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This is one of a series of Lesson-5 articles on evolving and
("functional") families. The series exists because the wide range of current
problems 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 +
cycle proposed in this
free self-improvement Web 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 and be aware of them.
This two-part YouTube video provides background for what you're about to
read: The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site. I've
reduced that to seven.
perspective on family roles and
including role confusions, conflicts, and strain.
brief perspective on stepfamily roles
and rules; and...
options for avoiding or resolving significant role and rule conflicts.
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")
Spoken and assumed roles are an important element in all
and other human and animal groups.
description 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 examples are parent, child, sibling, home owner, citizen,
voter, neighbor, vehicle-operator,
employee or student, friend, consumer, tax payer, etc.
Typical Family Roles
Traditional family role titles include:
father in law
sister in law
mother in law
niece / nephew
embryo / fetus
brother in law
nanny / au pere
baby / toddler
son in law
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 members. 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...
Assumed - taken on
accepted by a
child or an adult; or...
Dictated (imposed) by some person or group (like society) and
accepted or rejected; or roles can be...
Negotiated co-operatively by all group members to fill their
clear on and comfortable enough with
their several concurrent roles (e.g. daughter + granddaughter + sister +
niece), and they...
agree well enough on them.
roles are imposed, assumed, vague, unstable (variable), disputed, and/or inappropriate (don't fit members'
abilities and interests).
These role-problems 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
subselves, like members 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 personal and social 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
values (preferences or opinions).
range from minor to major, and may spark divisive
loyalty disputes and relationship
So your family adults need to know how to identify each of these three stressors
and what to do about them. Follow the links
Another common problem is...
Role confusion occurs when one or more
subselves or people are unsure of their role (responsibilities) 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 family system like a birth or adoption, a child
beginning puberty, a separation 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
Can you think of
such confusions among your family members?
Significant or chronic role confusion may indicate a deeper personal
problem: unrecognized psychological
causing personality disarray, which can cause personal
confusion. Clarity on your social roles is part of knowing who you are as an
Is there a "best way" to handle
The first step
is 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/s (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 (role) description": or...
family members arguing about who should do
what, how, and when - a role conflict (above).
To state the obvious, the best
resolution option is the second one. This is most likely in high-nurturance
(functional) homes and families.
third related problem is...
Role strain happens when an
adult or child...
doesn't understand their
role/s or what's expected of them;
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 or motivated to do
a grandparent insists that grandkids adopt
the seniors' religion and church regardless of their wishes
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, avoidances,
adults learn what role strain is and what it's symptoms are;
Periodically, use this
knowledge to assess adults and kids for role strain - specially during
and after significant family or environmental changes. This requires
adults to be guided by their true Selves;
appropriate, explain to any kids what role strain is in language they
Make it safe
in all your homes to admit and discuss role strain and related
problems - e.g. no shaming, criticism,
defensiveness, joking, or sarcasm;
skills to renegotiate family roles and eliminate
the strain (see Lesson 2).
We just reviewed three common human-group stressors: role conflicts,
role confusion, and role strain. Pause, breathe, and notice where your
thoughts go now...
Significant family role problems
always mean that the
members involved are
Grown Wounded Children (GWCs)
who don't know how to resolve them. That is, role confusion,
conflict, and strain are symptoms of deeper family problems.
To analyze and
problems, follow the links.
Now let's explore a related family-system
About Family Rules
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 to
promote securityand comfort (e.g. "If I smile at Mom, I may get a
hug") . Typical rules sound like this:
Every adult and child
should help to
maintain order, safety, and sanitation in our home.
Every person ought to respectthemselves and each other in calm and conflictual situations
should always (want
to) tell the truth
Resident adults (vs. kids)
must wantto make major household decisions
should notwant to be buddies
with their kids
Our family relatives
loyal to each other, and enjoy celebrating together
to share religious
faith and worship together
must visit the dentist at
least twice a year and get a physical checkup at least annually.
have tolimit 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
personality subselves. People
ruled by false selves tend to be over-rigid
or notably undisciplined and
inconsistent about their rules and consequences..
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-rigid" persons, homes, and families with too many inflexible rules and consequences.
Who Makes a Family's
Thisreally 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 Rosa said we should
never...")Others are led by one or more partners or parents, a strong-willed
child, and/or an influential advisor. Some families
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
mapping 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
Lesson 1 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 conditions. 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 (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 consequence. 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 respectfully
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 homes to see if they’re really safe there.
Unaware, wounded, or overstressed parents may mis-label this
instinctive healthy testing as "making trouble," "being uncooperative,"
"rebelling," or "acting out."
The ideas above apply to families in general. Some types of families are
specially prone to significant role and rule problems. Perhaps the most
prone are typical stepfamilies, for several reasons. If you aren't
interested in this, skip to here.
Roles and Rules
you know anyone in a
stepfamily? It's specially likely they're experiencing
multiple role-problems like those above. Most stepfamilies follow the divorce
of one or both new partners. Many
divorcing families include one or more
minor or grown kids.
Typical divorcing families undergo complex changes to
their structure, roles, and rules over several years. The
members of such families are often polarized and conflicted,
which makes resolving role, rule, and relationship problems
specially hard. Many such families eventually become
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.
extended stepfamilies have up to
30 roles- 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
job (role) descriptions is a vital early part of
merging their three or more biofamilies. Part of
healthy stepfamily development is adults 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 Kiko’s real sister, you’re just her
36 years as a stepfamily
therapist, this is rare.
nuclear stepfamilies usually have two sets of rules:
"kids here," and "kids away" (visiting). A
challenge for most minor kids shuttling between two co-parenting homes is to
adapt to two different
sets of rules that they didn’t help to create and often can’t affect.
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, hygiene, socializing,
celebrations, and health. Related rules evolve un/consciously to govern how ex-mates,
stepparents, stepsiblings, and stepfamily relatives should feelaboutandbehave 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 Lesson 7 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 ?)
intentionally teaching our kids and key others about family roles,
rules, consequences, values conflicts, loyalty conflicts, and
relationship triangles now (T F ?), and...
we're patiently demonstrating how to identify and
resolve each of these effectively to the kids, over time (T
No-one in our family
is significantly _ confused or upset about their current roles or _ 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
responding 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 like divorce and parental cohabiting or
offers perspectives on family roles, rules, and
describes common role conflicts, confusion,
and strain; and the article...
offers options and 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
do you need?
Is there anyone you want to
discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these
questions - your wise resident
true Self or