(JANUARY 2017) 


Last month we looked at child needs and parenting styles as well as a preliminary preview of the family belief system. The rules establish boundaries about what members of the family can think, say, and do. Messages are what flows out of the rules and sets the foundation for what is perceived about each other, about others, and about life. The rules and messages may not always have been spoken but were sometimes made known through behaviour or body language. The mind is like a computer that was given a specific programme and today may still be responding to the rules and messages given while a child.

We also talked about the importance as you go through a “mental inventory” of your childhood rules and messages, of checking what needs to be changed to provide better options by looking at what isn’t working and how to make changes.

I like the analogy of spring housecleaning. For example, as I walk through my house I take an inventory of my things. I look at my curtains and see they are still in good shape and fashionable so I put them in a “keep” pile. I like those living room cushions and although they are a bit frayed, if I sew a new border on them and add some decorative buttons, I think they will be fine so I put them in a “keep but make changes” pile. That vase that I got for a housewarming gift is ugly and I put it in the “discard” pile.

That is what needs to be done with Rules. As you remember the childhood rules and messages given to you as a child, sort through them and see which ones are beneficial, which ones have some good content but perhaps need some tweeking to make healthier, and which ones are harmful.

How can you tell if a rule should be kept, changed or discarded? Check to see if they meet the required physical, psychological and moral/ethical basic needs. Rules that require perfection, deny or minimize feelings or value, cause fear of abandonment, foster hopelessness or helplessness, or portray the messages “don’t talk, don’t feel and don’t trust” need to go into the “change” or “discard” pile. These are the ones that cause a person to have difficulty asking for needs and wants, identifying and expressing feelings, trusting self and others, and disregarding internalized messages that create poor self-concept.

Here are a few examples of some family rules: (Keep? Change? Discard?)

You can’t trust anyone.

Be good (nice, perfect, obedient).

Adults are never wrong.

Always look on the bright side.

Act like ( a lady, an adult, your age)

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

You made your bed, now you lie in it.

Don’t talk to strangers.

Let’s have a look at “You can’t trust anyone”. Although at first you might be tempted to put in the discard pile, let’s have a closer look. If the change was made from “anyone” {untrue} to “everyone”, it makes for a healthier and truer rule ~ “You can’t trust everyone.” Since the original rule is too broad, the changed rule implies that other factors are important and thus lends to discussion about how trust is built, etc. These open discussions are what should occur at some level with all family rules, not just be rigid commands.

Don’t talk to strangers” also at first looks good but is too restrictive. It needs an addition like “unless mommy or daddy or another adult you trust is with you.” This builds in necessary safeguards without making the child timid and fearful.

You can’t judge a book by its cover” This is one that can be kept. It teaches not to jump to conclusions; that although first impressions can be important it doesn’t necessarily tell everything.

Examples of some negative messages: (see if any messages are a result of the above rules)

Don’t feel that way.

It’s your fault.

Why can’t you be (good? smart? pretty? like so-and-so?)

I’m disappointed in you.

We won’t love you if …

You’re not pulling your weight around here.

You owe us.

 Choose today to start making changes in your rules and messages. Change will occur as you continue to:

  • Recognize old unhealthy rules and messages
  • Replace them with healthy ones
  • Start to implement the new rules and messages in your life.



Old rule: “Respect your elders”

How it still affects me: I still allow myself to be touched even though I am uncomfortable.

New rule: Age does not automatically earn respect. I do not have to respect someone who abuses me.


Old message: “You’re so selfish”

How it still affects me: I try to please everyone at the expense of myself sometimes.

New message: I am not my behaviour. I need to look after myself too.


Old rule/message: “If you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all.”

How it still affects me: I’m afraid to try something new. I might fail.

New rule/message: Being good at something takes practice. I’m allowed to make mistakes because that’s how people learn.


As a child, you were not responsible for knowing whether they were healthy rules and trustworthy messages to live by. There was no choice about those rules and messages received and accepted at that time. You do have a choice as an adult about what rules and messages you continue to believe. You have the right to change them to healthy rules and trustworthy messages that validate and empower.


Given to me as a CHILD             RULES AND MESSAGES              Created by me as an ADULT


Judith S. Carscadden