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This is one of a series of Lesson-5 articles on evolving and
families. The series exists because the wide range of current
suggests that most families don't fill the primary needs of (nurture) their members very
well. That suggests the epidemic effects of the lethal [wounds +
proposed in this nonprofit, ad-free site .
This article focuses on two aspects of any social system -
roles (members' responsibilities to each other and society)
and rules (how to perform
these roles "acceptably"). Roles
and rules can cause harmony or major stress, so family members and
supporters need to understand them.
perspective on family roles and
including role confusions, conflicts, and strain.
brief perspective on stepfamily role
and rule; and...
options for avoiding or resolving significant role and rule conflicts.
The article assumes you're
Try saying your definition of "family roles" out loud. Then compare it to
- groups of people
are more harmonious and productive when each person knows what they and other members are
responsible for. A role is a
set of values and responsibilities
that someone accepts - or feels someone else should want to accept
("Jennie and Roberto are responsible for caring for their baby")
Formal and informal roles are an important element in all
identifies a person's responsibilities in the context of a group, and may
prioritize (rank) them. Can you name all the roles you've chosen or accepted
in your current life? Common exam-ples are parent, child, sibling, home owner, citizen,
voter, neighbor, vehicle-operator,
employee or stu-dent, friend, consumer, tax payer, etc.
Typical Family Roles
Traditional family role titles include:
father in law
mother in law
brother in law
sister in law
embryo / fetus
baby / toddler
A role is not
a person - e.g. the role-title son designates (a) a genetic and ancestral
with parents and grandparents, and (b) set of
social responsibilities ("sons should obey their parents") -
male who accepts them. Implication:
if "Manny is a harsh father" (a role) it does not mean he is a "bad"
Each role label
implies certain expectations and possible responsibilities relative to other
family mem-bers. Traditional and special roles can be...
Vacant: no one has accepted
Unclear: one or more family members
are not sure what their (or someone's) role
Unstable: responsibilities shift
randomly and/or with the environment
- members disagree over who has what responsibility, in which
roles can be...
accepted by a
child or an adult; or...
Dictated (imposed) by some person or group (like society) and
accepted or rejected; or...
Negotiated co-operatively by all group members to fill their
families, all adults and children are (a) clear and comfortable enough with
their several concurrent roles (e.g. daughter, granddaughter, sister, and
niece), and they (b) agree well enough on them. In low-nurturance families,
roles are imposed, assumed, vague, unstable (variable), disputed, and/or inappropriate (don't fit members'
abilities and interests).
These cause personal and group stress.
Family roles usually come in pairs:
parent–child; husband–wife; brother–sister; uncle–nephew; and so on. We
label our family roles to identify our expectations of how
each person is "supposed to" feel and act toward the other person
and the group they belong to.
Roles and Your Personality
Premise - normal
personalities are composed of an "inner family" of talented
like mem-bers of an orchestra or sports team. Each subself has unique
talents and views, and performs a special
role (function) in the personality. Subselves can have role and rule conflicts just like people ("My
feels she is better at managing tasks than my
When a person's subselves are confused, overwhelmed, and/or conflicted about
their inner and outer roles, that promotes interpersonal problems.
Three Common Role Problems
In any social group like your family, stress can be caused by role
conflict, confusion, and strain. Let's look at how to spot each
of these and what to do about them.
These occur when two or more family members (or
personality subselves) disagree on what some member is responsible for.
These conflicts can happen as family members age and/or their family system
develops - e.g. "I
think Mario is old enough now to get a job to pay for his own gas and car
insurance." "Well I think that's asking too much of him."
Role conflicts are
often clashes of
(preferences or opinions).
range from minor to major, and may spark divisive
So your family adults need to know how to identify each of these three stressors
and what to do about them. Follow the links
Role confusion occurs when one or more
subselves or people are unsure of their role (responsi-bilities) in the group - e.g. "Should I send a
card to my father-in-law on his retirement?"). Confusion may happen
after a change to the
like a birth or adoption, a child
beginning puberty, a separa-tion or divorce; a marriage, a major illness, disability,
or death; and/or a geographic move.
A common sign of role confusion is uncertainty and ambivalence of how to act
toward another family member - in general, or in a new situation. Examples:
When a daughter's body matures and she
approaches or begins puberty, is it "right" for male family members to
see the daughter nude?
If parents divorce, is it appropriate for
either of them to enter their ex's home unannounced?
If a family-member is sentenced to jail,
should they expect other members to post bail for them?
If a male teen gets a schoolmate pregnant,
what are his parents responsible for?
If an adult child's marriage is failing,
what are their parents, grandparents, and/or siblings "supposed to" do?
If a parent is clearly addicted to something
and denies it, what are the other family members responsible for?
If a grandparent, aunt, or uncle is
overcontrolling and intrusive, who's responsible for setting boundaries
Is there a "best way" to handle
The first step for all family adults to agree on the importance of group
role clarity. The next requisite is awareness that someone is
confused about their family role (responsibilities). That can lead to...
ignoring the confusion and tolerating the
stress it causes (denying and avoiding the issue); or...
cooperative discussion and problem-solving -
e.g. agreeing on a "job description": or...
family members arguing about who should do
what, how, and when - a role conflict (above).
Role strain happens when an
adult or child...
to "do" their family roles per their own expectations or the
expectations of others, and/or...
they can't "do" their role adequately
without violating their own integrity; and/or they...
have several family roles
that are collectively overwhelming.
a maritally-dissatisfied parent expects
their minor child to act as their "surrogate mate" (companion and
a parent treats their grown child like an
adolescent, despite their protests
a parent expects their minor child to make
major family decisions for them
a father demands his son to help "run the
family business" despite the son's disinterest or inability
a husband demands his dependent wife do
sexual things that repulse her
an addicted spouse demands his mate be a
a wife demands that her husband do home
repairs he's not qualified to do
a grandparent insists that grandkids adopt
the seniors' religion and church
a brother expects his siblings to like the
same friends he does
Role strain usually occurs with role conflicts and confusion.
Symptoms can be direct ("I don't know how to be a half-brother!") or indirect:
irritability, reactivity, sarcasm, "moodiness," combativeness, avoi-dances,
have up to
- the traditional 15 and up to 15 new ones,
like step-grandfather, half-sister, stepdad, step-cousin, non-custodial
biofather, and visiting stepdaughter and stepbrother. The (a)
responsibilities of each of these alien new "jobs," and (b) the values and
rules governing how to "do" the roles right are often unclear to
new-stepfamily members, supporters, and the public.
This is one reason stepfamily adults' evolving consensual
is a vital early part of
their three or more biofamilies. Part of
normal stepfamily development is intentionally helping all members evolve clarity and agreement on...
everyone’s family roles, rules, and rituals; and...
names and what to title
each role ("You’re not Marian’s real sister, you’re just her
Typical intact biofamilies,
have many more members,
roles, homes, and loyalty conflicts than intact biofamilies, and little
informed support. So the odds for significant role and rule stress in
and between their related homes are high.
this self-improvement course illustrates how to evolve a solid, high-nurturance
Significant family role problems always mean that the
members involved are
who don't know how to manage them. That is, role confusion,
conflict, and strain are symptoms of deeper family problems.
To analyze and
stressors, follow the links.
Now let's explore a related family-system dynamic...
All persons and human groups evolve
spoken and unspoken behavioral rules and consequences to promote stability and security.
Rules are shoulds, musts, ought
to's, have to's, and
can'ts ("You can't set fire to the furniture.") Rule-making and
enforcing is so pervasive that most of us are unaware of it, except in major
disputes. Your family members may agree on everyone's
responsibilities (roles), but clash on the rules and consequences associated with
Adults, kids, and infants
un/consciously evolve hundreds (thousands?) of behavioral rules
("If I smile at Mom, I may get a hug.") to promote security and
comfort. Such rules sound like this:
Every adult and child should help to
maintain order, safety, and sanitation in our home.
Every person ought to respect themselves and each other in calm and conflictual situations
Family members should always (want
to) tell the truth
Resident adults (vs. kids) must want
to make major household decisions
Parents should not want to be buddies
with their kids
Our family relatives should feel
loyal to each other, and enjoy celebrating together
We all should want to share religious
faith and worship together
We each must visit the dentist at
least twice a year and get a physical checkup at least annually.
We have to limit our credit-card debt
to no more than $_____ .
Each family member is entitled to his or her
personal privacy and human rights.
...and so on. What would you say
are the ten most powerful rules that shape your family's relationships now?
What would your other family members say?
Family rules and consequences spring from the dominant adults' priorities,
values, and needs. These in turn reflect the traits of their
tend to be over-rigid
or notably undisciplined and
Homes and families with inconsistent
or few enforced rules are "chaotic." Their main rule is "We
will make or enforce few rules." At the other end of the spectrum are
"over-controlling" persons, homes, and families with too many inflexible rules and consequences.
Who Makes a Family's
This really asks "Who
makes the major decisions in our (your) home and family?" Some families are directed by a living or dead matriarch or patriarch.
("Grandma Nell said we should never...") Others are led by one or more partners or parents, a strong-willed
child, and/or an influential advisor. Some fa-milies
have co-leaders, and/or different leaders in different situations.
Family rules and rituals are also shaped by local and national laws and
social "traditions" - e.g. "We always eat turkey and the trimmings for
Thanksgiving." Members may disagree on who should
lead, or who is leading each home and their
multi-generational family. To clarify
who's leading your home and family, try
it after reading this article.
A more vital question for every adult is
personality subselves make the rules that cause my behavior
in calm and conflictual times?" self-improvement
focuses on answering this question and acting on the answer. Helping each other become aware of
home and family rules are made
and enforced enables adults to identify and resolve inevitable conflicts over rules and
Typical young adults forming a family reproduce some of the rules and
rituals ("traditions") they grew up with. They also invent or adapt
rules to accommodate their unique personal and social condi-tions. Ideally, your family
members will seek awareness of what
your main rules are and who made
them, to ensure they're relevant.
promote order and safety, rules require some sort of
consequence, and someone motivated and able to enforce the consequence. A key
factor in family functioning is how able your family adults are to assert their needs, limits
(rules), and consequences. Assertiveness depends on who rules
the adults' personalities (true Self, or other subselves), and how aware
the adults are of...
How do each of your family
adults stand on these three requisites - starting with you?
Consequences can be provided by
Nature ("If you don't
brush your teeth, you get cavities.") or by people ("If you're late for
dinner, you're on your own.") "No
consequence" for a broken rule is a conse-quence. To discern some of your values about rules and consequences,
see this worksheet after you finish
The challenge of effective child
discipline is to teach kids healthy values and life-skills by respect-fully
providing consequences when they break family and social rules.
A primary developmental task for every infant
and child is to learn and persistently test the key rules in their
roles and homes, to see if they’re really safe there.
Unaware or overstressed parents may mis-label this
instinctive healthy testing as "making trouble," "being uncooperative,"
"rebelling," or "acting out."
usually have two sets of rules:
"kids here," and "kids away" (visi--ting). A challenge for most minor
kids shuttling between two co-parenting homes is to adapt to two dif-ferent
sets of rules that they didn’t help to create, and often can’t significantly
Legal and informal rules that often causes conflicts in and between average
stepfamily homes have to do with child custody, visitations, financial
support, education, activities, home chores, names, hy-giene, socializing,
celebrations, and health. Related rules evolve un/consciously to govern how ex-mates,
stepparents, stepsiblings, and stepfamily relatives should
feel about and
behave toward each other in various settings.
Most initial stepfamily rules are based on members' biofamily
experience, training, and social norms, unless they're stepfamily veterans.
awareness of stepfamily realities, this promotes unrealistic expectations,
and escalating frustrations, criticisms, and conflicts. self-improvement
offers practical options to minimize this -
after adults accept
their stepfamily identity and what it means.
Agreeing on acceptable consequences for stepfamily rule and boundary
violations is usually harder than in average intact biofamilies,
because there are more people, more roles, more concurrent conflicts, more
family-merger tasks, and few social norms and informed supporters. This is
one reason courting co-parents do well to
compare their styles of setting and enforcing consequences in family situations
before deciding to commit.
Option: discuss the items below with
your family adults and kids to promote role and rule clarity and reduce role conflict and
strain. T = true, F = false, and ? =
"I'm not sure" or "it depends on..."
I can clearly
describe to an average teenager what a family (a) role and
(b) rule is, and (c) how our family roles and
rules relate to each other. (T F ?)
Each adult in my
family is clear enough on these three things now. (T F ?)
roles and rules in our
family are being
respectfully defined and negotiated over time
among us all. (T F ?)
All our adults and
kids agree on (a)
who belongs to our
family now, and (b) who leads us (makes key group decisions). (T F ?)
All our adults
know (a) what a family
(b) why they're valuable to us all, and (c) how to
make and implement one that works.
(T F ?)
family adults are...
intentionally teaching our kids and key others about family roles,
rules, consequen-ces, values conflicts, loyalty conflicts, and
relationship triangles now, and...
we're patiently demonstrating how to identify and
each of these effectively to the kids, over time (T
No-one in our family
is significantly (a) confused or upset about their current roles or (b) strained by
their multiple roles. (T F ?)
Our family adults are clear on _ who
makes the rules and consequences in each of our homes; and _ how to amend ineffective or
conflictual family rules and/or consequences.
(T F ?)
true Self (capital "S") is
to these items now, so there's little chance my answers
distorted (T F ?)
All social groups exist to fill
members' various needs. One universal need is for order and harmony -
i.e. security. To gain those, all kids and adults evolve family roles
(which member is responsible for what?) and related rules (how
should members perform their roles?).
Roles and rules can be a significant
source of confusion and conflict in low-nurturance families and those
undergoing major reorganizations (e.g. divorce and parental cohabiting or
offers perspectives on family roles, rules, and
describes common role conflicts, confusion,
and strain; and.
offers links to resources for preventing or
resolving these problems.
Pause, breathe, and recall why you
read this article. Did you get what
you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what
Is there anyone you want to
discuss these ideas with?
Who's answering these
questions - your wise resident
true Self or
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