Once again, I want to engage in a conversation with young people. Why? Because I feel often times they are so misunderstood and called all manner of names, black sheep of the family perhaps being the most demeaning. The Cambridge English dictionary defines a black sheep as 1. A person who has done something bad that brings embarrassment or shame to his or her family and 2. Someone who embarrasses the family because they are different.

A black sheep is someone who doesn’t follow mainstream ways; someone who doesn’t care what’s in or out. And because he or she chooses to do things differently than live up to his or her parents’ expectations and standards, they may be considered outcasts. The origin of the phrase comes from the rare presence of a sheep with black fleece in a flock of white sheep.

Now think about your family – do you have someone considered the black sheep? Are you yourself the black sheep of the family? If you are a parent, do you have a child who does not conform and so falls, in your judgment, in the category of black sheep?

When others don’t understand you, life can get pretty stressful. Most likely you are labeled a black sheep because of your independence, free thinking and non-conformity. Being excluded or scolded all the time can be humiliating to anyone, more so a young person, and can lower his or her self-esteem. My advice to parents is to stop labeling their children black sheep just because they are different. If you have been called the black sheep of the family, as long as you know there is nothing wrong you have done other than trying to live your life, do not let anyone, least of all your parents and siblings, put you down because you are not like them. You must learn to celebrate your independence.

You become the odd one out when you do not conform to family expectations or you are just simply misunderstood. Perhaps because you chose a career your family finds questionable; you feel staying in the village suits you better than being in the cities or towns; your personal politics are opposite of your parents and other family members; you associate with friends your family does not approve of because they are not of your ‘class’ or from your tribe; or you have a different sexual orientation. Whatever the reason, you are different and this is why you are labeled the black sheep.

But look at it this way; being different can be a very healthy thing. Choosing a path or lifestyle that is different from your family reflects your autonomy and independence. It means you have learnt to follow what’s in your interest, instead of letting yourself be guided by others’ wishes. This is something worth celebrating. Maintaining relationships with people who question or disapprove of your choices can be extremely stressful. Here is how you can be a happy family black sheep.

Don’t explain your choices

If you abandoned your science degree to venture into music, don’t expend a lot of energy trying to defend your decision to family members who find creative artists slightly suspicious. If you are a man and wear dreadlocks and this doesn’t go down well with some family members, let them know it’s their problem not yours. If you have tattoos and you are expected to defend your choice, don’t even try – if whoever is asking you has already stereotyped tattoos as choices of drug dealers, your story will not mean much to them and you will be wasting your energy.

You will soon realise that those you are explaining yourself to would really never be convinced and your willingness to participate in such discussions just makes them think your choices are open for discussion. Constantly defending yourself only gets you tangled up in more arguments. The more you explain, the more material you give them to rebut. So, instead of trying to justify yourself, learn to silence critical relatives with a firm but polite message: “This is my choice and I am happy to live my life this way’.  They may still not be convinced but at least this stops the family bickering about your choices.

Get to know family members one-on-one

Extended family members are the ones who are most likely to misunderstand and judge you. To them, anything that does not fit the family mold, such as your sexual orientation or the way you dress, is considered odd. If you suspect some extended family members are judging you unfairly, try to get closer to them so they can get to understand you. Try and spend some one-on-one time with them. Aunties, particularly, can be horrible judges! When you get to know someone as an individual, it’s harder for them to automatically characterise you as the odd one out or the black sheep.

Focus on what you have in common

A lot of times when people are labeled the black sheep of the family, they react by being rebellious. But that doesn’t get you anywhere. Choosing to drink or engage in other harmful behavior does not help you in any way. You may decide to move from home because you feel misunderstood and this is bringing in a lot of arguments. That is fine. While this is your choice and everyone should respect it, you should always remember that your family will always be your family. Try to concentrate on things that you share, like your history, your common spiritual and political values and so keep them close to you. Try inviting your parents to your new home so they can share with you new experiences and always remind them whatever your choices, they will always be your family