlikely person to change anything, unless the family is changed. not what you wanted to hear I”m sure, but that’s my experience.

      feel free to give me a shout if you have other questions.

  13. Fascinating post Louise! Really got me thinking. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  14. Wow. Just Wow. This is all fascinating information and I love the comments and your responses. I never thought about how the family unit encourages these behaviors and that if it’s not willing to accept that change is needed, then it probably won’t happen. You know, I think I need to email you… 😉

    • 🙂 email is always good

      I’m glad you’re enjoying. It is ironic that the very person that the family wants to change, can’t change unless there is a big commitment for everyone in the family to do their part.

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