The Golden Child vs the Scapegoat: When Parents Pick Favorites

Updated: May 6, 2022
The golden child and scapegoat dynamic in siblings often causes dysfunctional family relationships and affects both children in serious ways.
Sad young teenage girl sitting forlornly in the foreground
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Children are perceptive. In fact, research shows that a parent’s relationship with their child, along with the affection shown to them throughout their formative years, will mold their future self-worth. However, in many families, it becomes evident that there is a golden child and a scapegoat.

Related: 5 Steps for Giving Each Child One-on-One Time

These labels can both play a detrimental role in the mental health of an impressionable adolescent. What you may not realize is that you may be subconsciously playing favorites and not even know it. We take a look at the impact that this can have on your kids as well as how to break these perceptions and build better family dynamics.

What Is Golden Child Syndrome?

For those who are deemed “the golden child,” there is an expectation of perfection and the need to uphold the family image. This ties into a very narcissistic parenting style that puts a great amount of pressure on the person to perform and present themselves in a certain way.

Those with Golden Child Syndrome, or contingent self-esteem, tend to become very codependent on their parents, who use psychological techniques like love bombing and gaslighting to control their actions. This leads many of these children to tie their self-worth to the praise of family members. They will also have an extreme fear of failure and exhibit signs of anxiety and stress over small missteps.

While we all want our kids to achieve, they are human beings and failure is inevitable in life. It is how we learn and grow. Whether you have multiple kids or an only child it is imperative that you remember that the role of a parent is to applaud their successes but to also console them during their downfalls. This lets them know that they are allowed to fail and that these events do not define them as a person.

Being The Golden Child Impacts A Child’s Sense Of Self

happy asian Family, parents and their children holding trophy in park together.

Clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., notes that “these kids have gotten onto an endless treadmill of constantly having to prove their worth through accomplishments or other signs of external approval. This makes children terribly vulnerable. If they struggle to learn something, make a mistake, experience a setback, or just encounter someone who performs better than they do, they feel hopelessly flawed.”

Regrettably, once this type of narcissistic abuse begins, it can be very hard for a kid to recover. If a child feels as if they cannot meet the expectations put forth by their toxic family, it can have detrimental psychological impacts that follow them throughout their whole life. It can also cause them to develop narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the Mayo Clinic, this “is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” Unfortunately, empathy is crucial in building meaningful connections in life and effectively communicating in different situations.

Moreover, these narcissistic traits can follow them into adulthood, impacting their future relationships and job success. Surprisingly, this condition can also cause low self-esteem, which can play a big role in a person’s mental health.

The Scapegoat Child: The Other End of The Spectrum

Frustrated kid girl feels upset, offended or bored ignoring avoiding worried parents and brother

Conversely, for every golden child, there is also normally a scapegoat in the mix. This is the child who gets the brunt of the blame when bad things arise in a dysfunctional family. Essentially, the scapegoat role is to be the antithesis of the golden child.

According to Psychology Today, this proverbial ‘black sheep’ “is part of a family’s collective, unconscious psychological projection process in which they essentially defer and outsource the pain, tension, and anxiety felt within their dysfunctional system onto one person who then psychologically, and sometimes physically, ‘holds’ the emotional energy of the family.”

In other words, the scapegoated child is constantly put down by toxic parents for the mistakes of others. Additionally, this title is often assigned simply based on the child’s gender, birth order, or the fact that a favorite child has already been selected. Unfortunately, feeling like the outcast of the family is another form of emotional abuse that can also have harmful impacts on a person’s self-esteem and mental state.

How To Avoid Becoming A Narcissistic Parent 

Whether intentional or not, people have preferences. Language and non-verbal communication are two of the subtle ways that you could be giving your child the impression that they fall in a certain category. In order for a family system to work, favoritism, as well as expectations that are out of reach, need to be left at the door. Here are ways to help that happen.

Avoid Stereotypes for Your Kids 

First and forecast, do not try to fit your family into the stereotypical mold that social media dictates. Being ‘normal’ and being ‘extraordinary’ are subjective terms based on a person’s viewpoint of the world. Narcissism has no place in a family dynamic. It squanders a child’s ability to flourish into the person that they are supposed to become.

Take On Healthy Family Roles

The responsibility of a parent is to be a teacher, a disciplinarian, and a nurturer. The child's role should solely be to learn and grow. Their successes and failures should never define the family unit. Moreover, while you may want them to follow in your footsteps, it is best to let them freely explore their passions and interests without the pressure to veer in a certain direction.

Always Look At The Big Picture

Children interpret the world literally. They do not see the big picture — just the pieces that make it up. This means that while you can build distinguishable bonds with adult children, kids do not always understand the reason behind individualized relationships. Thus, it is your job to fill any voids that they may believe are present.

For instance, if your sons love basketball and you watch games with them every weekend, you may be inadvertently making your daughter, who doesn’t love the sport, feel like she is the outcast of the group. That is not to say that you shouldn’t engage with your boys, but it is important that you find a different activity that interests both you and your daughter to ensure that she feels that your relationship is being fulfilled.

Use Positive Communication Techniques

Laughing african parents with little daughter and son play on couch in living room

Our words are extremely powerful. Positive reinforcement is imperative in building a child’s confidence. However, comparisons can have the opposite result. Even if your child is misbehaving, using phrasing like “why can’t you act more like your sister?” implies that one child is better than the other. This can have a negative subconscious impact on a child’s perception of their role in the family.

Moreover, be present and supportive in both their successes and failures. During these interactions, utilize active listening. You want your child to feel heard when they express their feelings and concerns. Finally, tell your kids that you are proud of them for big and little accomplishments.

Remove Your Children From Negative Situations

Finally, they say that family is forever, but if those individuals are playing a harmful role in your child’s mental health, your job as a parent is to remedy the situation. Therefore, if your mother-in-law or brother is making your child feel like the family scapegoat, they do not need to be present in their life.

While this can be an extremely hard decision, a parent’s job is to protect their child above all else. You can still have a private relationship with these people, but they have no place in your child’s life if they are not willing to alter their behaviors.

However, ensuring that your child has no contact with these types of people will obviously be much harder if the child has a narcissistic father or mother. In these instances, you need to first talk to your spouse about their behavior and the role that it can play in your child’s future health. Ask them to work on being more aware of their words and actions.

If they are not willing to change, then it is your job to continue to support and encourage your child in positive ways. Furthermore, never criticize the other parent in front of the child. You want to model good behaviors and not make the scapegoat child feel more at fault than they already do.

For more on how to support all of your kids, check out our 75 Phrases and Words of Encouragement for Kids of All Ages