From 4 Roles to 3 Rules

Parents are emotionally unavailable because of an issue in their life which the spouse wants resolved.  For example, a mother works full time plus.  She is successful in her job but works nienty hours a week.  Everyone wants to see more of Mom.  If she’d just work less, everything would be better.

A parent may be mentally ill and unable to provide the emotional nurturing and caring needed by the children. If the other parent does not understand the ramifications of a mentally ill partner and parent, the effects can be disastrous for the children.  If both parents are mentally ill, the children may be left to raise themselves, with occassional moments of parental support.

Or a parent may be plagued by addiction – whether to a substance (alcohol, food or drugs) or an activity (gambling, work or sex). Usually in these instances, the spouse is focused on the addictive behavior.  “If you’d just stop ________, our problems would be solved.”  Unfortunately, for an individual who has crossed the line from use to abuse to dependence (or addiction) simply stopping on their own is unlikely.

All of the children in these circumstances learn ways to cope. Along with the four roles, they learn a also a set of rules:

Don’t talk

Don’t trust

Don’t feel

Rule Number 1: Don’t talk:

This shows up in two ways.  Inside the home, without acceptance of the addiction or mental illness, there is the pervasive hope that someday, someway, dad is going to control his problems.  Children are often afraid that that day is today, so if we bring up the problem, that will cause him to start again.  The spouse is not usually dealing with the problem (especially at the beginning) that they are married to someone with an incurable, terminal disease if appropriate treatment is not sought and carried out.  For children of addicts, there is still a stigma around addiction – especially in middle and upper class homes.

Outside the home, no child wants their parent, their protector, provider of food and safety to be called a druggie or a drunk.  Nor do they want to risk social services or child protection agencies coming to the door, so they remain quiet.

The irony of this rule is that with the evidence of the elephant in the living room, we all walk around the pachyderm, ignoring it.  If we don’t talk about it, we don’t make it real and we can hope it will disappear.

Rule Number 2: Dont trust:

Children learn that promises made aren’t necessarily kept.  That commitments today aren’t always honored tomorrow.  “Yes, I’ll be at your soccer game,” means I’ll be there unless something more important comes along.

Children are also denied the truth of their experience.  Daddy wasn’t drunk; he had the flu.  As a result, many learn to doubt what their senses tell them and to distrust the words of others.  “I love you” may not mean as much to a child raised in this home.

And since they’re often told that what they saw/heard/experienced is not true, they may, in the unkindest cut of all, start to lose trust in themselves and their own ability to see what’s happening and decode the information.

Rule Number 3: Don’t feel:

With time, children in these families learn that their needs don’t matter.  That promises won’t always be kept and that their ‘truth’ is denied.  So they shut down emotionally.  This protective maneuver helps to keep them from hurting all the time.  While keeping their hopes from sailing too high, it also prevents them from falling too low.  And as a result, less emotional pain is experienced.

These learned rules develop when children are young and can’t see the world through experienced eyes.  They know that Mommy tells the truth, until they accept otherwise.  They know that daddy breaks promises, so they learn not to count on them.  They know there is no point in hoping for a change for the better, so they lock down their emotions.

The sad part about these rules, is that for most of us who learn them, we don’t know we’re living by them.  These are not conscious choices, remember, but a child’s response to a situation that is beyond their control.

We take these internal rules into our adult lives and relationships and even though we all promise life is going to be different for our children,  we perpetuate the problems.  Unless and until we choose not to.

Do you know someone who lives by any or all of these rules?  What was your experience of them?  Are they pleasant to be around?  Fun?  What happened to the relationship?

By the way I received an email question about family dynamics when one of the siblings dies.  Death always turns a family upside down. Among the children, usually one  role will be most impacted.  If the hero dies, the rebel will often take on the hero role for as long as possible.  If they stay in this role, one of the other siblings will begin acting out.  Otherwise, one of the other children, usually the lost child, will step up and become the hero, putting their time away from the family to good use to become successful.

Martini glass is from|

About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
This entry was posted in Abuse, adult children, child abuse, healing, Louise Behiel, self help and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to From 4 Roles to 3 Rules

  1. I’ve been lurking – enjoying your series. I think there may be other factors that contribute to these 3 rules – for me it was bullying in part.

  2. Louise

    Thank you for doing this work

    I am going to repost this and reference your blog (when I reblog people rarely read the link)

    Important stuff! Thank you!

    Peace, Jen

  3. Pingback: “Don’t talk Don’t trust Don’t feel…” Thank you Louise Behiel « Step On A Crack…Or Break Your Mother's Back

  4. iamnotshe says:

    I second JEN. Your family info.,description of Roles and Rules is AWESOME stuff. Families are SO great and yet they are SO difficult in OH SO many ways. Thank you for the objective info. … and sharing the “hard” stuff. Frankly, THAT is the info. that feels comforting in some strange way. xo m

  5. Jennette Marie Powell says:

    I grew up with a family like this. Only the youngest of the three sibs (lost child) has anything to do with their dad; the other two pretty much disappeared. They were fun to be with when they were around, but the middle (rebel) was very unreliable. In fact, he left some very nice automotive tools at our house over 10 years ago, and never returned for them.

    The tricky part about using this in fiction is the fact that, as you mention, people who live by these rules often don’t know it. Another case for “show, don’t tell.” Thanks for another informative post!

    • I’m sorry this is your family story, Jennette. But you’re among the majority, ironically. I think when we’re crafting characters it is important to use what we know about our experience to make them more life like. But I also know that I often lack the language to do this from my experience. So hopefully people are getting both aspects: some truth about their own lives and some material for writing as well.

      • Jennette Marie Powell says:

        Oh wow, I just saw this. I’m actually very blessed to have grown up with parents who were mostly there, though of course we had our disfunctional aspects like any family. This is a family my family was friends with the whole time I was growing up – our parents were friends, the oldest girl was close to my age, the middle boy was my brother’s age. They were some of our best friends, and we’ve totally lost touch with them because of the lousy relationship they have with their dad – it’s sad. But thanks for your reply!

        • Sorry, I misunderstood. but i have to agree – it is very sad to see these relationships so estranged. especially when your circumstances are so different. Lucky you.

  6. Heidi says:

    Good reminder. I like this kind of information. Thanks for posting it.

  7. This if all so interesting, Louise. Isn’t it a nice feeling to blog about something that you know so well and is obviously very dear to your heart?

    Thanks for sharing all of this information.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Patricia/Jansen — you are right it is fun to blog about something I know and am comfortable discussing. I don’t know if it’s ever going to go viral but it is valid informaiton for many people and this provides a way for them to read about it, if they haven’t come across it before.

      hmmm now where to go next? LOL

  8. Reetta Raitanen says:

    This is deep stuff. Thank you so much, Louise. I have bookmarked the post for future reference.

  9. Fantastic post! I’m keeping all your posts on file for reference 🙂

  10. Debra Kristi says:

    This makes me so sad. 😦 Thank you for all your hard work on these informative posts.

  11. Very true, Louise. Family dynamics play a huge role in how we learn to act and react with others as adults. Those whose needs aren’t met as children learn not to bond and attach. Those in abusive households learn that abuse is normal. They tend to find abusive relationships in the future or become abusive themselves. People really need to think about what they’re doing to and in front of their children. This is wonderful information. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Hello there You!

    I would like to Know More About You Hence this award!


    for details my Friend!

    Peace, Jen

  13. These posts are always so touching and sad, Louise. Thank you for continuing to share them. It helps me understand and be more lenient to those around me who may have lived through a difficult upbringing or who may be in a difficult situation now.

  14. Such an important and well-written post, Louise. You’ve really illustrated the way self-harming behaviors harm others. Such knowledge can go a long way toward hope and healing.

    • That’s my hope, August. I’ve tried to present complicated information in a simple way so that we can identify ourselves, if necessary, for without identification there can be no change. And at a minimum, hopefully, this will help with characterization as we write.

  15. Karen McFarland says:

    Louise, these posts are so important, though sad and common. And like Lisa said above, it’s the bully attitude that stems from this behaviour parental pattern that is so distructive. Scary to think about this Louise. But helpful in a novelist kind of way too. Characterization. Thanks. 🙂

    • some of this is scary as we think about what could have or did go wrong but it’s also a tribute to the homan spirit to overcome all these challenges. and always good for characterisation :))

  16. asraidevin says:

    Oh I’m putting things together today and I thought I had worked through much of my childhood stuff, but NO, this is what is keeping me from writing from a deeper place (as well as probably a number of other things but I’ve been pondering my writing the last little while).

    What I realized is I have tried to work these out in therapy a few times, but having to stick to the rules made it impossible to confess to them.

    Thanks. I’m off to ponder. Any resources for overcoming the rules?

    • Asrai, I’m so pleased that this post helped put a couple of things together. that’s cool. It’s not always easy to overcome the rules, Asrai. I would take a good look around and see who in your life, based on behavior is trustworthy. Who can you count on, regardless of the circumstances to follow up all the time. Who can you count most of the time, etc etc. This iwll likely take time because we don’t naturally trust. We haven’t had that experience. But based on behavior only take a look.

      Then I’d make a list of things I have trouble communicating about. for me it was always my needs. I had a hard time even knowing what they were. I’d say I’m strong and I can handle things – and I did, without concern for myself. another way to approach this is to consider what makes you feel nauseous when you think about discussing it — and start that list.

      and that’s where the healing comes in.

      all this recovery stuff starts with recognition of the circumstances and then knowing they’re mine and then the work to heal them.

      feel free to send me an email and we can discuss it further if you’d like.

      • asraidevin says:

        Part of the reason it all came together is I’m taking How to Think Sideways from Holly Lisle, which is meant to be a writing course, but the first two lessons have been life lessons and looking at what holds us back from writing what we want.
        I`ve started writing about it in blog posts (that may never be posted) and journal entries.

        I will probably send you an email in the future with some questions, thank you for the very kind offer. It`s easter break here so i don`t know how much introspection time is coming my way while the extra child is at home.

        • I took a couple of Holly’s courses and they’re great. I have to figure out what’s doing now with them, so i can get what I need. ah yes, Easter break, I remember it well. always a busy time. when you’ve got a moment, feel free to email me. it will be fun to chat.

  17. Yes, I know people with these issues. You’re a very wise woman, Louise. And I’m going to know more because, thanks to your posts about this, some of my characters will have more depth. 🙂

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