SOURCE: Eric Scalise, Ph.D.
Every family has its own unique set of rules.
They are typically established by parents and set the tone for communication, decision-making, and conflict resolution, as well as defining the parameters for how relationships are supposed to function within the home environment. Sometimes these rules are written, perhaps even posted; however, in most cases, they are of the unspoken variety, yet clearly understood as the “norms” of the household.
Here are five such rules I have seen over the course of working with hundreds of families—rules that often create chaos, hurt, and confusion—though you will never see them attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. Their impact often leaves family members, especially children, too afraid to try anything, too hurt to love anybody and too angry to obey.
Let’s unpack them one at a time:
Rule #1 – Don’t Talk
This rule implies that you are not really allowed to share your thoughts, concerns or ideas on almost any matter.
Conflicts, differences of opinion, problem behaviors, etc., are all either completely ignored or quickly silenced. There are no “family” conferences or pow-wows whenever a crisis occurs and avoidance is the name of the game. Take for example, a father who drinks too much. Everyone knows Dad is drinking. Everyone knows Dad comes home drunk sometimes, gets rough with Mom or the kids, but no one talks about what’s going on. It’s like having the proverbial elephant right in the living room. Everyone clearly sees it; everyone can smell it and everyone knows what it’s doing to the carpet. Yet, no one talks about the elephant. Instead, they tiptoe around it, pretending there are no obstacles in the way. Of course, the big “no-no” is that you are not permitted to talk with anyone outside the family circle. This is viewed as being disloyal, even treasonous. Maintaining the “secret” becomes the status quo. Kids who grow up with this rule often have difficulty being open and honest or are timid and unsure of themselves whenever a decision needs to be made.
Rule #2 – Don’t Feel
With this rule, family members are not permitted to express their true feelings and if they attempt to do so, their efforts are usually met with resistance and disdain.
Feelings are shut down, excused away, minimized, made fun of, misinterpreted, or simply discarded as illegitimate. After a while, family members just give up, concluding others don’t honestly care anyway, so why bother putting forth the necessary time and/or emotional labor. Their feelings don’t count in the long run and the thought of transparency becomes too large of a risk, especially when combined with Rule #1. This dynamic results in people who grow up more defensive, suspicious and guarded in their relationships. When asked how they are doing in life, the answer is almost always, “Fine… everything is fine,” even when the world is falling apart all around them. Suffering in silence feels less disappointing or traumatic than rejection by someone who once again may be saying all the right words and using socially acceptable protocols, but isn’t truly interested in having an authentic relationship.
Rule #3 – Don’t Touch
In some families, there is no healthy sense of touch, or the touch that is experienced is hurtful and abusive.
Statistics indicate one out of every 3-4 girls and one out of every 4-5 boys will suffer some form of abuse before they graduate from high school. However, this rule is not exclusively the domain of physical touch. Emotional and verbal forms of touch are just as critical. When I grew up, there was a saying that went like this, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never kill you.” Baloney! Long after the physical bruises are gone, the emotional devastation of hurtful words and emotional responses can linger well into adulthood. The research on this subject reveals that for every negative, critical or abusive message someone takes in on a personal level, he or she needs 17 positives before “balance” is perceived once again. Imagine how buried in negativity some people really are. Numerous clients have told me things like, “I can’t ever remember my Dad or my Mom hugging me or saying they loved me. We just didn’t do that in our home.”
Rule #4 – Don’t Resolve
This rule typically leaves individuals stuck in a crisis mode or with the hurtful aftermath of a confrontation that did not play out very well.
Over time, family members become convinced there are no helpful or significant resolutions for family “business.” Forgiveness over hurts, heartaches and misunderstandings, are nonexistent or fleeting at best. The issues keep getting dragged back into the forefront, often used to shore up an accusation, defend a point of view or bludgeon someone into silence or submission. In other words, problems are not only avoided and left unaddressed in most cases, they are rarely—if ever—solved. Like a scab that keeps getting picked, the desire for healing and restoration is shoved to the back burner. The wound bleeds once again and eventually, leaves a scar; only in this case, the consequences are potentially carried into the next generation. This difficulty in navigating the daily pressures of life using core problem solving skills, impacts a person’s emotional, psychological, relational and spiritual well-being.
Rule #5 – Don’t Trust
The last rule is based on the previous four.
If you are never allowed to talk about anything of substance; if you are never permitted to share or display your feelings, if there is no healthy sense of touch; and if problems and issues are never fully resolved…then the sad conclusion is that you cannot and must not trust anyone. No one is deemed to be safe or trustworthy, not even God. Trust, along with honesty, represents the glue that holds any relationship together. Without them, the trials and pressures of life, even everyday stress, may result in the relationship being torn asunder, leaving it ripped and shredded in small detached pieces. Ultimately, and when combined with the first four rules, a person’s journey through this kind of family system weakens and compromises the formation of a well-adjusted self-identity.
So what then is the antidote to these dysfunctional family rules?
The first step is to have an honest conversation with yourself—especially if you are a mom or dad—and determine if any of these describe the unwritten rules of your home. If so, here are a few brief thoughts worth considering:
Do Invite – Send the message to your children that they are welcome (and expected) to be fully engaged in the life of the family, encouraging them to take ownership and personal responsibility. Their opinions matter, their ideas will be given a fair hearing and they can do so in an atmosphere of safety, mutual love and respect. There is nothing they should ever be anxious, embarrassed or too afraid to talk with you about—“Come now and let us reason together” (Is. 1:18).
Do Express – Model your feelings with honesty, genuineness, transparency, and in such a manner that honors Christ. God gave us emotions, even the strong ones, and they are what make us human. Teach your children balance and decency when it comes to self-expression. If they are never allowed to show emotion, they will dry up. If they only show emotion, they will blow up. However, if there is a healthy balance between the two, they will grow up—“The Joy of the Lord is your strength” – (Neh. 8:10).
Do Affirm – Love can be communicated in many ways and forms—physically, verbally, spiritually, etc., in word and in deed. Employ all of them—frequently, consistently and with a determined initiative. The blessing of affirmation has the power to touch deep into the soul and releases our children with confidence to a future that is more secure—“God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” – (2 Cor. 2:8-9).
Do Forgive – Closure is an important element in moving past relational pain and the hurts and disappointments that are normal within any family. The goal is not the avoidance of all conflict, but how to effectively resolve issues and restore relationships that is essential. Helping family members work through a problem, employing Christ-like forgiveness, is better in the long run than simply letting them work their way out of a problem—“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” – (2 Cor. 5:17).
Do Empower – When a home is filled with the invitation to be engaged, with consistent expressions of love and affirmation, and a strong belief problems can and will be successfully addressed and resolved, then an environment of trust is created, one that brings hope and empowers family members. Children understand and experience what it means to be given a blessing for a hopeful future, to step out in faith and embrace all that God has for them—“Those who know Your name will put their trust in You, for You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You” – (Ps. 9:10).