Does your family have any unspoken rules, also referred to as implicit rules?   I know, sometimes it is hard to answer that question because the rules themselves hide in the shadows.  We can think of the spoken rules that our parents had, maybe a curfew time of midnight, or the rule of having the chores done before dad got home from work.  Unspoken rules are different, they have never been talked about or explained yet there is an expectation that you will follow them.  Often times when they are not followed there are harsh consequences.  This is very confusing to children because they don’t know the rule is there, but they get into trouble when they don’t obey it.

The first thing to know is that every family has them, some are positive and others are negative.  Either way, these messages plant themselves in our brains and attach to our hearts.  Often times these rules pass onto our children unconsciously.  It is just the way things are done.  The problem with these rules is that they are unhealthy and damage families and relationships.  The positive is that we can change them so they do not impact our adult lives and the lives of our children or future children.  As with all change, it begins with recognition.  Here are a list of implicit rules.  Do any of them feel familiar to you?

Unspoken rules you may have had while you were growing up.

  • Don’t talk about ______.
  • Silence is bad/uncomfortable. Always fill it.
  • Don’t do better than your siblings.
  • Don’t become more successful or make more money than your parents.
  • Don’t do better than your parents.
  • Don’t upset your father (or mother).
  • Don’t wake your mother (or father) from a nap.
  • Don’t trust anyone outside the family.
  • Don’t talk about what happens in this house outside of these walls.
  • We need to keep secrets.
  • Look away, Act like you don’t see ______.
  • Everyone else will betray you, you can only trust your family.
  • Little lies aren’t a big deal.
  • Big lies aren’t a big deal.
  • What they don’t know won’t hurt them.
  • If we don’t acknowledge it and pretend like it didn’t happen, it’s not real.
  • Taking care of yourself is selfish.
  • Needs are selfish.
  • Emotions say you are weak.
  • Needs are weakness.
  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Don’t have needs.
  • Don’t talk.
  • Don’t have any negative emotions.
  • Always act like everything is OK, even when it’s not.
  • Don’t talk about things that are meaningful.
  • Don’t speak to me when I am working.
  • Don’t make noise.
  • Keep your problems to yourself.
  • Handle it yourself.

The problem with these messages is that they set you up for failure as an adult, and they set your families up for failure.  It is not easy to overcome these patterns, and it takes mindfulness to not only recognize the implicit rules that existed in your family of origin, but it also takes a lot of humility to recognize which implicit rules you are using in your family today.

Being in a blended family has helped me become more aware of my implicit rules.  Many rules were not implicit to my children because I taught them my expectations when they were tiny.  Then I got three step children, and instead of reviewing my rules/ expectations with them at first I was annoyed when they would break the RULE.  Not even realizing that for them the rule was implicit.  It had not taken the time to sit down and talk to them about it.  My children know what my expectations are, but when I got three step children they didn’t.  I work from home and my kids know that while I am working they need to keep the volume down.  My step kids

For example: I  work from home and my kids know that while I am working they need to keep the volume down.  My step kids didn’t know this, yet I got annoyed with them for being loud.  I expected them to know this rule without me ever telling them this rule.

As we work through the struggles of a blended family I become more and more aware of the implicit rules that passed from my family.  They are hard to find, but I try to keep a lookout.

Here are five steps that you can take to throw Unspoken family rules out the door:

1) Awareness is key,  Be mindful and pay attention to expectations that you have of others that you have not spoken with them about.  Make a list of these expectations, keep the list handy and read it often so you don’t forget to SPEAK the rules.

2) Pay attention to yourself.  If you start to discipline a child because they have broken an unspoken rule take a step back.  Evaluate if the rule is worth keeping or if it is ineffective.  If it is worth keeping sit down with the child and explain the rule.  Tell them the consequence from here moving forward if the rule is broken.   If it is ineffective add it to your list, smile at your child and let them go.

3) Make a new rule. You are the adult, you get to do things different.

Old Rule: Needs are weakness.

New Rule: We all have needs, it doesn’t make you weak, it is important to speak up so I can help you meet those needs.

Old Rule: Don’t talk about ____________.

New Rule: Talk about ____________.

4) Take time to learn how to do things differently.  Recognize that your authority figures are just people and they make mistakes too.  You do not have to be stuck forever in old family patterns.  Make a healthy change.

5) Make amends, if you have been using implicit rules with your children it is time to show up and talk about it.  Explain to your children where the rules first started (if you can remember) and explain that you are working on changing things.  It will go a long way.

Sending Love,

Photo Credit:    Waleed Alzuhair (2005, July 30). Broken Family. Flikr Creative Commons:

Rule List Adapted From: Are Unspoken Family Rules Running Your Life? Jonice Webb PhD