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:
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.
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