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Unspoken Rules

00202009Years ago, I facilitated many parenting classes for Kaiser Permanente Health Education. We helped parents identify the needs of their children and the importance of establishing rules, structure and communication within the family.

If children know what is expected of them, they will know how to comply.  They will understand the consequences of their choices, good or bad and know that they are making those choices.

When children are unsure, there is an undercurrent of not knowing what to do.

Family Meetings

One way for parents to set rules and structure is to do hold periodic family meetings.  In these meetings kids are able to give their input while parents make the final decisions.  Here rules and responsibilities can be discussed and chores and household tasks set for everyone. It is here where the family can discuss vacation options and review different outside schedules.


While family meetings can provide a prototype or guide for positive family interaction, many of us have grown up with “unspoken rules” and expectations. Instead of a clear understanding of what is acceptable and required, these unspoken rules were not openly acknowledged or discussed, even though everybody knew they were there. And you were not allowed to talk about them.

Children require structure. They need to know what is expected of them and why. They need to know they can make choices and that all choices will have some kind of consequence.  There can be rewards and there may be privileges removed. It is here where children learn how to make important choices.

Well defined rules are an important part of parenting. Spoken rules include such things as “Don’t talk with your mouth full” or “It is not polite to ignore someone when they are talking to you”. They establish what you can and cannot do: “You can go out and play after you have finished your homework” or “It is you turn this week to take the dishes out of the dishwasher.”

When rules are openly acknowledged or discussed, there is no confusion about what is expected.

When expectations and rules are not discussed in the family, but you nevertheless are expected to know them, it can create an atmosphere of uncertainty, distrust, fear and anxiety.

Here are some of these unspoken rules

  • Don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel. If there is a problem, you don’t talk about it and you don’t tell outsiders. People outside the family are not to be trusted with family problems. You are not allowed to feel; only to accept or discuss on an unemotional level.
  • It is not okay to be angry or show anger. There is often a double standard for girls and boys. Women could feel unhappy and teary, but not show anger while it was more acceptable for the boys as long as it was kept under control
  • You are not allowed to show or express fear, especially if you are a man
  • Emotions in general are not to be expressed. Even with the loss of a pet or death of a grandparent, the unspoken rule was you suffer in silence – you did not openly grieve.
  • Sad feelings are not allowed. You are expected to put on a happy face and keep a “stiff upper lip”. You may have been told, “Don’t act like a baby.”
  • Arguing is not okay. You are expected to be agreeable at all times even if you are seething inside. The Rule: if you get angry, go away until you have cooled down and then return with a smile and be ready to be a part of the group.

Uncovering your family rules

Unspoken rules often follow us into adulthood. They can keep us from being honest and genuine in our relationships. Many of those rules center around conflict and expressing emotions. To replace or change these old rules, we need to first recognize them.

  • What were some of your family rules?
  • Did you know what was expected of you?
  • As a kid could you talk about your feelings?
  • Were there different rules for different people in the family?
  • Which rules held important values and principles that you want to continue within your own family?
  • Which do you find unhealthy and you want to change or replace?
  • How were disputes and conflicts handled?

We are not condemned to repeat the past or be governed by old rules. If we know what behaviors are helpful and which are not, we can change them. A good therapist might be beneficial in helping with this process.

Marlene Anderson


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