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Elizabeth Dorrance Hall Ph.D.

Be an Ally to Your Family’s "Black Sheep" During the Holidays

Research-based strategies for making your family "black sheep" feel included.

Source: JESHOOTS/Pexels

For the “black sheep” of the family, the holidays can be an especially stressful time. Societal expectations that holidays are spent with families of origin require people who do not see their families during the holidays to explain why not over and over again.

Those who do see their families but don't feel like they belong or feel excluded from their families are likely entering an emotionally taxing time of the year. If you know a "black sheep," as these marginalized family members are known, you can help make this time of the year a little easier for them.

My research shows that events like family holiday parties, Christmas services, and formal dinners are times when marginalized family members (black sheep) report feeling either very excluded and disapproved of or very included. This was surprising to me—the same events could make one person feel bad and another feel better.

It turns out that it wasn’t the event itself that made someone feel excluded, but the communication that occurred at the event that mattered. This means that the holidays are a great opportunity to make a family member who usually feels different and ostracized feel like they belong instead.

You can do this by being an ally and following the five strategies I've outlined below to make the holidays a little less of a burden for a family member that identifies as different.

1. Make sure they feel included.

Marginalized family members, or black sheep, in my research report that they can feel marginalized and excluded one minute and included the next at family gatherings depending on what is going on. Be aware and use perspective-taking to identify when your family member might feel excluded. Extend an invitation to play a game or join you on the couch watching a movie. You may think, “Oh, they’re family, I don’t need to formally invite them,” but gestures like these can go a long way if your family member is feeling like they don’t belong.

2. Don’t single them out.

Unwanted attention can further strain relationships and make your family member feel even more uncomfortable in a probably already uncomfortable situation. So pay attention to them, but not too much attention. This is a fine line that you likely know better than anyone if you know the person well.

3. Ask about their lives, but don’t pry, especially when you are in front of others.

They may not feel comfortable talking about certain aspects of their lives in front of anyone. If you think they would benefit from talking about their personal lives, these conversations may be best had one-on-one over a drink or two. If you can steal away for some one-on-one time with your family member, you can build and maintain your relationship while letting them know you are on their side.

Remember to provide emotional support and help them analyze their problems before offering advice (if you offer advice at all). Research has found that the sequence of giving advice matters and that emotional support should come before problem analysis. Advice should come last if at all. I would steer clear of offering advice unless they ask for it explicitly. People tend to dislike unsolicited advice they did not ask for.

4. Help steer the conversation clear of topics that might make your black sheep family member feel alienated, outcasted, or different.

If you can, have a conversation with your family member first to find out whether they feel comfortable talking about X. X is usually whatever it is about them that is “different” from the rest of the family—it could be politics, values, interests, religion, or relationships. Well-meaning family members may bring up these issues thinking they are making harmless small talk or just catching up on the person’s life. If that happens—or worse, someone brings up the issue to make your black sheep family member feel bad on purpose—you can jump in and bring up a new topic.

5. Let your black sheep family member know you are happy to see them and that you are happy they are taking part in the family gathering.

Letting a loved one know they are important to you and you want to spend time with them is called assurances, and is an important relationship maintenance strategy. This strategy is likely even more important for family members who do not feel like they belong the way the rest of the members of the family do. Unlike other family members, assurances like “you are important to me” and “I love you” may not be a given for the black sheep. Family events can be really hard to show up for if your family member knows they will likely leave feeling disapproved of or bad about themselves and their family relationships, so be sure to let them know you are happy to see them and that they are there.

Are you an ally to a black sheep family member? How do you let them know? What do you do to make them feel welcome and comfortable during the holidays? Share in the comments below.