The Narcissistic Family: The Scapegoat & The Golden Child
Commonly seen in situations that involve a narcissistic parent, the abusive dynamic of golden child and scapegoat can truly destroy a family.
Narcissistic people engage in something called splitting. This is the result of their inability to reconcile positive and negative aspects into one cohesive understanding. Splitting is why they see you as either all-good or all-bad, depending on their mood. They can only have one view of you at a time. They cannot see that humans are complex, and even good people have flaws or bad qualities. This is not something they can justify in their minds. If something is good, then to a pathologically narcissistic person, it is all-good. It is even idealized as perfect. If something is bad, it is all-bad and demonized as the worst thing ever. This generally changes with their mood or with circumstances. They see people, objects and even themselves this same way, so it's no surprise that they often impose this dynamic onto their children.
Other people are mostly seen as mirrors of the narcissistic person. They are not experienced or understood as separate individuals with their own identity, personality, feelings, wants, needs or problems. They are experienced and understood only so far as they relate to the narcissist and children are no exception to this. This is what creates the golden child/scapegoat dynamic.
The golden child part of the dynamic is exactly what it sounds like. This is the "good" child. This child may be spoiled, indulged, fawned over and given everything they want. The narcissistic parent often seems to have a bond with this child and a relationship that seems very close. In truth, the child is simply being used as a reflection of the positive image the narcissist wishes to portray to the world. The golden child may be the child who does not challenge or contradict the narcissistic parent, or attempt to assert their own identity. This child is not seen as threat to the narcissist for whatever reason and is rewarded for that.
The scapegoated child is the "bad" child. This is the child who represents all things negative in the narcissist's life. This child may be devalued, ignored, blamed, gaslighted or worse as the narcissistic parent's attempts to control and subjugate this child fail. The child who does not obey, who challenges the parent, who asserts their independence and identity, who refuses to accept abuse or who simply cannot measure up to impossible standards will often be scapegoated. The narcissistic parent often feels this child has somehow betrayed or rejected them and engages in a campaign of punishment that can go on for years.
It's very important to remember that this dynamic and each child's role often has nothing to do with reality. While it's true that sometimes the child's individual personality can have something to do with it, it's just as likely that the reasons are the narcissist's own and may never be understood. And regardless of the reason, this is abusive and unfair. Not only does it compromise both of the children's self esteem and self worth, it often creates a dynamic between them that is very difficult to change.
The scapegoated child often becomes jealous and resentful of the golden child, and the golden child often treats the scapegoated child with the same disdain and abuse that the parent does, which can create a dynamic where everyone is now ganging up on the scapegoated child. The golden child/scapegoat family dynamic is a situation where the children are robbed of camaraderie and fraternity. In essence they are turned against each other.
Children are not going to turn their anger and bitterness toward the parent - at least not until they are much older. The parent is the object children are competing for, therefore their anger, bitterness, jealousy or disdain will be turned toward each other. This is just the nature of the beast. Narcissistic parents usually do nothing to defuse or remedy this, and some even encourage it. They may play the children against each other, or use one child to torment the other. Even as adults, when they recognize what the parent has done and where the blame truly lies, people raised in this situation often cannot get past it.
The golden child is often regarded as another villain in this situation, but the golden child is just as much a victim as the scapegoated child and as adults, they often have the same issues as their scapegoated siblings. Both children have had their identities pushed to the side in order to become vessels for the narcissistic parent's parasitic ego and tools for their self-aggrandizement. Indulgence and spoiling are just as much abuse as neglect. Using a child to make yourself feel better is wrong, cruel and abusive, no matter how you do it. Whether you use praise and indulgence, or blame and abuse doesn't matter. This dehumanizes the child and relegates that child to the status of an object.
Adults who were raised in this situation often have a lot of issues they need to address. They may be codependent, they may be narcissistic themselves, they may suffer from anxiety or depression - or both. They may have substance abuse problems, anger problems. They often have issues with their self worth and self esteem. They often become victims of narcissistic partners or friends because this is the dynamic that has been modeled for them and because they are still chasing that validation that they did not receive. The desire to prove themselves worthy and lovable is still very strong, and they have been taught that the only way they have value is if someone else gives it to them.
If you find yourself in this situation, please remember that all of this can be addressed. When we know better, we do better. You can learn to stop chasing chaos, to break the trauma bond and to validate yourself, so that you don't have to sacrifice yourself anymore. You really do have all the tools you need to fix this problem. You just have to learn how to use them.