33 Unspoken Family Rules & How to Override Them

Unspoken Family Rules. What are they?

Every family has them, but no one ever talks about them. They remain, by definition, unsaid.

Sometimes they’re positive and healthy. Other times, they are toxic.

Either way, these powerful messages from your childhood home plant themselves into the base of your brain and become an unconscious part of how you live in the adult world; perhaps even embedded in your very sense of who you are: your identity.

Read through the list below, and see if any of these unspoken family rules speak to you. Did your family adhere to one, two or even more?

As you read through the list, write down any messages that feel familiar. These are the messages that run through your head, affecting your choices, emotions, and life to this very day.

Becoming aware of these powerful unconscious rules can free you up to override them. You can take control of them and counter them instead of letting them run your life.

Examples of Unspoken Family Rules

The family comes first.

Wanting something is selfish.

Needing something is selfish.

Emotions are a sign of weakness.

Needs are a sign of weakness.

Don’t ask questions.

Don’t have needs.

Don’t talk.

Negative emotion is harmful to those around you.

Don’t bring any pain to this house.

Always act like everything is OK, even when it’s not.

Don’t talk about anything meaningful.

Don’t refer to anything negative.

Don’t rock the boat.

No fighting (conflict) is allowed.

Don’t make noise.

Don’t rock the boat.

Keep your problems to yourself.

Handle it yourself.


Don’t talk about uncomfortable things.

Silence is bad. Always fill it.

Don’t do better than your parents.

Don’t outshine others in the family.

Whoever yells the loudest wins.

Don’t upset your father (or mother).

Don’t trust anyone outside the family.

Certain things must be kept a secret from everyone outside of the family.

Act like you don’t see ______.

Your friends will betray you. You can only rely on your family.

It doesn’t hurt to twist the truth now and then.

White lies are okay.

All lies are okay.

If we don’t acknowledge it, it’s not real.

The Result

Each of these powerful messages does a particular type of damage. Each sets you up to do the wrong thing in your adult life.

The messages above the line are the distinct messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. They all set you up to sacrifice yourself for what feels like the greater good…the good of the family. Keep your needs and feelings to yourself, don’t cause problems, don’t share, show or (perhaps) even feel emotions, especially when they’re negative.

These messages, in adulthood, make you feel deeply and personally invalid; like you don’t stand on equal ground with everyone else. As an adult, you will struggle with the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult outlined in the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, like a lack of emotional awareness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and a deep feeling of being different and flawed and on your own.

The messages below the line all set you up to pretend, deny, or twist reality, tiptoeing around people instead of challenging them. Keep the family secrets at all costs, or don’t trust anyone who is not family.

These messages will drive you to make decisions you’re not proud of, put your family before yourself even when it’s harmful, and have problems with excessive emotional expression.

All of the messages have the power to make you feel confused, unhappy, and bad about yourself. All of them will cause you to have problems with social and emotional skills.

All of them can be overridden by you.

4 Steps to Override Your Unspoken Family Rules

1. Become aware of the rules that are in your head. Keep your list easily accessible, and review it often.

2. Pay attention: Notice when one of these rules speaks to you. Awareness is half the battle.

3. Make up an opposing, healthy rule to counteract each unhealthy one. For example,

Don’t talk about _________

becomes

Talk about __________.

And

Negative emotion is harmful to those around you

becomes

Negative emotion is not harmful to those around you, if you express it in a healthy way.

4. Make an effort to learn the skills you missed in childhood: the purpose, value, and validity of your emotions. Your feelings will guide you if you only start to listen to them, use them and manage them. It’s never too late to learn those skills.

For help in learning emotional skills, and overriding powerful messages from childhood, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn much more about how CEN affects your family relationships now, your marriage and your own parenting and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.

Did you grow up with an unspoken family rule that’s not listed here? If so, please share it with us by posting it in a comment below.

A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.

Jonice

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Jan - December 1, 2019 Reply

Thank you so much for these rules. I have spent years processing severe physical and sexual abuse as a child. The emotional neglect part of all that never even occurred to me until I started reading your posts. I mean, I knew I was not loved like my sisters were, my mother made that very clear with her beatings and failure to protect me a very young child from sexual abuse. None of us were allowed to have friends over nor were we allowed to go to other friends’ houses. Not even allowed to go outside at all without permission, and then only in the back yard, never the front. I was always the target of the beatings and sexual abuse. I am only beginning to understand the neglect aspect at 66. I was never hugged or told I was loved, though my sisters were. Medical attention was withheld to the point I nearly died several times. I am learning so much from you, and hope to find your books at my local library soon. So thank you for all you are doing.

    Jonice - December 1, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jan, I’m so sorry that you were raised that way. You deserved so much better, and still do now. Please do find my books and read them!

Leah - November 14, 2019 Reply

This list is amazing! my favorite is ‘Always act like everything is OK, even when it’s not’ -so relatable! Here are some of mine:

‘In this home we are all fine’- unfathomable considering how miserable we all were- we just thought it was the norm.

‘You may only ever pick from 25 ”safe topics”to talk about- the rest make us uncomfortable so we prefer to avoid them’ (emotions are definitely taboo) – To this day picking up the phone to my dad requires preparation and lots of anxiety

‘Don’t forget to edit the words you say’ (The judgement was so strong)

‘People like us don’t have those sort of struggles’ (really? we’re just to terrified of judgement to voice them)

‘Keep everything inside- no one is there to listen’

I’m just grateful I’m on my road to healing although it often seems that road is terribly long…

Thanks again Jonice

Judith - November 13, 2019 Reply

Don’t look at me like that
Don’t answer back
Don’t be a burden
There must be something wrong with you
Just be like your mother
Stop thinking about yourself
What’s yours is mine

Ryan - November 13, 2019 Reply

Thanks so much for sharing these! So many, so so many of these rang true for me … like looking into a mirror! Still struggling with my emotional intelligence (or extreme lack thereof) and how it’s negatively impacted all areas of my life. Reading Running on Empty No More right now and very much enjoying it. Will be reading Running on Empty next.

Julie - November 12, 2019 Reply

I grew up with 3 brothers and 2 sisters and we had a ton of rules. We needed them in order to have structure and discipline. Our dad was the judge, jury and executioner while our mother kept quiet and didn’t do anything when it came to taking care of us. We pretty much took care of ourselves. I developed anxiety at an early age and still struggle with them to this day. One of my constant nightmares is me trying to scream, but nothing comes out and no one can hear me. I discovered CEN a couple of years ago and am so happy to finally put a name to what I’ve been struggling with after all this years! I’m 51 years old now and I still can’t talk to my dad about it because it hurts too much to relive. Thank you Jonice for all that you do!

TJ - November 12, 2019 Reply

1. Don’t cry – be sad about things on your own time (ie alone)
2. Very few rules, sporadically enforced until Mum marries someone new – he is the ultimate authority and you WILL listen
3. Often were told that the we may live in a free country but our home was a dictatorship
4. Not doing your chores weather you were able to or not is punishable
5. Your brothers have privileges that you do not – that’s life – get over it.
6. Moms fragility is above all else. Upset her and you will pay for it.
7. Surface forgiveness only – it can and will be used against you – no matter how petty.
and many many many more. Have been in therapy for 6 year on and off. For the last 3 I’ve been going pretty much every month. Thanks for the great content Dr.Webb!

Merve ARDİL - November 12, 2019 Reply

The biggest rule I was indulged into was “You are a stupid baby if you show emotions.” They were actively trying to supress me every time I showed anger, sadness, disappointment or even joy. Another rule was “Mom or dad, never meant that” (after a heartbreaking moment). They never apologised for or explained any harm afterwards, because “all they wanted was the Best for their children”. And it is so sad nobody believes in a child’s reaction when they are mistreated in the family, because everybody (relatives, neighbours, teacher) would be “wise enough” to know that every parent “deeply loves” their children. No, they don’t. Even today I am fighting with this thought thinking maybe it’s me who is “gaslighting”. Having an Emotionally Neglectful parent changes your life forever.

Beth - November 12, 2019 Reply

Our friends were not allowed in our house to play or even on our property. I was always at a friend’s house but eventually the friend’s parents would notice the invitation was never recipricated. Why do you never play at Beth’s house? It was awkward and embarrassing to answer that question to an adult at age 6. We lost friends over it and suffered some bullying as well.

Blaj Mara - November 12, 2019 Reply

Possibly other rules : don’t feel good about yourself, don’t show yourself, don’t be yourself.

Jasmine - November 11, 2019 Reply

Unspoken rules in my family:
– everything mom and dad tell you is true and you must be evil or crazy if you think otherwise
-other adults shouldn’t give children that aren’t theirs adivice
*and if they try we shouldnt aknowledge it
-you should tell Mom and dad everything going on in your life
-any tinge of negativity felt in your life are due to your not listening to mom and dad
-other people don’t care about you or really love you
-verbalized upset results in a disruptance and gets annoying real fast
-people’s influence outside the family is often just brainwashing
-if you’re upset but your mom is upset at the same time, mom’s emotions should come before your own
-you can’t be anxious or depressed, you were given everything and we’re never abused
-if you’re upset telling Mom will result in you consoling her
-messes mean that no one helps out
-extra cleanliness means you could have and should have done that in the first place
-relations outside the family are the reasons you’re not doing better in life
-if plans change you must hate the family
-everyone makes mistakes but Everytime you introduce us to a new person from your life we will bring up every single one of them
-everyone makes mistakes but your mistakes are making mom and dad age faster
-we are a nice family and I’m getting how what you did was wrong across by yelling at you until I see your face drop and you shrink back
-if you don’t react to mom or dads yelling at you with immediate sorrow and sympathy then you lack empathy and could be a psychopath
-reacting with anger or upset to mom and dad’s judgements doesn’t make sense and you are an explosive person

Laurie Klingel - November 11, 2019 Reply

Stay busy all the time
Work, work, work
People have it much worse than you do

Sally - November 11, 2019 Reply

These rules have ruled my life in addition
1. Don’t cry or you will have something to cry about
2. Don’t smirk (??)
3. Don’t say what you think
4. We don’t get angry
(Unless it’s mum or dad)
5. Don’t be ridiculous of course you can sleep
6 work hard at school
7 Don’t answer back
8 don’t ever upset your mother (or father)
9 good children play nicely and don’t fight or have tantrums
One of the biggest rules was secrecy, I understood aged 33 that my mother had another child that was adopted before she was married. This dominated all our lives by never being spoken about. I am 62 now and we still can’t. Thank goodness I discovered a wonderful therapist 4 years ago who is helping me with 62 years of emotional damage. Your website is a great additional help, thank you.

    Jonice - November 11, 2019 Reply

    Those are painful rules indeed. Thank you for sharing them Sally!

drm - November 11, 2019 Reply

I don’t know for sure if there were unspoken rules. In my family there were three of us, all girls. My dad would pick on us until we cried and then call us a big baby. I would go to my room and lay on my bed and cry. From that experience, I believed I learned that my feelings didn’t matter. My mother never came in to see if I was OK. I think my mom was afraid of my dad because he was verbally abusive. I believe he was jealous of the three of us because my mom gave us so much attention. I think he thought he needs were the most important. I think I suffer from CEN, but I don’t know for sure. I also think we experienced lot of trauma. I don’t know if I have CEN or not.

    Jonice - November 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear DRM, I think all these questions are important to answer. I hope you will check the Find A CEN Therapist page under the Help tab so a professional can help you sort this all out.

Charlotte Orth - November 11, 2019 Reply

The more specific rule # 1 that I grew up with was, Mom always comes first. I was expected to put her before school, before friends, before even myself. My father enforced this rule indirectly too by telling me not to upset my mom.
Mom on the other hand was allowed to rage, cry, throw things, hit all of us, including Daddy.

Elspeth - November 10, 2019 Reply

Don’t talk about emotion directly. It can be done indirectly through either joking love, or passive aggression, but never in a way that feels too real. (I’m sure you could put this better, if you agree.)

Karen - November 10, 2019 Reply

I’m blown away by this post. Nearly all of these ‘rules’ are running my life and I had no idea! I’ll do the work to convert them to the positive and empowering version as you recommend. This explains my stunted emotional growth. In turn this has led to countless poor decisions throughout my life to my detriment. I’ve just realised I’m still living life from the mindset of a kid in survival mode even though I’m in my sixties. What a revelation!

Anna Marie - November 10, 2019 Reply

I grew up with so so many of these rules. I didn’t realize they were rules. I thought they were simply reality, the way life is. Then as an adult I see that in our home we, again, brought so many of these rules into our home with our children. Thank you for bringing these ‘to the light’. I needed to see them to recognize them for what they are. Now I need to share them with my children and we need to work to reset these rules. I really had no idea this did happen and that I continued it to some degree.

Mdungan - November 10, 2019 Reply

As we are discussing Thanksgiving plans, this is very helpful to read. I am sometimes a nervous wreck around my husband’s family. I have rocked the boat with the parents by asking for a few basic common manners. I recently reminded them nicely of one, and they are so upset with me. I can either be a non-person and go along with everything; which I am no longer willing to do. Or I can state my needs, knowing that they will push back or overreact, like I am crazy. I know I have protected my children when they were young. I can’t change them, I can only be the kindest, strongest me I can be.

Joan Weihmann - November 10, 2019 Reply

Thank you so much Jonice! The 33 unspoken family rules are what I grew up with. Overriding them with truthful messages is very helpful for me.

    Jonice - November 11, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad you’re overriding your successfully Joan. Keep it up!

Laura Bentz - November 10, 2019 Reply

oops, clearly I commented before carefully reading the instructions! the list of rules seems pretty comprehensive to me, and sadly, familiar… I wanted to thank you for the work you are doing! I can’t think of anything to add. Thank you for continuing to do this work, and make this topic accessible.

    Jonice - November 11, 2019 Reply

    You’re welcome Laura!

Ceri - November 10, 2019 Reply

If you have needs people will be harmed. Unspoken family rule CEN

Laura Bentz - November 10, 2019 Reply

Thank you!

    Jonice - November 11, 2019 Reply

    You are welcome Laura!

Jeff - November 10, 2019 Reply

1. Don’t ever tell us you are gay. (Age 11 – 18).
2. Gay people are underground sick people.
3. What goes on with us (parents) is important. what you have to say is tolerable but please no drama.
4. Tell us when you have a girlfriend.
5. Your Morher will be your care giver. Step dad will be behind the scenes. And it’s ok that you are very uncomfortable around him. But keep that quiet.

LOUISA TAMBURRO - November 10, 2019 Reply

“Don’t trust and value your own feelings, needs and thoughts, I know you better than you do” – learnt when a child feels cold/hot/hungry/in pain/needs the loo, yet they are told “No you don’t feel cold/hungry/in pain etc” and actually they start to believe what the adult has tried to convince them. This narrative also sends out the message to children that they always need to seek approval from others.

Kate - November 10, 2019 Reply

you show “Don’t upset your father (or mother)” as being an adult aftermath/issue – in my case my mother would tell me “don’t bother your father” when I’d go to watch him paint in his studio – he liked me being there, or so he said, but she didn’t . . . not possible to know any of their truth about it, but it’s another manipulative family “rule” that makes a kid question her own intuition about people, and impression(s) of life – l

Gunther - November 10, 2019 Reply

My family had similar messages:

Don’t you ever talk to me like that!

Don’t get cute,

Don’t get smart

Don’t be smart

Don’t be a wise A**

Why are you acting so selfishly?

If you got nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all.

Can’t you keep your mouth closed?

He is your father.

She is your mother.

Because I said so.

Don’t ask questions.

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