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!

The Dysfunctional Family: Is Yours One?

Many people hope that once they leave home, they will leave their family and childhood problems behind. However, many find that they experience similar problems, as well as similar feelings and relationship patterns, long after they have left the family environment. Ideally, children grow up in family environments which help them feel worthwhile and valuable. They learn that their feelings and needs are important and can be expressed. Children growing up in such supportive environments are likely to form healthy, open relationships in adulthood.

However, families may fail to provide for many of their children’s emotional and physical needs. In addition, the families’ communication patterns may severely limit the child’s expressions of feelings and needs. Children growing up in such families are likely to develop low self esteem and feel that their needs are not important or perhaps should not be taken seriously by others. As a result, they may form unsatisfying relationships as adults.

Types of Dysfunctional Families

Here are a few examples of patterns that frequently exist in dysfunctional families:

  • One or both parents use the threat or actual use of physical violence as the primary means of control. Children may have to witness violence, may be forced to punish siblings or live in constant and unhealthy fear of explosive outbursts.
  • One or both parents are unable to provide or threaten to withdraw financial or basic physical care for their children. Similarly, one or both parents fail to provide adequate emotional support to their children.
  • One or both parents have addictions or compulsions[drugs, alcohol, gambling, promiscuity, overeating] that have strong influences on family members.
  • One or both parents exploit the children and treat them as possessions whose primary purpose is to respond to the physical and/or emotional needs of adults[protecting a parent or cheering up one who is depressed].
  • One or both parents exert a strong authoritarian control over the children. These families often adhere to rigid religious, political, financial and/or personal beliefs. Children are expected to comply without any flexibility.

There is a great deal of variability in how often dysfunctional interactions and behaviors occur in families, and in the kinds and the severity of their dysfunction. However, when patterns like the above are the norm rather than the exception, they systematically foster abuse and/or neglect. Children may:

  • Be forced to take sides in conflicts between parents.
  • Experience “reality shifting” in which what is said contradicts what is actually happening (e.g., a parent may deny something happened that the child actually observed, for example, when a parent describes a disastrous holiday dinner as a “good time”).
  • Be ignored, discounted, or criticized for their feelings and thoughts.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately intrusive, overly involved and protective.
  • Have parents that are inappropriately distant and uninvolved with their children.
  • Have excessive structure and demands placed on their time, choice of friends, or behavior; or conversely, receive no guidelines or structure.
  • Experience rejection or preferential treatment.
  • Be restricted from full and direct communication with other family members.
  • Be allowed or encouraged to use drugs or alcohol.
  • Be locked out of the house.
  • Be slapped, hit, scratched, punched, or kicked.

Resulting Problematic Outcomes

Abuse and neglect inhibit the development of children’s trust in the world, in others, and in themselves. As adults, these people may find it difficult to trust the behaviors and words of others, their own judgments and actions, or their own senses of self-worth. Not surprisingly, they may experience problems in their academic work, their relationships, and in their own personal identities.

In common with other people, abused and neglected family members often struggle to interpret their families as “normal.” The more they have to accommodate to make the situation seem normal (“No, I wasn’t beaten, I was just spanked. My father isn’t violent, it’s just his way”), the greater is their likelihood of misinterpreting themselves and developing negative self concepts ( “I had it coming; I’m a rotten kid”).

Changes You Can Make

Sometimes we continue in our roles because we are waiting for our parents to give us “permission”; to change. But that permission can come only from you. Like most people, parents in dysfunctional families often feel threatened by changes in their children. As a result, they may thwart your efforts to change and insist that you “change back.” That’s why it’s so important for you to trust your own perceptions and feelings. Change begins with you. Some specific things you can do include:

  • Identify painful or difficult experiences that happened during your childhood.
  • Make a list of your behaviors, beliefs, etc. that you would like to change.
  • Next to each item on the list, write down the behavior, belief, etc. that you would like to do/have instead.
  • Pick one item on your list and begin practicing the alternate behavior or belief. Choose the easiest item first.
  • Once you are able to do the alternate behavior more often than the original, pick another item on the list and practice changing it, too.

As well as working on your own, it might be helpful to work with a group of people with similar experiences and/or a professional counselor.

Special Considerations

As you make changes, keep the following in mind:

  • Stop trying to be perfect, and don’t try to make your family perfect.
  • Realize that you are not in control of other people’s lives. You do not have the power to make others change, only yourself and your response to others.
  • Don’t try to win the old struggles – you can’t win.
  • Set clear limits – something like, if you do not plan on visiting your parents for a holiday, say “no,”.
  • Identify what you would like to have happen. Recognize that when you stop behaving the way you used to, even for a short time, there may be adverse reactions from your family or friends. Anticipate what the reactions will be (tears, yelling, other intimidating responses) and decide how you will respond.


Finally, don’t become discouraged if you find yourself slipping back into old patterns of behavior. Changes may be slow and gradual; however, as you continue to practice new and healthier behaviors, they will begin to become part of your day to day living.

Aiming High for Excellence: “Parental Voice” Can Transform Education

Debbie Pushor, University of Saskatchewan

Repeated efforts to improve public school education across Canada — curricular enhancements, increased accountability, intensified literacy and numeracy initiatives — are failing to improve student achievement.

In the province of Saskatchewan, student achievement results have flatlined and only 43.2 per cent of Indigenous students are graduating on time.

Saskatchewan’s results are not atypical. In her analysis of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, Man-Wai Chu, assistant professor of education at the University of Calgary, said Canadian students have shown no improvements in science, mathematics or reading over the past decade.

So what can we do differently? We can engage parents — in ways that enable students to do better, like school more and stay in school longer.

Five decades of research evidence attest to the benefit of parent engagement. The educational and moral imperative is clear: to shift the existing student achievement trajectory, educators must intentionally and systematically use parents’ untapped knowledge to enhance student learning.

As educator and family-engagement expert, Dr. Steven Constantino said in his book Engage every Family, “If we as educators could successfully teach all children by ourselves, then it seems to me we would have already done so.”

Walking alongside children

During more than 20 years of research into parent engagement, I have come to understand it as a philosophy and a pedagogy of “walking alongside.”

This is both a belief system about parents and their meaningful and authentic voice in their children’s schooling and education and a way of enacting those beliefs in practice.

Parent engagement in schools can deepen relationships as well as enhancing learning.

When parents are seen to be holders of knowledge, as capable and as possessing gifts and strengths, then this can be leveraged alongside teacher knowledge to enrich programming.

Engaging parents entails assuming a new worldview in schools — in which parents are seen to be central to the work of the school, not separate or apart from it.

Elementary math bins

A former graduate student of mine, Kirsten Kobylak, is now a Grade 1 teacher at Willowgrove School in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. As part of my research on the impact of graduate teacher education, she shared with me how she wanted to engage parents in their math theme, “Math is Everywhere.”

In an email home to parents, she explained how important language and culture are to children’s learning. She posed the question, “Where does math live in your culture?” and asked parents to share such things as game ideas, artifacts with patterns, number lines in different languages and more.

As items came in, the children created math bins — patterning, fact families, number lines, problem-solving.

Parents came in and taught games and shared materials, comparing versions of items from one country to another, simultaneously sharing culture, language, history and family stories.

Through this parent engagement, children learned and strengthened math skills such as skip counting, memory, estimation, addition, greater than, less than.

They also deepened their relationships with one another, their knowledge of diversity and sense of social cohesion.

‘We are all Treaty people’

Jesse Reis, another former graduate student, is now a high school teacher in Warman, Sask. He shared with me the example of a daily email he sent to the parents of students in each of his classes.

In the email he included a concept the students and he had discussed that day, something interesting that arose, and something parents could chat with their son or daughter about that evening at home.

For example, in one email, Jesse shared with parents of students in his Social Studies class a statement they had explored that day: “We are all Treaty people.” He noted that while some students saw themselves as “Treaty people,” others did not. He invited parents to discuss with their teen what stance they took and why.

The daily email took Jesse less than five minutes to send per class, but gave him potential contact with every parent every day. Parents were able to engage in meaningful conversations with their children about curricular concepts in the normal course of their day — and to add their voice and knowledge to their son or daughter’s teaching and learning.

Parents are a vast and untapped resource of knowledge and expertise.

Parents were always invited to respond to Jesse’s email as well, sharing with him their conversations with their child and thus bringing home learning back into the classroom. Parents asked questions and offered to participate in the unfolding curriculum in other ways (sharing knowledge, stories, artifacts or suggesting potential resources and experiences).

What we see in these examples is that parent engagement can happen on the school landscape or off of it, and with all ages of students.

Critical to parent engagement is that it draws on parent knowledge, is connected to teaching and learning, honours a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child, enables a parent to remain in the role of parent, is authentic and meaningful, promotes shared decision-making, is strength-based and ensures everyone benefits from the engagement — children, parents, and teacher.

The possibilities of parent engagement in education are endless when these critical attributes are embraced by teachers and lived out in ways that are contextual and culturally responsive — honouring students, parents, families and communities.

A gentle revolution

To shift from the current worldview in education, one which reflects schools as a domain exclusive to educators and students, to a new worldview where schools are using parent knowledge in teaching and learning will take a gentle revolution.

Notice the word “love” embedded in revolution? By working together, with mutual respect, care and concern for one another, educators at all levels of the system and parents can work together — to revolutionize schooling.

We need to establish “parent engagement offices” in ministries of education, develop core teacher education courses on parent engagement, require parent engagement coursework for teacher certification, establish school district positions for parent engagement consultants, structure parent universities and establish parent mentor programs.

The results of such a gentle revolution — creating an integral place and voice for parents in their children’s teaching and learning — will positively impact the trajectory of student achievement and other educational outcomes.

Further reading

Parent Engagement and Leadership

Portals of Promise: Transforming Beliefs and Practices through a Curriculum of Parents

Living as Mapmakers: Charting a Course with Children Guided by Parent KnowledgeThe Conversation

Debbie Pushor, Professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies, University of Saskatchewan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Routines: Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports at Home

When events disrupt normal routines, such as the current pandemic, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports[PBIS] can be a highly effective way to build social-emotional-behavioral skills and reduce challenging behaviors. Embraced by over 25,000 schools, PBIS can be utilized effectively in the home, as well.

Families and caregivers can support their children’s social and emotional growth and minimize behavioral disruptions in the home. Below are some suggestions on how to implement these supports at home.

 Set Routines

Most children thrive when there are routines and structure. Schools set specific schedules and routines for students to follow during the day, often posting them in classrooms or giving them to students to carry with them. When not in session, students tend to have fewer predictable routines. This can increase their anxiety and challenging behaviors.

To reduce behavior problems at home, mimic school routines. Set up time for learning, exercise and play.These routines can be posted in some centrally located spot in the home for all to see. The more consistent the routines and schedules, the easier it will be to support prosocial behaviors and prevent problem ones at home.

Elementary Routine Examples

Get Ready to Learn
Wake up, get ready for the day, & eat breakfast

Morning Check-in
Review morning schedule & expectations. Check-in (How are you
doing today? Do you have any questions?)

Morning Movement*
Consider a walk outside, yoga, “hike” inside on the stairs, etc.

Structured Learning
Establish times for core academic activities, like reading, math, writing

Lunch Check-in
Eat healthy lunch, review afternoon schedule & expectations. Check-in (Hw are you doing? Do you have any questions?)

Afternoon Learning Activities
Consider a virtual field trip, art, music, science, or other fun learning activity

Afternoon Movement
Consider a walk, dance party, or similar active movement options

Social Connection
Connect with family members or friends via social media, phone, etc.

Evening Family Time & Bedtime
Maintain typical evening routines to connect with each other

Secondary Routine Example

Get Ready to Learn
Wake up, get ready for the day, & eat breakfast

Morning Check-in
Together, set schedule & expectations. Check-in (How are you doing
today? Do you have any questions?)

Morning Exercise
Choose an exercise activity to do in the home or outdoors

Morning Distance Learning
Support the student in engaging in distance or remote learning activities

Lunch Check-in
Eat healthy lunch, discuss afternoon schedule & expectations. Check-in (How are you doing? Do you have any questions?)

Afternoon Distance Learning
Support the student in re-engaging in distance or remote learning activities

Afternoon Exercise
Choose an exercise activity to do in the home or outdoors

Social Connection
Connect with family members or friends via social media, phone, etc.

Evening Family Time & Bedtime
Maintain typical evening routines to connect with each other

The idea is not to duplicate or replicate the school environment.  What needs to happen is that you first realize that your home environment is already primed for creating positively structured learning activities that support good behavior. Your task is to identify and leverage the conditions already present in your home.

Utilizing your space and within your own established routines, you only need to tweak them a little to be proactive and preventive. Within your home, you will add conditions to present routines, and be consistent with them. The activities you engage in already can be re-framed for learning. For instance, when cooking and preparing meals, involve your child in things like counting the number of ingredients needed to complete your recipe for a certain dish.

Reading package contents, calorie count, nutrients like vitamins and minerals, etc…. Incorporating exercising into your daily routine can be relatively pain-free, as well. We know that children need breaks during their day. They need to move around and play. It is unnatural to ask a child to remain seated for hours uninterrupted by movement. Such expectations breed behavior problems, and distractions, whining and complaining.

beautiful girl in white and yellow floral dress covering her face with her hand

Children will find a way to move around and unless we plan for it, we are inviting misbehavior. It is important that children receive praise and recognition for their appropriate behaviors, too.  Expected behaviors, according to routines, are not to be consistently praised, but rather acknowledged. This is done to reinforce good behaviors only. Remember, you do still have your rules and you expect your child to abide by them at all times. It is when your child exhibits good or appropriate behavior in anticipation of a rule without your prompting that you want to point out for praise.

Depending on the age of your child, you will plan activities in your routine accordingly. Your expectations will change, but as long as structure is there, you are avoiding problems.  When your child is engaging in an inappropriate behavior, before you intervene o chastise him or her, consider any unmet needs your child is expressing.

A time of uncertainty, while learning happens remotely, and social distancing is the expected rule, children still need routines. They still need to feel safe, supported and connected to others outside of the home. Their peers, their need for sunlight, exercise and movement- all still valid. Factor this into your rules and routine. Ensure that they are able to enjoy these things, in light of  the restrictions.

Give them opportunities to go outside, but safely. Encourage children to text or Videochat with friends and relatives. Take virtual tours of outdoor spaces. Watch some dance videos for movement and exercise. Yes, let them play their hip-hop music. Join in and dance with them. Nothing fancy. Let the kids teach you. We can all use the exercise, and since outdoor exposure is limited, inside your home is not. Use your time with your child to get to know them; the people they are, not the people we think they are.

Within routines and structure, there is time for play. Play is embedded with learning opportunities. Gone are the days when lectures alone  are deemed the only effective teaching methods. Neither is it advisable to provide a long list of rules and expectations without including your child in the formation of those rules. When children are involved in creating ground rules for your structure, giving them open input, they are more invested in abiding by them.

In that process, periodically examine and amend your rules, with your child, as they develop and mature. Try to engage your child in conversations that encourage open disclosure. You aren’t prying or probing. You want to know this person, enabling your decision-making more appropriate to him or her. When parents also open themselves up to who they are, your children can develop empathy for you. Helping children understand you helps them understand themselves and moves them into a more secure place emotionally.

Rules and structure and routines are all needed for healthy growth, helps with self-regulation and helps develop the notion of goal-setting and priorities. The mindset of children, always malleable, is to take risks and test their limits. We know this, and so getting to know your child better than anyone else, we have to keep them on track. . They will challenge us, but that is their job, as they develop a secure sense of self.