The Five Unspoken Rules of Dysfunctional Families

Family With Adult Children Having Argument At Breakfast

In families with significant dysfunction, the rule book of what makes a family whole and functional tends to fly out the window.

The “unspoken rules” in a dysfunctional family unit are often entirely different from families without much chaos, trauma, or destruction.

Here, you will learn about some of the unspoken rules of dysfunctional families and how to find recovery. 

Unspoken family rules

Every family is different – as a child, you may have noticed that your parents had entirely different rules, values, and ways of doing things than others.

You likely picked up specific traits and behavioural patterns from your family of origin that are markedly different from other families.

How you fix your hair, cook, clean, and your unique daily rituals all encompass patterns from your family – although different, many of these traits are likely to be positive, and that’s always a good thing.

Dysfunctional families

However, some of the learned behaviours you internalised from your family of origin as a child may not necessarily serve you as an adult.

So, what happens then?

If you grew up in a household where family members suppressed their feelings and emotions or where expressing negative feelings was frowned upon or punished, you’ll likely carry a sequence of unspoken rules through to adulthood.

The ”unspoken rule”

sad-child-with-trauma-sitting-alone-with-doll

For example, if your parents scolded you for expressing anger or sadness when you were younger, you likely developed the belief that anger is wrong and that negative emotions must be avoided at all costs.

You learned that negative emotions mustn’t be experienced or felt (much less expressed), or you may be punished or scolded somehow.

Children are excellent observers, but they have little context around the meaning of their experiences; they have no proper way of articulating or translating external events, good or bad.

Internalising experiences

Inherently, children internalise their experiences, positive and negative, and when manifested destructively, can present as rage, depression, and even addiction later on.

In the example of anger, your family of origin may have conditioned you to repress negative feelings or emotions, particularly unpleasant ones.

Subsequently, you may have trouble dealing with conflict or tension in your relationships as an adult.

How unspoken family rules show up in adulthood

We assume that what we were taught as children and our family’s rules were normal.

And this assumption is entirely accurate. What’s normal for one family won’t be for another.

Essentially, children are born blank slates – these slates become filled with various experiences and learnings as the child moves through the different phases of development.

For example, a toddler may only partially understand that taking money from their mother’s purse is unacceptable until they reach the level of maturity that helps them develop context around their behaviour and consequences.

Recognising unhealthy patterns

young daughter not listening to mother

As children, we assumed that specific family patterns were “normal” because we didn’t know any different. As a result, we may project these expectations onto other families, expecting them to act or behave similarly.

However, once we reach a certain level of maturity, we may realise that specific behavioural patterns are unhealthy.

Unspoken family rules that are so deeply embedded can cause various complications and challenges for the child -turned adult. Moreover, these unhealthy coping patterns may lead to a lack of fulfillment and addiction.

What are unspoken family rules, and how to recognise them?

Unspoken family rules are not clearly defined like other rules or boundaries – for instance; you may have had specific chores, allowances, and curfews growing up.

These rules were more realistic for you to stick to because your parents clearly defined them – you will be grounded or punished in some way if you break the rules.

In this case, there’s transparency. And that’s always a good thing.

Unspoken rules in dysfunctional families

However, unspoken rules work in different ways.

Unspoken family rules are learned by the response you get when you break one.

This provides little context around what is acceptable or unacceptable; thus, the child learns through the responses they get when they do or say something improper rather than relying on learned information.

Modelling of behaviours

Children often internalise these “rules of engagement” through modeling their parents’ behaviour.

Perhaps a mother suppresses her sadness or worry, and the child adopts a similar coping mechanism.

Or maybe a father cannot control his rage while drinking, and the child associates aggression with alcohol and repeats this pattern in adulthood.

If you were taught that it wasn’t okay to experience anger, worry or guilt as a child, you would not have the tools to manage these emotions when they show up in later life.

Avoidance behaviours

Subsequently, you may avoid negative emotions, shy away from them as an adult, or have explosive bouts of anger that create more shame.

Now, let’s look at some of these unspoken family rules in more detail.

The five unspoken rules of dysfunctional families

Let’s start by saying that rules are not wrong – the reverse is quite often true.

Rules give us structure and help us understand our limits; they provide context for behaving in a certain way in specific situations or events.

For instance, if you are a newbie at the gym, you may not instinctively know where the used towels go, but you learn over time not to leave your sweaty towel draped over your locker.

Rules make us feel safe. And that’s always a good place to start.

But what about in families – where rules are often unspoken, and there’s no clear understanding of boundaries, rules, or consequences?

You may wonder how all this affects a person throughout their life – here are five unspoken family rules that help give you context and meaning around your experiences and what you can do to help yourself.

In dysfunctional families, children are often taught to:

1. Bottle up their feelings

woman thinking hard while sitting down

The message that children learn here is “don’t feel your feelings”.

But of course, anyone with a pulse will know how impossible it is not to experience negative emotions.

However, if your family members taught you that certain emotions are unacceptable, what often happens is that you need to relearn how to manage them effectively as an adult.

In dysfunctional families, emotions such as anger, guilt, sadness, and fear are often viewed as unacceptable and are therefore minimised.

This may result in dissociation, numbness, or trouble regulating your emotions.

There are various ways that children conceptualise unspoken family rules.

For example, they may observe their parents’ reactions to negative emotions. If a child’s mother experiences depression or despair, the child may think it’s their job to lighten the mood and may overlook their sadness.

The child stops feeling their feelings.

2. Not discuss things

This unspoken family rule is not meant in the literal sense.

The unspoken family rule of “not discussing things” doesn’t mean you are forbidden from discussing your day or what you had for lunch. 

However, you may be discouraged from bringing up slightly more controversial topics that create tension or discomfort.

There’s a culture of silence in these family units, where specific topics are off-limits.

All this cultivates secrecy in and outside of the family unit.

In families where one or more parents have a drug or alcohol addiction, the culture of silence is more profound, each family member is acutely aware of the issue, but they don’t discuss it.

3. Deny there are issues in the family and beyond

daughter arguing with mother

There’s a pervasive sense of denial that lingers in dysfunctional families.

Like the previous unspoken family rules, denial runs deep in dysfunctional families where issues are ignored, dismissed, or swept under the carpet.

Let’s revisit the example where a parent has an alcohol or drug problem; the dysfunctional family may cover up the issue and the addict’s behaviour.

What may happen here is that children learn to minimise a parent’s substance abuse issues, even when it leads to neglect or abuse.

An individual who grew up in a dysfunctional family may experience dissociation and avoidance of negative feelings in adulthood. In addition, they may doubt their perceptions, particularly in intimate relationships.

Denying problems is one of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional family.

4. Distrust others

In dysfunctional families, people are taught not to trust. And in homes where substance addiction is rife, this unspoken rule is magnified.

As a result, secrets, denial, and lying are the “norm.” Promises are consistently broken. Feelings are dismissed, so trusting them doesn’t come naturally.

Children raised in homes where parents abuse substances learn early on that they cannot rely on others. In addition, this unspoken rule of “not trusting other people” is reinforced through the use of protective behaviours where the child may:

  • Be watchful of their parents and other people
  • Be on guard for when a fight breaks out
  • Learn that they cannot trust adults to take care of them or keep them safe

Children with these experiences tend to carry a profound sense of loneliness and isolation into adulthood, often leading to unhealthy coping skills such as substance abuse or other destructive behaviours.

5. Believe that their worth comes from what they do, not who they are

frustrated woman calling while sitting on a chair

Children who learn to quantify their self-worth with what they achieve or how well they perform at school or home often grow up with the unspoken rule that academic, work, or financial success is what makes them worthwhile.

This deeply-embedded family rule often leads people to question their worth as adults; people may doubt their value, especially when they make a mistake or fail at something.

What you can do to help yourself

It can be challenging to unlearn specific ways of thinking or behaving, especially since some things are more deeply-ingrained than others, but recovery is possible.

Various therapies and support make it possible for healing to occur. 

Through deep exploration and self-understanding, you will begin to recognise unhelpful patterns of behaviour that no longer serve you as an adult.

Therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, and trauma treatments can help you unpack your experiences and reprocess them in a safe space with the guidance of a supportive, compassionate therapist.

At Centres for Health and Healing, our specialists treat and diagnose various mental health disorders and addictions. 

Our treatment programs are delivered in a safe, compassionate, supportive environment that cultivates lasting healing and transformation.

Contact a specialist today to begin your journey to emotional freedom and wellness.

Additional resources

  1. Unspoken Family Rules: How They Shape Your Decisions Today, Restored Hope Counselling Services, February 21, 2019
  2. 10 Unspoken Rules of Dysfunctional Families, Psychology Today, Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, November 2, 2022
Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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