Have Black Sheep In Your Family? How To NOT Have Them At All

black sheep

There will be no black sheep in your family if you learn conflict resolution.

There is a silent epidemic devastating family relationships around us and it is a persistent use of alienation to manage conflicts.

Of course, family conflicts are every day's bread and one of our developmental tasks in life is to learn how to understand and manage our interpersonal conflicts. It's our job in life to learn how to connect with other people's anger and frustration and listen, understand and solve disputes, right? Not only for managers, but for parents, friends, business people, in short, everybody.

Family conflicts are a tough kind of conflicts because they develop like onions: different layers, different meanings and always a core of old childhood hurt feelings waiting for revenge.

What I see now is not so much the frequency of family conflicts, (always there!) but a different attitude in large scale: people now are giving up the whole relationship due to the interpersonal conflict, using alienation to expel that person from the family group. "Out of sight — we think — there is no more conflict..."

As time passes and as those family members miss crucial landmarks like weddings and birthday parties and funerals, the hardening of affection towards the isolated person grows.

Of course, there is a lot of hurt and resentment building up here and no learning. Those alienated family members are always in the shadows around us, pop up unexpectedly in old family pictures and force us to offer a weak answer to our children's questions:

  • "Who is this person in the picture?"
  • "So, I have a living aunt? why don't we see her and her family any more?"
  • "How is it possible that we are members of the same family and have grown up together,but now we don't talk with them anymore?"
  • "How terrible was what they did to us, so the only thing we could do was to ignore them forever?"
  • "Was there a time when they loved us?"

Why is this happening now? We can observe several reasons that sometimes clump together to build up the family estrangement as conflict-solving strategy. People are so entrenched in their own visión of the situation (forgetting that there is another side of the coin), not wanting to take time and energy to cross the divide and connect with the other side's perspective. People want to avoid examining their own participation in the rift (were there any misperceptions that made it happen as an insult but was only a confusion? Was I too fast to take offense?)

Childhood emotions, strong and hidden, are always present and now they use the present dispute to reaffirm what we always knew: "she has been rejecting me since I was born; or there were only prizes and accolades for my brother, but nobody appreciated me ever..." Now, when we are adults, we can take an isolationist position without remorse. It looks like we are protecting ourselves from more hurt by ostracizing that relative from our carefully designed lives now. It looks even rational to our friends. "you need to protect yourself from your mother's eternal criticism. It's best to go 'no contact.' She will learn in time that she can't humiliate you anymore with her sarcastic comments about you."

Alienation of family members now looks like a rational defensive decision, taken for our personal protection. What we can't see is that this "defensive decision" is exactly the wrong one.

Family conflicts are there to teach us cooperation and mutual understanding; they appear to teach us how to identify the differences that separate us from other relatives and accept the fact that there is no learning in the building up of the alienating wall, only the inability to accept that each one of us can make mistakes and should learn how to reach out to others and apologize.

Given that family alienation brings long term hurt and makes from any rift a chronic opposition, including estrangement, we should begin teaching our children how to reach out to others at the beginning of any dispute.

How do you teach your children that we all have to learn how to process disputes?

  • tell children that there is another side, as important as theirs that they should share
  • support the idea that fights are not so terrible if we learn how to fight well in the future
  • confirm that there is some learning we need to get from any confrontation
  • include in the talk deep feelings of hurt and rejection "I felt like you didn't like me any more" and share them

Also, teach children the magic key:

APOLOGIZE FAST. You don't need to know what exactly was the behavior or comment you did that was offensive,  (because only the receiver knows its impact) but you can always say:

"I apologize for whatever you consider an offense on my part. Perhaps we can talk more so you can tell me how exactly you got hurt? I'm ready to  listen."