Bringing back black sheep

There are many reasons for a relative to be estranged from family — and to bring them back

Special to The TribuneOctober 27, 2011 

Black sheep are those family members who have been shunted to the periphery of the clan. For instance, an aunt has been shunned by her siblings, hasn’t heard from her family in years and is mentioned only in disparaging whispers.

Such outcasts are not welcome at family gatherings. Their presence creates discomfort at graduations, weddings and funerals. In fact, everything about these personae non gratae elicits a negative response from the kinfolk.

Black sheep are not unusual. Every family seems to have at least one. Some treat entire flocks as pariahs.

Often the label is understandable. Designated misfits behave badly in social settings. Perhaps they get drunk and become rude and aggressive toward their in-laws. They might bring up inflammatory topics that inevitably lead to arguments. They can arrive late to events, be accompanied by uninvited partners, and be dressed in inappropriate attire.

Alcoholism, substance abuse and mental illness are often responsible for the bizarre antics. Conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can impair a person’s ability to function normally in a familial setting.

But other situations aren’t as clear cut. The black sheep’s behavior is generally appropriate. They maintain longstanding and meaningful relationships in their jobs and in the community.

Still, they are scorned by segments of the family. Stories abound about their purported indiscretions. The events may have happened years — even generations — ago. They may have nothing to do with present members. Yet they are retold within the confines of the clan and used to besmirch the exile’s character.

If someone in the family opts to befriend the outcast, he or she risks alienation, too. The polarization assumes a life of its own as folks cling to their perceptions with irrational tenacity.

Of course, when a relative poses a physical threat to someone in the family, it’s imperative that all contact be avoided. Fortunately few situations require such drastic measures.

The impact of estrangements is far-reaching. The family unit, a structure intended to provide safety for its members, becomes a vehicle for inflicting emotional pain.

Both sides are equally damaged. The exiled person feels rejected. Shunners are psychologically rigid. Their exclusion also fosters insecurity. Although they’re the enforcers in this situation, they could be the recipients next time around.

Judgment and exclusion become a family pattern. Once one member is booted from the fold, it’s easier to ostracize the next.

Finally, members miss out on a sense of cohesion. Yes, some folks are more difficult than others. But they needn’t lose their family membership. Demonstrating inclusion and acceptance throughout the bloodline releases you from emotional bondage and serves as a great role model for others to follow.

Bringing black sheep back to the flock

Need help dealing with the black sheep in your clan?

Try these suggestions:

• Be honest about your own behavior. Recognize if you’ve excised certain family members from your life. You may be blaming them for what’s happened. The real problem may be you.

• Live in the present. Still harboring anger about what a person did in the past? Let it go. Stop eating yourself up with your negative thoughts. And quit punishing the black sheep for what happened long ago.

• Develop a new relationship. Decide to accept all your kinfolk into your life. They needn’t have BFF (best friends forever) status. Still, they deserve a spot on your emotional roster.

• Take the first step. Call them on the phone. Friend them on Facebook. Send them a holiday card. Even the smallest gesture can have a huge impact.

• Develop a workable relationship. Seek out topics you can discuss or activities you can share. Perhaps you talk baseball with your long-lost nephew or ask your mother’s great aunt about her childhood. You don’t have to be riveted by these conversations. They allow you to successfully interact.

• Accept the response. Once you’ve made contact with exiled family members, the ball is in their court. They will decide what the next step will be. Your task is to wait and see what happens.

• Keep the door open. You’re changing the rules on an old family game. The outcast may not be ready to accept your terms.

Make it clear your acceptance is longstanding. Then place the welcome mat permanently at the front door.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit

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