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Are You the Black Sheep of Your Family?

New research identifies five ways to cope and stay resilient.

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Being the black sheep* of the family is undeniably hard. Black sheep, or marginalized family members, are treated differently, excluded, or disapproved of by the rest of the family. People are considered "black sheep" for a wide variety of reasons, including leaving the family religion, not following prescribed gender roles, having different values or beliefs than the rest of the family, or loving/marrying an “undesirable” partner.

Recent research identified five ways marginalized family members stay resilient despite their stressful position in the family. Resilience is all about adapting, moving forward, and coping with marginalization without ignoring or forgetting about one's negative family experiences. The five strategies described below come from interviews with black sheep from across the United States.

1. Seek support from your communication networks.

Resilient marginalized family members invest in the relationships in their lives that are genuine and loving. They focus on those who include them, which tend to be select siblings, extended family members, and friends. They also seek support from who they refer to as “adoptive kin” or their "chosen" families. These are people who fulfill family roles and functions, but are not necessarily related to them. To be resilient, lean on your alternative networks for support.

2. Rebuild while recognizing your negative experiences.

Focusing on the positive impact of the challenges they have faced can be a powerful way to stay resilient despite being a marginalized family member. Be proud of your differences. Focus on the ways you are stronger today because of what you have been through. For example, some marginalized family members shared that they sought higher education to support themselves, just in case their families disowned them or refused to support them later in life. This is a positive outcome from a negative situation. Try to reframe your marginalization as positive even while acknowledging that it is painful.

3. Create and negotiate boundaries with family members.

Creating physical distance from family by moving away or limiting face time tends to protect marginalized family members from future interactions that are marginalizing. Other marginalized family members simply restrict what they talk about with their family. They have surface-level conversations that avoid sensitive topics. You can draw physical and psychological boundaries around yourself for protection.

4. Downplay the experience of being marginalized.

Some marginalized family members insist that their marginalization does not bother them. They do this through reducing the influence their family relationships have on their lives: for example, claiming that their mom can’t guilt-trip them anymore. For these marginalized family members, family opinions become less valuable over time. You can change the meaning of your marginalization by changing the way you think about it.

5. Live authentically, despite your family's disapproval.

These marginalized family members decided that being true to who they are was more important than fitting into a mold determined by their parents. Despite knowing the consequences of being different and going against their family’s wishes, these marginalized family members were proud, and valued their identities over their family’s acceptance of them. This resilience strategy seemed to be the most fueled by anger and frustration about the inflexibility in values held by family. Be true to who you are, even if it means being disapproved of by your family.

*The term black sheep historically refers to the recessive gene for black wool in sheep. Black wool cannot be dyed and therefore was worth less, making black sheep less desirable to farmers. The term “black sheep” is used in my research recruitment materials as it is the colloquial phrase known in the U.S. for family member marginalization. My work recognizes that the term links blackness with undesirability and therefore I use the more precise conceptual label of “family member marginalization” wherever possible.

Want to learn more about each of these strategies? Check out this Relationship Matters podcast to hear me speak about each of them in more detail.

Last month I wrote about three different family-distancing processes, one of which is being a marginalized family member. You can also learn about family estrangement and parent-child alienation here.


Dorrance Hall, E. (online first). The communicative process of resilience for marginalized family members. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407516683838

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