Will You Challenge Yourself to Identify ‘Unspoken’ Family Rules?


There are rules and then there are rules. Some rules are explicitly created with the expectation that they would be adhered to with fidelity. Then, there are those ‘under the radar‘ rules-never actually spelled out, never spoken about, and rarely successfully challenged-not while we are children. These types of rules have a significant impact on the relationship dynamics in a family, and can define the boundaries, and expectations of what characterizes everyone’s individual role in the family…. That is, if one is to be considered  ‘valued’, by thinking and behaving within its narrow confines. For children, dysfunctional rules of engagement, by which they have no power to change, can significantly influence well-being and have life-long effects on the ways they navigate future relationships.

There was a time when conventional wisdom among adults and families, regarding children, was that, “Children were meant to be seen, not heard.” In other words, children had no say in most aspects of family life, and their place within that family was to be silently complacent. There was no such thing as speaking up for oneself. In fact, it was called, speaking ‘out of turn’. If a child were to interject his or her thoughts in some matters, they were told to  ‘stay in your place’ or ‘stay out of grown folks business’.

By today’s standards, that may seem archaic and fuel for dysfunction and leaves a child to learn about life, relationships and their own sense of self via trial and error or following old learned  patterns. Being prepared for life did not include developing one’s personal voice        . Children’s roles were clearly defined, and depending upon race and culture, some more rigid than others.

Dysfunctional family definitions often are characterized as having 8 general rules of engagement. Not every rule applies to every family, but every dysfunctional family operate and relate to one another within the dynamics of at least one of the following rules:

  1.   CONTROL- one must be in control of one’s feelings, relationships and behaviors. It is unacceptable to ‘lose yourself in love’ or even act spontaneously at any time.
  2. PERFECTIONISM- one is required to be right at all times and must be right about everything. There is a deeply psychological aspect indicated that most likely stems from the imposed demands from parents onto a child.   Children are taught that their value comes from what they do or produce.                      This unspoken rule teaches you that academic achievement, financial success, Christian service, or some other measure of external success is what makes you worthwhile.  You might feel like you have to be a “good kid” at the expense of being able to make mistakes.  As an adult, you begin to question your value when you make mistakes or fail.
  3. BLAME-SHIFTING-one either blames yourself or blames someone else. Anyone who breaks unspoken family rules becomes the scapegoat, taking on the blame.  If you speak up as a child against these family rules, you get targeted.  Parents may punish severely and blame the child, for example, for the problems the parent now faces. The thing is that children are great observers, but awful as interpreters. When you’re told there’s something wrong with you as a child, you believe it is true, even when clearly, it is not.  Others who break the rules are blamed as well, such as extended family members who attempt to change dysfunctional family dynamics into more healthy patterns.
  4.  DENIAL–Deny one’s feelings, thoughts, perceptions, wants and imaginings.  It is the most extreme refusal to admit or acknowledge dysfunction, abuses and existing problems. Change is therefore a great challenge to this family. Everything is hidden under the rug as there is collective pretending going on that nothing affects you. Children learn to minimize their parent’s drinking when the other parent covers it up, even when it leads to abuse or other problems. Or, imagine domestic violence situations. Children may learn to lie about any injuries they sustain.                                                                                         In adulthood, this can lead to dissociation, where you cut yourself off from any negativity in your life and compartmentalize to avoid distressing thoughts or feelings. You might doubt your perception of reality because it had been questioned for so long as a child.
  5. APPEARANCES ARE EVERYTHING– focus more on the external than the internal. You might learn to put on a good face even when there are problems at home. Body image issues can arise from this rule. You might be taught to wear makeup or be a certain clothing size to hide any emotional distress. You are taught to pretend all is okay on the outside when your emotions are raging on the inside.
  6. GENDER-BASED LIMITATIONS– You are taught that boys should be or girls should be…. Phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘girls should be bows and lace’ are often used to direct behavior. These gender roles can be exacerbated by Christian values that often have little basis in biblical truth.
  7. DON’T FEEL– An analogy to this can be seen in the movie, Frozen. In this movie, Elsa has magical powers that get out of control when she has negative emotions. To manage these powers, her parents isolate her and tell her ‘don’t feel’.                                                                                                                                         It is impossible not to experience negative emotions. They are unacceptable in your family-of-origin, you don’t learn to manage them properly. You might become numb to certain emotions or struggle to control them. Emotions may be seen as a sign of weakness. Another way a child can absorb this unspoken rule is by observing parents’ strong reactions to negative emotions. If a parent becomes abusive while angry, you’re likely to avoid anger out of fear of losing control.

There are more unspoken rules in families. What are the unspoken family rules you experienced growing up? How can you name these rules today so that you can break the patterns?

  •  What were the topics that were off-limits for discussion in your family?
  • What emotions were unacceptable?
  • Where did you tend to place blame when things went wrong? Yourself…others?
  • Is it okay for you to make mistakes? Where does your value come from?
  • What gender roles did you learn from your family?

Personally, I am sure that I learned that there was a certain way to dress when going out. In my family, value was placed on designer clothes, being ‘well-dressed’ and dressing up. There was meticulous care in wardrobe decisions. Today, it is completely internalized. This finds me with ‘champagne taste and beer money'[not completely true] but you get the idea. I am totally obsessed with quality clothes, unique yet timeless. Even at my age, I can admit that much of my sense of self derives from my wardrobe.

There are many problems there, yet some aren’t all bad or unhealthy. On the one hand, taking care about what one wears is a positive. It does indicate a sense of self-pride and a level of standards. On the other hand, I shop too often, collect clothes and they now overflow my closets. Yes closets, plural. Many days, I find myself standing mesmerized, for far too long, confused as to which outfit to wear. As a matter of fact, I have been known to make numerous outfit changes before walking out of my front door. I have even gotten into my car, looked down at myself, and unsatisfied, returned indoors to change clothes. That is a  pattern that I work on breaking [almost] every day. But, how I love classic quality clothes!

Actually, my assortment of denim pants has increased. Rarely seen in blue jeans in my adult life, my wardrobe largely consists of suits and skirts, flats and heels [Stuart Weitzman], and [Dooney & Bourke] handbags.[That’s another story to tell, originating from my growing years]  Now, I have about 6 pairs of jeans and will actually wear them outside, not just when cleaning and gardening around the house.

As you reflect on your unspoken family rules, are you becoming more aware of any dysfunctions? Can you identify how they may have impacted your life today?  Let me know how you manage them! If you are a parent, it is important that you become cognizant of your own lived childhood experiences, and the unspoken rules that existed within your family. Once identified, seek to mindfully parent in healthy ways. If you must, find someone to talk to about those old patterns and work to free yourself from imposing the same kinds of demands onto your children. Once again, you are invited to share your own epiphanies here!

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