6 Sad Reasons Why A Family Creates A Black Sheep

I’m the black sheep of my family,”

said the young man who sat before me in my therapy office. I tried to imagine this adorable, sad young man being the “black sheep” of anything. I couldn’t.

Generally considered the outcast of the family, the black sheep is typically assumed to be an oddball. Furthermore, the rest of the family believes that the black sheep brought this upon himself.

It is true that sometimes the black sheep is indeed “odd” by anyone’s standards (sometimes the result of a hidden mental illness). Or she may be a sociopath who violates the family’s boundaries and care, so that the family has to exclude her to rightfully protect themselves.

But surprisingly, very seldom is either of these scenarios actually the case. Many, many black sheep are lovable folks with much to offer their families and the world. In fact, they are often the best and brightest. They may be the most creative of the family, or the one with the most powerful emotions.

In truth, the world is full of black sheep. Think hard. Does your family have one? This question is not as easy to answer as it may seem, for many black sheep are not physically excluded from the family. For most, it’s much more subtle. The exclusion is emotional. 

Three Signs That Your Family Has a Black Sheep: 

  1. One member often, over a long period of time, seems hurt or angry for no apparent reason.
  2. One person is often, and on a long-term basis, talked about negatively behind his back. “He’s so annoying,” “What a weirdo/disappointment/loser/fill in the blank.”
  3. One member is subtly not invited to certain family occasions or left out of the loop on family news. 

So if most black sheep aren’t actually weirdos who brought their exclusion upon themselves, what would cause a family to treat one of their own this way? The real cause does not lie within any individual family member. No. Instead it’s a product of family dynamics.

Here are the sources that I see most often.

The Six Top Family Dynamics Which Result in a Black Sheep:

  1. The child who has the least in common with the parents. This child sticks out because of his personality, temperament or interests. The parents are baffled by him and inadvertently treat him differently, which spreads to the siblings.
  2. The best and the brightest. This child threatens to outperform or outshine one or both of the parents. Either consciously or unconsciously, the parents sabotage her to hold her back. This way, they won’t lose her and they won’t have to feel badly about themselves in comparison to her.
  3. The child most prone to depression or anxiety. The child with intense or dark feelings or thoughts which the parents cannot understand may frighten them. At a loss about how to help, they may just keep him at a distance.
  4. Sibling rivalry. In this family, there is simply not enough attention or love to go around. One or both of the parents is limited in some way; by mental illness, personality disorder, or substance abuse for example. The siblings must jockey for whatever they can get.
  5. A parent who despises himself deep down. This parent can appear to be quite loving of her children, so she can be difficult to spot. But she is unable to tolerate certain aspects of herself, so she projects those traits onto a chosen child, and despises him instead. It is an unconscious coping mechanism that happens outside of the parent’s awareness.
  6. Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): the child who is the most invisible. In this family, all of the children may get the subtle (or not-so-subtle) message that their feelings don’t matter. But one is better at hiding his own needs, feelings, and self than the others. This child literally disappears from the family’s radar screen and is ignored. He becomes persona non grata. He is the one who matters the least.

With any of the six causes above, the excluded or targeted child senses early on that he must be different, bad or inferior. In a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, he learns to play his role in the family. Often, he plays it very well.

What should you do if you recognize your family in these words? It is indeed difficult to turn around entrenched family dynamics like these.  But you can make a difference:

Choose to see your family through a more complex lens.

Ask yourself: Is this right? Is this the person that I want to be? Is this how I want to treat my sibling or child?

Share this article with chosen members of your family.

Look at your black sheep with fresh eyes and notice what you’ve never seen before.

Open your heart and your little section of the family circle.

Let your black sheep know that you reclaim him.

If you are a Black Sheep:

You are right to be baffled and confused. Nothing is as simple as it has always seemed. Know that you have value. And it is not your fault. Watch for a future post: Message to the Black Sheep of the World.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how and why it happens, and how it affects all of the children in the family see Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships 

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral


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Patrick OBrien - November 18, 2018 Reply

I can relate to most of the above comments (I am the 2nd child in a family of 5 ), I had a bad fall out with my oldest brother after my Dads funeral 4 1/2 years ago in Ireland we have not spoken since ( what he said to me and going behind my back to my brothers and spinning the story to make me look bad ) My father sent both of us to boarding school ( this affected both of us badly) my father would have us work for him (a workaholic) during all school breaks and college break , after college this brother emigrated to NY and the burden was placed on me to step into the family business which often was a 7 day week job due to the nature of the business, I ended up also emigrating some years later and was later talked into coming back to work for my family , (family loyalty I guess ) this lasted 7 months when I emigrated again to never come back except for short visits, my oldest brother and his wife are without doubt the most horrible people I have ever met in my entire life , we live in the USA different states we have not had any family get together in 17 years our kids only get to see each other at family events in Ireland they have met less than 5 times in their entire life my eldest is in College my middle a junior in HS and my youngest a 6th grader , this same brother uses everyone in the family and spins things to make me the F’ up in the family , my relationship with the rest of over the years has gotten distant and unless I call my siblings they never call , my desire to see my siblings isn’t there anymore so yes I do feel like the black sheep of the family , I’m blessed that I married a great woman and have 3 children that have great values and get along great .

Sandra - November 18, 2018 Reply

I’m the youngest of 10 siblings and have always felt different and the odd one out. I’ve never understood why I’m treated differently it does have an effect on your confidence and your self worth… I’ve been left out on so may family gatherings and no one seems to care if this has hurt me. I’ve now lost contact with my family and no one cares enough to see if I’m a live or dead, I feel that I’m invisible

    Barbara - November 25, 2018 Reply

    Im sorry to hear that. Im third. 2 other sisters were always jealous.Of me , things I have , even though I ve mostly spent it travelling. Now I ve returned and Im invisible. Never invited on Christmas or other occasions….and I broke my relationship to return home. I can only count on myself. I should do like you. I did a mistake to return here….

Richard Kram - November 17, 2018 Reply

I definitely fit the black sheep mold. My parents had 4 children, then a 6 year gap, then me…. the mistake. Probably the bigger issue is their follow up was twin sibling 14 months after me. Well those boys stole the show and I was shuffled off to whomever didn’t get a twin to hold. I was sent to my aunt & uncle’s farm alot. Which should have been wonderful, but I always felt like I was second fiddle to the “amazing” twins. Fast forward 50 years and I am by far the least successful and for the most part estranged from my family. I hope to change this.

Amy - October 22, 2018 Reply

This article has helped explain so much. I’m 42 and my entire life I’ve been treated differently. My sisters used to tell me that my mom used to gossip and say bad things about me. Almost like brain washing them against me. I don’t get invited to anything and I’m basically the family babysit ter. It’s like they enjoy using me. I’m disabled and they say I’m faking even though I have doctors to prove it. My heart is so broken. It’s really sad.

Lisa - October 14, 2018 Reply

I am that black sheep. At 47, this year I buried the last of my 3 immediate family members. Alone, I attended an Aunts funeral today, to realize while looking at the photo boards, that there have been decades of functions and milestone events that I was excluded from. Learned from my cousins best friend from high school, that I am the “crazy” cousin. However, I’m not quite sure what “crazy” stories can be out there because outside of funerals, I do not see my family. Hurtful and confusing enough to say the least. Sadly my night ended with an 80yo Aunt ask me very aggressively, if I’m mad at her & her family because since my dad died I haven’t called them? I gently explained that no, I’m not upset w anybody. That I’m still grieving from burying my last family member. And with that said, I was met with a shoulder shrug and she turned and left.

    Jonice - October 14, 2018 Reply

    Dear Lisa, I’m sorry the family you have left offers you so little. I know that is painful, and I hope you’ll work on creating your own sense of family among the people in your life who enjoy and support you.

Peter - September 22, 2018 Reply

Great article. I can see my life in there. I’m the oldest son and the sensitive one in the family, just like my dad, except he is ashamed for his sensitivity. He bullied me and my sensitivity my entire life and competed with me whenever he could, no matter how young I was. I became a shadow of myself. I don’t know if my brothers and sisters ever fully realised what damaging role they played in this. I’m no contact now. Looking forward to your future post.

    Jonice - September 25, 2018 Reply

    I’m sorry this happened to you Peter. You didn’t deserve it. I hope you are being kind to yourself in every way.

    heidi schleifer - October 8, 2018 Reply

    I completely relate. I am no contact as of today. What a terribly lonely and depressing thing. I often wonder why or how I could make it better. But I can’t change anyone and so it goes…..I am sure you are a kind, giving and selfless person that they never took the time to really get to know.

Alison - September 27, 2017 Reply

Thank you for this insightful article, Dr. Webb. I am one of these black sheep and now I understand more about the situation. I am different from all members of my immediate family but that’s okay.

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