It takes a lot of patience, maturity, and strength to bring up an emotionally sensitive child. However, due to all sorts of reasons, from trauma to lacking in emotional incapacities, not all families can do this. In a healthy family, there should be enough room for each member of a family to express themselves as individuals. But in families with little tolerance of differences, the child becomes the scapegoat; the black sheep of the family.
Being scapegoated may not mean that our family did not love us. Usually, people resort to making a scapegoat of an individual avoid dealing with their own emotional turmoils. As soon as someone is scapegoated, the family will try to make it stay that way so that they do not have to deal with their own problems or vulnerabilities. When we try to change or leave, we may be emotionally blackmailed or manipulated.
The following may indicate you have been scapegoated:
- You were criticized for innate attributes or characters such as sensitivity and intensity.
- Name tags such as “weird”, “trouble” etc.
- Unequal treatment compared to your siblings.
- Your mistakes or errors are blown out of proportion and were punished more than is necessary.
- You were not paid enough attention when bullied.
- No one cared enough to know or understand or listen to you.
- Your family dismissed or downsized your achievements.
Once adopted, we find it difficult to shake away this scapegoat role, even as an adult. We may carry this assumed identity all our lives.
While we may intellectually understand later in life that we were not the cause of the family problems, shifting from the self-loathe to self-love requires profound emotional healing. We must know we were never the cause of chaos in the family; neither were we responsible for solving any problems. To heal, the child in us must go from being in denial to anger to finally finding freedom and release.
Parental guidance and protection are crucial in developing a sense of safety and foundation within our psyche. Some parents, however, cannot provide this due to insufficient emotional resources. If this is the case, the parent-child roles are reversed; the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child. This parent-child role reversal is known as parentification.
Generally, there are two types of parentification.
Emotional parentification happens when the child becomes the parent’s emotional support. This could occur when a parent shares the innermost details of their anxieties and worries with the child – intimate details the child is really too young to process.
Instrumental parentification is when the child engages in physical labor and support in the household, such as doing the housework, cooking, cleaning, taking care of younger siblings, and other “adult” responsibilities.
Between the two types, emotional parentification has the direst consequences in terms of childhood development. In psychological terms, it is considered a form of abuse, exploitation, and neglect that is difficult to respond to.
Parentification can happen in several ways; the parent was behaving child-like, confiding in the child on sensitive matters, or relating with the child as a peer or close friend. If we had been put in these situations, we would feel obliged to step up to the role to deserve the parent’s love. The effects on our sense of self-worth and our idea about love are far-reaching, though not immediately apparent.
Parentification is a boundary violation. We were forced to grow up faster than we should. We had nobody to look up to or rely on for guidance. We had to learn and accept that our needs would not be met and that having our dreams and desires was not acceptable. As a result, we learn to shove our feelings down. We learn to deny our innermost thoughts and ignore our own needs so we can avoid disappointing our parents.
When parentified, we had to parent our siblings as well. We might end up feeling short or as we failed because by default, it is impossible for a child to perfectly fit in the roles of a parent. We may also feel guilty when we have to leave home (e.g. when we go to college and have to ‘leave our siblings behind’). Psychologically, we feel like parents walking out on their children.
There is no way we could have helped their parents with their emotional pains or many dissatisfactions of their lives. We believe it was our fault and that we were not enough. This affects us even as we grow into adults. We have an overly obligated sense of responsibility in relationships and may overcompensate for this. We do not learn to say no or know when to stop giving. We are always too eager to help or rescue other people from pain and might be attracted to partners that take more than they give. Eventually, we can become emotionally drained and fatigued.
What makes the situation worse is our difficulties in getting angry at our parent. When we were parentified, we intellectually understand they did not mean to be abusive and were just limited or vulnerable.
As a sensitive child, we felt very compassionate and protective of our parents. This protective instinct hinders us from admitting the truth of what we have been deprived of.
Ongoing research has proven that this sort of abuse is a risk factor in a child’s normal development. It leaves deep emotional wounds that endure into their adult years, adding to the challenges already present. Behavioral manifestations that begin in childhood tend to become worse in adulthood, making it challenging to maintain healthy relationships.
Our suffering continues as we enter adulthood. As the primary caregiver for our parents and siblings, there is often no emotional support, no safety net. For the most part, we were expected to keep it together and never show signs of distress. As adults, we may have trouble saying “no” to people. We are often unable to express anger and have a hard time trusting others.
Looking to know more about how it feels when you have experienced toxic family dynamics? Read 8 Things You Can Relate To If You Were Emotionally Neglected As A Child
3. Having emotionally unavailable parents
Some caregivers can be emotionally unresponsive to their children due to mental illnesses, limited psychological capacity, work or health demands, and neuro-atypical traits like Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, or autism. This unresponsiveness, in turn, makes the children feel shut out and abandoned.
Parents need to acknowledge children’s expressions for them to develop a sense of self-worth. This is done through a process called mirroring. Children need to feel wanted and welcomed by their parents. To achieve this, parents applaud a child, encourage them, and converse with them in an affirmative way.