6 Sad Reasons Why A Family Creates A Black Sheep

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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 

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.

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


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
MartyFan - August 28, 2023 Reply

Yes! I think we should look into this issue of having a black sheep in our family.

Disappointed - August 24, 2023 Reply

I’m middle child of five children, I was always the black sheep of the family, I was the bright child with higher understanding, my father had alcohol problem. My mother was weak and terrified of my father and her family were scared of my father that’s why they never supported us..I was abused from my older sister, she had a temper and the first 4 are close by age and the fifth child came 15 years later! I was the hard working sister made good money and took care of them! And that became like a duty! I was always more successful. I left my hometown to get married and moved to another country! I’m the only one almost always calls them, go to visit and at the end they are always unhappy with something

    RAS - September 18, 2023 Reply

    Leave them in the dust! You will feel SO much better! It won’t happen immediately but when you suddenly find yourself having fun on holidays, looking forward to getting together with friends, etc, it will suddenly come to you: you love having the freedom to go and do what you want without the angst these anchors put you through! And they ARE anchors, weighing you down, putting you down and mocking you. Once you are free of these freeloading losers, you will find yourself looking forward to new things and exploring ways you can grow without being mocked or bullied! I know. My two sisters are narcissistic bullies. I hadn’t thought of them for years until I just saw something on line. Apparently the losers are putting together a family reunion. As near as I can tell, it has been an annual event. Though I would not mind seeing some cousins, based on an event a few years ago, I know the two I will call Dewillza and Anastasia have thoroughly brainwashed the family into their psycho world. When you are not there to defend yourself, who knows what psychos say behind your back? I was intrigued by the title of this article. I knew I would find others similarly bullied and tormented by siblings. I saw your dilemma and I just have to say-hold your head up! Don’t let these monkeys bring you down. Life is sweeter when you can wake up every day, not having to fit the mold that bullies create for you. Rather, break the mold and flourish! You will never regret it. I am almost 70 years old. I lost my son when he was 17 years old. My sisters were awful at his funeral. My father was even worse. I will NEVER allow them the opportunity to make me sad or anxious again.

Matthew - August 20, 2023 Reply

My family treats me like trash. I wish I never knew any of them because they are terrible human beings. Mean spirited and always bringing me down. They are bad people

AJ - July 30, 2023 Reply

my father doesn’t seem to like me as his daughter. i think he wants a son back then but unfortunately i became a daughter. every time he see’s a boy he was very happy but when he talks to me its seems like no happy world in his life. he even dare the situation of what if I was the one got bitten by my own cat. it seems like he wants me to die at a young age.. i want to get out in the said comfort zone. i thought family matters, i thought family is my comfort zone but i was wrong.

    Colette - August 1, 2023 Reply

    Sorry they hurt you, I can relate. We’re better off without them. Now learning about CPTSD from early childhood neglect. EMDR has been helpful.

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