While we would love to believe that every family is, at its root, healthy and functional, the reality is far less cheery and positive. For every loving and responsible parent out there, there is another whose narcissism and self-centered attitude slowly destroys any chance of a healthy family unit.
It’s true that the ‘American family’ is changing, with the increased rate of divorce, the acceptance of same-sex marriages and the continued diversification of the different cultures and races prevalent across the country. While it would be easy to blame any situations of child abuse or neglect, or those families that struggle to find a healthy balance on these changes, experts say the problem is far more complex.
In fact, the very families that one may assume will fall short of a child’s needs, such as that of a single-parent family, may actually provide a more loving home than the stereotypical ‘all-American’ family next door. After releasing the 2013 World Family Map, a report by the non-profit research center Child Trends investigating the health and well-being of children around the globe and the way their families and home lives impact this state, senior program area director Laura Lippman explained, “In some single parenting examples, resources were controlled by the mother of the household, ensuring these resources went to the well-being of children. It suggests that some single-parent families may not benefit from a second parent who might be taking these resources away.”
So, if the actual make-up of the family isn’t responsible for determining which families will thrive and which will create a negative, toxic environment, what is responsible? At the root of many dysfunctional families, you will find a narcissist whose abuse victimizes everyone involved. With the incredibly high rate of narcissism in the United States today (and rising, many predict) there are many families that are forced to endure this nightmare.
Consider, for a moment, the way that a narcissist operates and views the world around them. These people truly see themselves as being somehow greater than or more important than everyone else around them, manipulating and abusing those who enter into their lives without guilt or regret. They see everyone, including their family, as pawns at their disposal to ensure that they ultimately ‘get what they deserve’ in life – their entitlement, egocentrism, and self-absorption leading the way. It’s not that they want to inflict pain on others, they simply don’t care enough to even recognize they are or to care in many situations, as long as they ultimately benefit from the situation at hand.
Within the family unit, there is one child that will ultimately take on the role of the ‘scapegoat’, often a role that falls upon the most empathetic child in multiple child families. Upset with the way that their siblings and the other parent are treated, the scapegoat will actually stand up to the narcissist, voicing their concern. This, of course, sets off the narcissist, who expects everyone to blindly follow their every whim. They will even go as far as to place themselves metaphorically between the narcissist and their other victims, trying to protect their vulnerable family members and keep them safe. This may not be a conscious choice or action, but rather a result of their big heart and compassionate nature.
As a result, the narcissist will direct their frustration and abuse largely in the direction of the scapegoat, leaving them to shoulder all of this additional pain and heartbreak. It will likely never be addressed or pointed out, but rather an unspoken role the child is expected to bear. These are incredibly strong people, as they must be in order to take on all of this abuse and continue to plug forward. The ‘weaker’ family members don’t jump to defend or care for this person, as in the moment their ability to take the suffering saves them, protects them and allows them to feel ‘better’ in their current situation.
While role may never actually ‘break’ the child, as they grow up it can have a lasting impact well into their adult lives. Many will grow into adults that have built up such a tough shell that they struggle to let anyone see their vulnerable side. Some will work so hard to prove that they aren’t the failures and disappointments that their narcissist parent led them to believe that they become extremely high achievers, perfectionists, and workaholics. On the other hand, they may respond in the opposite way, setting their sights so low in an attempt to avoid failure that they never really accomplish anything at all.
The good news is that the emotional and psychological wounds of life as a scapegoat for a narcissist can be overcome with professional help and therapy. However, the first step is to acknowledge the truth about your childhood, a task that can be incredibly difficult. You are worth it.