Faculty voice:

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall: Family time during the holidays

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. She is also director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab.

December tends to mark a stressful time of the year. The holidays can be especially tough for people who feel marginalized by family, that is, those who feel disapproved of, excluded or different from other family members. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “black sheep” of the family.

My research on marginalized family members has revealed that it is not so much the holidays themselves that prove particularly hard for people who do not quite fit in with their families. Instead, the holidays simply set the stage for strained and/or negative family interactions.

Events that serve as a stage for family interactions that can go poorly are sometimes called "turning points." These events are described by marginalized family members as times they felt more excluded or disapproved of than usual, or, on the other end of the spectrum, times they felt more included and approved of by family.

Many of the turning point interactions fall into well-worn patterns the marginalized family member has experienced before. Dad brings up X topic, brother says Y disparaging remark, mom asks Z personal question.

Despite these patterns, certain events can make marginalized family members feel included depending on how others communicate with them and how they are treated. For example, if my sister is newly pregnant and she tells me before the rest of the family, I might feel more included than usual. The next day, the family could be discussing politics, a topic on which they all agree but I strongly disagree, making me feel ostracized. When the family attends a service for a religion they all share but I have recently decided to leave, and I elect to stay home, their reaction to my decision could make me feel disapproved of and different from them.

Marginalized family members report the times they tend to feel most included are during conversations where they truly feel heard by their families, where parents and siblings are open and they share deep and meaningful stories, challenges or updates. In today’s busy, technology-driven world, we could all use more conversations like these in our lives.

Based on my research, my advice for family members this holiday season is to take a page from those holiday songs and movies and try to be inclusive of different perspectives and life decisions by making all family members feel included in your holiday festivities. Some families find it useful to take certain topics completely off the table as some topics clearly marginalize some members or consistently end in unhealthy conflict.

As for marginalized family members, I suggest taking care of yourself, and making sure you surround yourself with people who treat and care for you like family in addition to those you are related to by blood or legal ties.