The American Psychological Association defines displacement as the transfer of feelings or behavior from the originating source to another person or thing. It is considered a defense mechanism where the person releases tensions associated with fear and hostility and takes them out on a less threatening target. Evidence of this occurs in children who may get angry at a parent and break a toy or yell at their sibling, instead of directing their anger at the parent.

For example, an employee frustrated with work may go home and take out their aggression on their spouse to release the tension they feel they cannot release towards their boss. Displaced aggression is directing hostility away from the source of the aggression and can lead to self-harm or harm towards others. Conversely, direct aggression aims aggressive behavior at the source of the anger.

A scapegoat in the dysfunctional family model is the person targeted as the source of frustration and displaced aggression. They are blamed for family issues and misfortunes, when, in fact, the whole family has roles to play and responsibilities for the development and persistence of the dysfunctional family.

Dr. Paul Steinhauer, a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Toronto, explained what makes a child a scapegoat within a family back in 1978 that still rings true today. Dr. Steinhauer described a situation in which the development of a child as a scapegoat resulted from a mother’s pent-up guilt and frustration due to the death of the child’s father. The mother’s negative feelings became displaced onto the child, who then assumed the scapegoat role.

Various circumstances may lead to displacement issues from parents onto children. For example, a child conceived to save a marriage may fall victim to displaced feelings and resentments from either parent, particularly when the marriage dissolves anyway. It becomes a cycle of dysfunction in which the child endures displaced tensions and aggression from a parent, and they begin to act out and assume the scapegoat role, furthering their parent’s aggression and tensions towards them. These negative emotions can lead to self-harm, adolescent substance use, and subsequent addictions.

Seeking Help?

Displacement is a common occurrence in dysfunctional families, and particularly when dealing with addiction to drugs or alcohol. The pain of certain life events can cause someone to lash out and displace anger onto their family members. Anger and unresolved issues can lead to addictions to drugs or alcohol, and when left unresolved, these issues become worse. Addiction affects not only the addicted individual but their friends and family as well. At Fort Worth Recovery, we understand the multi-faceted face of addiction and seek to provide a safe, nurturing atmosphere for lifelong recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, call us today at 844.332.1807 or visit us online.


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