She was emotional as she talked to me. Parts of the story were funny, but the mom I was talking to clearly felt horrible about her role in the story. She had two sons. Both weren’t perfect boys, but the younger boy wasn’t being safe at home; his anger was getting out of control and he was failing at school. He had a reputation for a lot of things and one was for being a slob, always making a mess at home and not cleaning up. She was always trying to get him to pick up after himself. When she brought him to Project Patch Youth Ranch, she had a hard time leaving him for a year, but at the same time she was looking forward to a year of having a clean house since she and his brother were so clean.
At this point, she said that she had to apologize to her son, because even with him out of the house their home was still messy. Wrappers and food were left out and crumbs were all over. She discovered the hard way that the family had used him as a scapegoat. He wasn’t the only one who was messy, but had always taken the blame. She had already apologized to her son, but her voice still broke as she told me the story.
Families have scapegoats. While many times they are accurate in picking the person that is causing a lot of the pain and frustration; most of the time, the scapegoat isn’t responsible for all the stuff families put on him or her.
Families that pick a scapegoat also tend to pick a “golden child,” that child that can’t do anything wrong. This child often appears to be a positive influence; but in actuality, this child is a bully and emotionally abusive to others in the family, especially the scapegoat.
Our team at the Youth Ranch always recommends to parents that while their child is growing, healing, and learning in our program, that they also take the year to attend counseling, improve their relationships, and read books to help them parent. Parents often act surprised by this advice because they think they have already solved their family problem by bringing the problem to the youth ranch.
I was the family coach at a special Family Experience for alumni and their families, and was encouraged to see parents, our graduates, and their brothers and sisters sitting around tables figuring out how to handle family challenges. Rather than blaming one person, they each were taking responsibility for how they contributed to conflict and miscommunication.
Here are a several reasons why it is so important to focus on the whole family rather than just the “scapegoat”:
- ‘Scapegoating’ hides family problems rather than addressing them head on.
- Often the “scapegoat” may be doing negative things to cope with the family dysfunction.
- Accountability is something that kids learn from parents who model it. Families focused on blame rarely have parent accountability.
- Families are systems and every change impacts every other family member.
There are several skills that we teach during The Family Experience that focus on productive ways to solve problems rather than blaming the scapegoat. These include learning and going through experiences about personality differences, triangulation, and boundaries. One of my favorite skills is the “CEASE Fighting,” which helps families respectfully talk through conflict with each family member taking responsibility for what they contributed to the conflict. Every family would benefit from a weekend at The Family Experience; however, in the meantime I’d recommend two things:
- Model accountability. Show your kids that you are more focused on a solution and personal responsibility rather than blame.
- Respond rather than react. Follow a method of dealing with conflict rather than just reacting. Our reactions often are relationship-damaging rather than helpful.