You’re an adult. Break free of unspoken family rules

Blue painted locked door with bolt across it

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

We’ve discussed before the power of unspoken rules in families. Most of the time these rules are relatively harmless. But sometimes they stop you saying or doing what is best for you. You’re reluctant to break these rules, because you think the consequences could be unpleasant. So how can you break free of unspoken family rules?

The first step in breaking free from these rules is to notice when they’re in action. Usually you’ll see their effect in situations that echo difficulties in the past. Then you can use mindful observation to tap into how you think and feel about what’s going on.

In the past, you may have felt unfairly targeted, or believed you were the cause of a lot of family friction. Now, you may realise family members could have been reacting to other stresses in their lives.

In fact, they probably weren’t thinking much about your issues at all. The rules they set up were more to make their lives easier, not to make yours unpleasant. But they may not have understood how you were affected.

However, you can now choose whether you continue to follow these rules, or modify them in some way.  

1 Be aware of how you react

Let’s say you’re visiting your parents. You’ve been living overseas, working in a busy and challenging job. You’ve had plenty of practice in being assertive and putting forward your point of view.

But you haven’t had much contact with your parents for years.

When you were young, your parents disliked anyone arguing with them. Visiting them now, you remember always feeling “out of step” with them. All these memories rush back each time you want to disagree with them.

But suddenly you don’t seem to be able to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. In fact, you feel a strong urge to be compliant and keep quiet. You’re tapping into unspoken family rules from your past.

Be aware of unspoken family rules

Notice these strong urges to censor yourself as soon as they appear. They may be the first clue that old family dramas are being replayed.

You’re probably following an unspoken rule that you picked up when younger. It may be something like, “I should never disagree with my parents,” or “I must never upset my parents in any way.”

Notice your rising uneasiness and tension. Notice your confusion that you can’t state what you’re thinking to your parents. Yet at work, you deal with people in authority all the time.

Simply allow these emotions to rest within you, without trying to change them. At the moment, just notice what’s happening within yourself.

2 Mindfully observe

Practise mindfulness and gradually accept the reactions within yourself as interesting. Don’t be scared or ashamed of them. Don’t tell yourself you’re stupid for feeling them. They reflect the way you used to feel in these situations, when you were younger.

Observe yourself as you would someone else, from a distance. Become aware of stamping down your wish to speak up. Don’t do anything about that at present. Simply notice how you’re reacting over several contacts with your parents.

Do you notice the same sensations or thoughts each time? What others pop up as well?

Reflect on your reactions

Away from your parents, think about what your reactions might mean. What is making you feel you have to keep quiet even as an adult? What might happen if you express to your parents what you think or feel now?

How could you do this without provoking huge conflict? Or is there no middle way?

Do you think that what you fear will happen? Will it be as bad as you think? A bit better? Worse?

Don’t judge

Notice what you’re thinking about your parents. Notice if you feel annoyed, sad, guilty, scared or anything else. Accept your thoughts and emotions without judging them or yourself.

3 Siblings may react differently

Observe how your adult siblings now react to your parents as well. You could even talk to them about how you’re feeling if you wish. See if they have similar thoughts or feelings.

However, they may or may not have been aware of the same unspoken family rules. 

So be prepared that your siblings may not think or feel the way you do. If that’s the case, there’s no point in getting angry with them. Their perceptions are valid for them. And they may view your family in a different light to you.

This is especially true if your parents favoured one sibling over the others.

For instance, your father may have expected you to behave perfectly all the time. If you disagreed, you knew he’d get angry and criticise you. So you always obeyed his wishes quickly and quietly.

However, maybe your father was more lenient with your brother. Chances are, your brother didn’t even notice he was treated differently. So he probably didn’t notice how tense and anxious you were as a child.

So as adults, you and your brother will now feel differently towards your father.

Siblings may not support you

Even now, you may be wary when your father is angry. You still worry he’ll come out with some scathing criticisms of you. His negative comments can hurt or worry you for days.

But your brother may brush off your father’s moods without a second thought. He may think you’re too sensitive.

In addition, your brother may be annoyed you spent some years overseas. He may see that as you having abandoned him to care for your parents on his own.

So you may not necessarily get any support from him if you need it. In fact, he may think you’re the one being unfair – to your father. So the two of you may have different experiences of unspoken family rules. 

4 Your family experience is unique 

Not being validated by other siblings can be disappointing. Having your experiences dismissed can make you feel you’re to blame for feeling the way you do. It makes you doubt yourself, or think you imagined past issues, or are overreacting.

However each child was treated differently within your family. No matter what parents say, they all do treat children differently. It’s inevitable, no matter how hard they may try to treat them the same. 

This makes sense when you think about it more closely. Each child is at a different age and stage of development and understanding. And each child has their own personality and temperament, even if they have the same parents.

So you and each of your siblings has a unique relationship with your parents. No two of you will view the family in the same way. Therefore, your relationship with your parents is unique to you.

Siblings may not understand

So don’t be surprised if some siblings don’t “get” how you feel. You can try to explain how you feel, and why. But you may be disappointed that they still can’t understand.

Try to accept their limitations in this area without getting angry. Just don’t let this stop you expecting to be treated with respect now.

5 Reflect on your relationships

Before you decide how to handle your reactions to your parents or siblings, take some more time to reflect.

How did you generally interact with each parent when you were younger? 

Remember any triggers that caused problems between you. Think particularly of situations in which you felt you had to keep quiet. When did you start to follow unspoken family rules for yourself? Or to blame yourself when things went wrong?

Triggers for difficult emotions

Can you identify thoughts that upset you at those times? For instance, you may have thought:

My parents/family don’t care what I think.

They never listen to what’s going on in my life.

I could walk out right now and they wouldn’t even notice.

I’m only acceptable if I do what they want.

They don’t really love me.

They’re not interested in anyone apart from themselves.

View emotions mindfully

What emotions are brought up by these memories? Anger, hurt, sadness? Are they the same emotions you felt when you were younger?

View these emotions with mindful detachment. Sit with them and allow them to be there.

Don’t demand that they disappear. Don’t get upset that you’re upset. It’s just the way it was for you at those times.

Even now, your thoughts can still trigger the same emotions. But that doesn’t mean you have to spin down into distress. You’re strong enough to remember these thoughts, and feel these emotions without falling to pieces.

View them as interesting pieces of a puzzle you’re solving.

6 What was behind your parents’ behaviour?

Now push your thoughts a little further. What could have made your parents seem so uncaring? What made them so preoccupied with themselves? Do you know anything of their backgrounds?

How did they cope with stress? Were they good at solving problems, or did they get into a mess?

Did either of them ever have much empathy for anyone else?

What made them react the way they did?

Thinking over these questions may lead you to lots of theories that could explain your parents’ behaviour. Note that you can never prove these right or wrong. But some of these ideas may help you understand why your parents acted the way they did towards you.

You may start to see that most of the time, the way your parents acted didn’t really have much to do with you. They were reacting to other things that had happened in their lives. But you didn’t know this at the time. 

Possible theories?

So what are some possible theories to explain your parents’ behaviour?

Perhaps one or both parents:

Never thought how their behaviour affected anyone else

Panicked easily or got angry if anything went wrong

Tended to use alcohol or nicotine to cope

Was depressed, anxious or had other mental health issues

Had physical health problems

Had low self-esteem

Found it hard to regulate their emotions

Never learned to be assertive rather than aggressive or passive

Didn’t know much about child development

Weren’t tuned into to their own or others’ thoughts or emotions

Were stressed trying to get or hold on to work

Had money worries

Feared losing the house/flat

Struggled to adapt after moving from another state or country

Came from an abusive background.

It’s not always to do with you

Perhaps there were other difficulties that your parents faced. Or maybe only one or two of those listed are relevant to your situation.

But take note that all of these are about your parents, not you.

These theories suggest that one or both of your parents may have had some trouble coping with life’s demands. But they say nothing about what kind of person you were, or what you should or should not have done.

But these theories may explain why your parents reacted badly when you disagreed with them, or did things they didn’t like. 

7 Hidden reasons for behaviour

People often behave in ways they regret, especially if they’re stressed. Ideally they’d learn better ways of coping. However, if they don’t learn these skills, they rely on unhelpful habits to cope.

And this may have been the case with your parents.  

Unhelpful coping strategies

Unhelpful coping strategies include getting angry and defensive when challenged, getting highly emotional, and blaming others for upsetting them. Or people may spin down into a passive, low mood that lasts for days.

These types of reactions are frightening and confusing to children. If your parents reacted like this, you’d have been distressed.

And you received the unspoken message that you were responsible for making sure your parents were OK.   

8 How unspoken rules work

In your head, you probably thought that you were to blame for upsetting your parents. So then you learned: “I must never upset my parents by doing X, or Y or Z.”

Your parents may never have told you these things out loud. But you knew from their behaviour that this was how you had to behave.

Life was a lot better if you made sure they didn’t get upset. So somehow it became your duty to help your parents cope.

The trouble is, you started to believe these unspoken family rules were the truth. And that you had to keep on following them forever.

In actual fact, you were not responsible for your parent’s well-being. They were. 

9 Misreading the past

Sometimes you may also have misread what was going on in your family. Children often don’t get the whole story, or misinterpret what they see or hear. Then they build a picture of what they think happened, but which isn’t what happened in real life.

For example, you may have interpreted your parents’ behaviour as not loving you or caring about you. But when you were young, you didn’t know much about empathy works. 

Stress causes lower empathy

Did you know that highly stressed people often turn inward, and seem less empathic?

Were your parents preoccupied with their own problems or emotions?

If so, perhaps they couldn’t see or respond to you in helpful ways. They were so consumed with their own issues, that they just didn’t have enough empathy left for anyone else.

It didn’t mean they didn’t love or care for you. It just meant they couldn’t show it in the way you would have liked.

And if they’d never had much affection in their own childhood, they wouldn’t know how to show it either. 

Poor role models

Perhaps your parents had poor role models in their own parents. Many parents didn’t (and still don’t) know how to raise children well. Unless they think about it carefully, they just do what their own parents did.

So mistakes get repeated, generation after generation.

And that was sad for you and many other children. But it doesn’t make your parents terrible people. And it doesn’t mean they didn’t care about or love you.

All these things mean that, in their heads, their own issues trumped yours. They didn’t understand that parents are supposed to put the needs of their children before their own. And that allowed a whole lot of unspoken family rules to develop. And as an adult, you may still be sticking to them today. 

10 Challenge your negative beliefs

It’s helpful to go back and look at the beliefs you’ve developed about your parents. See if you can rewrite these beliefs in a more helpful form.

Acknowledge your parents had limitations in the way they treated you. But they were probably doing the best they could at the time, given their backgrounds.

Challenge your unspoken family rules

In addition, challenge unspoken family rules you developed for yourself.

Come up with a more helpful statements, such as:

“I would prefer not to upset my parents. I understand they’ve had difficulties they haven’t dealt with very well. So they’ve relied on me to smooth their lives for them. But if I feel strongly about something, I have the right to state my beliefs calmly and firmly, without being rude. If they get upset, that’s unfortunate. I’ll explain I’m not trying to hurt their feelings, but would like them to see my point of view.”

Of course, even if you’re not rude when stating your point of view, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll listen. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, because the backlash isn’t worth it.

But at least you now know more about how these unspoken rules develop, and whether you want to keep on following them or not.

Understanding what’s behind others’ behaviour gives you the flexibility to choose how to handle each situation.  

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