The Black Sheep Effect

black sheep[Prefer listening to reading? Listen to Episode 26 of the Reconnection Club Podcast, which includes an excerpt from an interview with family black sheep expert Elizabeth Dorrance Hall.]

You’ve likely heard the expression, “the black sheep of the family.” Does your family have a black sheep?

As a therapist, I’ve often heard clients describe themselves as the black sheep of the family. They feel like the odd one out compared to their parents and siblings.

Maybe it’s someone from an athletic family who prefers to stay indoors and read a book.

It could be an artistic type who wants nothing to do with the family business.

Or it could be an introvert who feels like a square peg in a family of extroverts. There are many ways to experience yourself as different from your own kin.

Even if your family accepts you as you are, it’s not easy being the black sheep.

Is your estranged adult child the black sheep of the family? This month, we’ll talk about the influence that might have on the estrangement, and what you can do about it.

The Odd One Out

Many families have a black sheep — someone about whom you could sing that Sesame Street song that goes, “One of these things just doesn’t belong here / One of these things just isn’t the same… ”

Families may love and accept their black sheep, but the black sheep has a much harder time coping with the difference between herself and other family members.

Social scientists tell us that, consciously or unconsciously, groups put constant pressure on members to conform to the norms of the group.

This is as true in loving, close-knit families as it is in a group of, say, Navy SEALs.

Feeling like an outsider in a group is a surprisingly painful state for most of us. It’s probably a holdover from a time when not fitting in could mean rejection, abandonment, and death.

That’s why it takes more emotional effort for a black sheep to hang in there and participate in family activities than it takes the family to embrace the black sheep. Being an insider feels good. Being (or feeling like) an outsider feels bad.

Having a child who’s a black sheep isn’t your fault. Your child may simply be expressing genes belonging to an ancestor who was very different from both you and your child’s other parent. These things happen.

If your estranged adult child is the black sheep of the family and you want to mitigate any negative effects of that, here are some methods to try:

1. Find ways to show respect.

Focus on their areas of expertise no matter what those may be, from finding bargains to identifying insect species. Ask them for their opinions, and listen attentively when they speak.

2. Celebrate, rather than ignore or smooth out, differences.

For instance, a child whose politics contrast with the rest of the family’s may be praised for their independence, civic-mindedness or ability to express themselves clearly and calmly in the face of opposition.

3. Talk about how hard it must be to be a black sheep.

Express regret, if appropriate, for not recognizing this before, or for contributing in any way to their feeling of not-belonging in the family. Show interest in hearing about their experience with this, and then validate, validate, validate.

4. Ask them, or make suggestions, about how you can provide support.

For example, an adult child who’s a vegan might appreciate your educating yourself on what that entails. You could endear yourself by making sure to have a variety of tasty vegan options at family gatherings.

For best results, make this offer with enthusiasm and good cheer, along with apologies for not doing it sooner. Don’t give them any reason to interpret your offer as, “Look how much I’m willing to do for you [exasperated sigh].”

If you take any of the steps above, it might be easier for your child to overcome the black sheep effect that keeps them feeling like they “just don’t belong.”

But keep in mind that you can only do so much for your black sheep. Their temperament is dyed in the wool (!).

Any effort you make to understand and improve the black sheep’s experience might encourage them to take another stab at contact. But ultimately, it’s still their decision. Remember, the timing may not be right even if you do everything well.

If you make these efforts and they choose to keep their distance right now, don’t take it as a failure. You’re investing in the relationship. Good efforts tend to have a cumulative effect over time.

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