unspoken family rules

Boundary Problems in Dysfunctional Families

Have you ever had the experience of someone who stands too close to you when they speak? It’s strange how we can recognize right away when someone crosses that invisible boundary line into our personal space.

According to Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book Boundaries, boundaries are similar to property lines.  They define what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility.  They separate “me” from “not me”. 

Let’s use a fence in your yard as an example.   The fence line separates your property from your neighbor’s property.  You wouldn’t climb the fence and mow the lawn in your neighbor’s yard: it would be inappropriate to take on that that level of responsibility for him or her.  Similarly, you wouldn’t want your neighbor to use your property as if it were their own.

Emotional, physical, and relational boundaries work in much the same way.  They are intended to protect you from harm.  They help you to experience goodness in a way that feels safe.  If a lack of boundaries led to you to feel the need to mow the lawns of everyone on your block, you would likely overexert yourself and be unable to maintain your own yard.

Yet it is important for these boundaries to be permeable: in a sense, to have a gate.  That way, you can let your neighbors come over to visit and get out to spend time with your loved ones.  Without permeable boundaries, you’ve built a fortress and isolated yourself inside.

The structure provided by these boundaries offers safety to those inside of them.  It allows you to be confident in what you own.

Boundaries in our Families-of-Origin

The easiest way to see boundaries in action is to watch parents rearing their children.  Take a toddler.  Toddlers need limits.  They need to know that if they place their hand on a hot stove, they’ll be burned.  They need to be protected from harmful and dangerous activities.

At the same time, a toddler’s inquisitiveness about the world is a creative gift that can be quashed by strict rules based more on parents’ desires than children’s needs.  Good boundaries with children are intended to provide safety rather than punishment or control.

If a child is exposed to a certain type of boundaries during development, they’re likely to internalize those boundaries.  These can take the form of healthy boundaries and awareness of limits.  But in dysfunctional families, often boundaries are more problematic.  These boundaries can be too rigid, too loose, or an unpredictable combination of the two.

If you’ve been able to identify dysfunction in unspoken family rules or family roles in your family-of-origin, you may resonate with some of these descriptions below of the effects of unhealthy boundaries in your family.

Types of Dysfunctional Family Boundaries

Too Rigid/Strict

Parents who offer rigid boundaries use authoritarian parenting strategies or “helicopter” parenting.  They attempt to protect their children by exerting too much control over them, not allowing them the opportunity to learn through failure.

These boundaries can feel more like walls than a fence: they are meant to keep the bad out, but they also prevent any nurturing or good to get in.  These families may lack healthy affection and physical touch and struggle with intimacy.  They might be characterized by a lack of praise or affirmation, focusing more on criticism and judgment for decisions.  There is a tendency to hear more negatives than positives from these parents.

For the child, this style of boundaries can lead to dependency on the parents to define reality with a corresponding fear of risk-taking or failure.  Impossibly high standards can be internalized in a way that fosters shame when they can’t be met.  Perfectionism can develop, as this style of parenting associates a child’s value with their performance.  Adults raised in this environment can experience stunted creativity.

Too Loose

Parents who offer too few boundaries and allow their children to have an inappropriate amount of freedom in childhood are opening their children up to harm.  Similar to having no fence at all, the child has no idea where the limit of their responsibility are and are left vulnerable to harm.  In childhood years, this can lead to engaging in more high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use.  Children end up having to make adult decisions as children because they don’t receive adequate guidance from their parents.

Too few boundaries, while it might sound appealing especially to adolescents, can actually be scary for children, as they don’t know how to keep themselves from getting hurt.  They miss out on learning skills necessary to protect themselves from harmful behaviors or experiences, and therefore face confusion and uncertainty in childhood.

In adulthood, those who had few boundaries can struggle with responding well to “no.”  They may overindulge or have difficulty with discipline or follow-through.  They may struggle with emotional regulation, as parents with loose boundaries often give in to temper tantrums, preventing children from learning healthy ways to cope with emotions.

Unpredictable Boundaries

One of the worst boundary styles parents can offer is an unpredictable combination of both strict and loose boundaries.  This can happen when one parent offers strict boundaries while the other offers more loose ones, or when one or both parents alternate between the two extremes.  This is typical of families with alcoholism or other addictions due to personality changes surrounding using the drug of choice.

Children in these families are given confusing messages of what is right and wrong.  They alternate between the walled-in isolation of rigid boundaries with the fear associated with no boundaries at all.  Never knowing what they can expect is crazy-making.

These children have learned to always be on guard for how their parents will respond.  It’s easy then, as adults, to be wary of relationships and people-please to control others.  They may lack confidence in setting limits with others because if they attempted to do so with their parents growing up, they would be unsure of what type of response they would receive. 

Which boundary style was present in your family growing up?

Are you dealing with the after-effects of rigid or loose boundaries in your family-of-origin?  Do you feel like you always have to be perfect and despair when you don’t meet the high expectations you set for yourself?  Do you struggle with discipline and setting limits with yourself?  Recognizing the links between these present-day behaviors and past experiences is the first step toward healing.  At Restored Hope, I help you explore how your past influences your present, offering counseling to help change your future. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Unspoken Family Rules: How They Shape Your Decisions Today

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Have you ever noticed how much families differ from one another?  If you’re married, dating, or have even lived with a roommate, you’ve likely experienced friction as a result of these differences.  You’ve learned certain patterns from your family-of-origin that are different from other families.  Perhaps your loved ones clean differently than you do, cook certain recipes that have been passed down through generations, or have a different morning routine.  These patterns aren’t necessarily negative: just different.

But what happens when the messages you’ve absorbed from your family-of-origin create problems for you?  Maybe your spouse wants to talk about their feelings when they happen, and your philosophy is just to keep quiet and move on.  Perhaps apologizing is difficult because it wasn’t modeled for you growing up.

We assume these patterns of behavior are “normal” because we don’t know anything different.  We expect others to act in the ways our family did.  However, what we come to realize is that these patterns of behavior aren’t always healthy.  Unhealthy coping patterns learned as a result of these unspoken family rules can lead to addiction and dissatisfaction.

What are unspoken family rules?

As a child, you likely had some rules that were clearly outlined.  A curfew, allowance, and chores often have direct and clear expectations.  However, there are often “rules of engagement” in relationships, such as how you speak to one another, the way in which emotion is handled, or identifying who is responsible for consequences.

When these rules are unspoken, as is often the case, you learn them more by the response when you unknowingly break one.  You also might learn from your parents’ modeling of behaviors.  If your parents never talk about their feelings, for example, the precedent is set for you to do the same.

We internalize these “rules of engagement” and pick up unhealthy coping as a result.  If you were taught that it wasn’t okay to experience a negative emotion like anger, then you aren’t given tools to handle anger when it comes up in your adult life.  You may shy away from it or find yourself exploding when it arises and then feeling intense shame. 

Common Unspoken Family Rules

Don’t talk.

This family rule doesn’t mean that you aren’t speaking to one another, but instead that you don’t have conversations about uncomfortable topics.  Certain areas of discussion are off-limits.  This breeds secrecy and hiding, both inside the family and outside as well. 

You might notice this with an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent.  All the family members may be aware of the problem, but you don’t talk about it, instead discussing lighter topics and ignoring the larger issue.

Don’t feel.

Have you ever seen the film Frozen?  (If you’re the parent of young children, my guess is you’ve seen it more times than you’d care to admit.)  In the movie, Elsa has magical ice powers that spiral out of control when she feels negative emotions.  To manage these powers, her parents isolate her and explicity tell her “don’t feel.”  But she soon finds this is impossible, and the plot of the film unfolds as she loses control of her emotions.

It is impossible not to experience negative emotions.  But if they are unacceptable in your family-of-origin, you don’t learn how 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.  Christian parents can sometimes give messages that certain emotions are sinful or signify lack of faith.  Emotions such as anger, fear, hurt, and sadness are commonly minimized and implied as unacceptable.

Another way a child can absorb this unspoken rule is by observing parents’ strong reactions to negative emotions.  If your parent becomes abusive while angry, you’re likely to avoid anger out of fear of losing control.  If you had a parent who was consumed by sadness or depression, you may have learned to take on the role of the positive one who brought up the mood, and sadness will feel foreign to you.

Blame-shifting.

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.  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.

If you talk about your parent’s addiction to a teacher, for example, your parents may punish you severely and blame you for the problems the parent is now facing.  You’re told consequences are your fault for speaking up.  The teacher may be made out to be the villain and blamed for their role. 

Children are great observers but horrible interpreters.  When you’re told there’s something wrong with you as a child, you believe that what your parents are saying is true, even when it clearly isn’t.  As an adult, then, you’re more likely to distrust any positive qualities and focus on the negative.

Deny any problems.

Similar to the “don’t talk” rule, denial involves hiding problems under the rug and pretending they aren’t affecting you.  Phrases like “stop making such a big deal out of it” are a hallmark of dysfunctional families.  Imagine an alcoholic parent whose spouse enables by covering up the addict’s behaviors.  Children then learn to minimize their parent’s drinking, even when it leads to abuse or other problems.  In domestic violence situations, children may learn to lie about any injuries they sustain.

This can lead to dissociation in adults, 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.

Boys should be… Girls should be…

You may have picked up how boys and girls are supposed to act in a variety of spoken or unspoken family rules.  Phrases like “boys will be boys” or “girls should be prim and proper” are often used to direct behavior.  Often these gender roles can be exacerbated by traditional “Christian” values that often have little basis in Biblical truth.

Appearances are everything.

Focusing more on the external than the internal is a common unspoken family rule.  Perhaps you learned to put on a good face even when there are problems at home, addiction, or arguing.  Body image issues can arise from this rule as well, as you may be taught to wear makeup or be a certain clothing size to hide any emotional distress.  You are taught to pretend that everything is okay on the outside while your emotions are raging on the inside.

Your value comes from what you do/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.

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 topics that were off-limits for discussion in your family?

  • What emotions were unacceptable in your family?

  • Did you learn to shut off any negative emotions?  Which ones?  Why?

  • Where do you tend to place blame when something goes wrong?  Yourself?  Others?

  • What gender roles did you learn from your family?

  • When do you find yourself putting on a mask to pretend everything is okay on the outside?

  • Is it okay for you to make mistakes?  Where does your value come from?

As you reflect on the above questions, are you becoming more aware of the dysfunctional patterns in your family?  Have they impacted the way you interact with others or feel about yourself?  Do you find yourself swallowed up by shame or unable to feel certain emotions?  My role as a counselor at Restored Hope is to uncover these distorted messages you carry around and help you experience a new, healthy way of relating to yourself and others.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office.