Overruled! All About Setting Family Rules

Part 4 of a 5-Part Series on Family Wellness

In part IV of a five-part series on family wellness, Tasneem Kagalwalla talks about setting family rules.

The Oxford dictionary defines rules as, “one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.”

Rules therefore tend to project what one “must do.”

Now, let’s shift that perception from must and see how rules are actually a vital, dynamic, and extremely influential force in your family life.

Family rules are important as soon as two or more people live together. Typically rules revolve around money and budgeting, getting the chores done, planning for individual needs, dealing with household fixes, and any other contributing factors that make it possible for the family to live together in the same house.

Family Rules by Tasneem Kagalwalla

The question is who makes the rules. What they do for your family and what happens when they are broken?

The answers to these questions lie in the following 21 steps. Adhering to these will ensure a family that is having a ball. Ok! Just kidding – here are three simple steps to setting family rules that work in the best interest of your household.

Step 1 Find Out About the Rules in Your Family

Many a times you are living by rules you are not even aware of. Sit down with all family members and ask the following questions:

  • What are your current rules?
  • How well understood are your rules?

Do not discuss at this stage whether the rules are right or wrong and whether they are being obeyed or disobeyed.

This exercise should be carried out in the spirit of brainstorming together, trying to discover all there is to find. Maybe you have a nine year old boy who thinks that the rule is he has to stop playing when his younger sister wants to use the same game. He figures that since he is older he must sacrifice his play time. His sister on the other hand thinks that the rule is that her brother stops playing when his mother tells him to. Can you see the misunderstanding that can result from this? This could be happening in your home.

Also, irate parents often say, “The kids know what they should and shouldn’t do.” Ask the kids and they may have other ideas. Most people assume everyone else knows what they know. Talking over your rule inventory helps get everyone on the same page, identify the rules that are unfair or inappropriate, and assist with clearing misunderstandings and other behavioural problems.

For many families, simply sitting and discovering their rules is new and proves to be extremely enlightening.

Step 2 Discover Which of Your Rules are Outdated.

Some rules may still be relevant while others can become unnecessary.

Discard the old ideas and select the ones you find useful. Now ask the following questions:

  • Are the rules helping or obstructing?
  • What do you want them to accomplish?
  • What agreement have you worked out for making changes in your rules?
  • Who is allowed to ask for changes?
  • Can your family members appeal against a rule?

Use the following questions to dig further:

  • How are rules made in your family?
  • Does just one of you make them?
  • Is it the person who is the oldest, youngest or most powerful? Is it the head of the family who calls all the shots, or your mother-in-law; or is it the daughter-in-law who now holds all the reins?
  • Do you get them from books, from society, from peers or from the families where the parents grew up? Where do they come from?

And eventually talk about the rules that act as an invisible force, controlling the lives of all family members. These are the “unwritten rules” dealing with the freedom to comment.

  • Can you share what you are seeing, feeling, thinking, and hearing?
  • Can you express your helplessness, anger, need for comfort, etc.
  • To whom can you say it?
  • How do you go about it if you disagree or disapprove of someone or something?
  • How do you question what you don’t understand (or do you)?
  • Do you have any topics which you cannot talk about?

A family provides all kind of experiences. Some of joy and comfort; others of pain or sadness. Whatever the feelings, if they cannot be recognized and commented on, they get shoved under the carpet and eat away at the roots of family well-being. For example, expressions like, “you shouldn’t feel like that – you’re a boy and boys don’t cry.” This can develop wounds around individual self-worth, which may translate into helplessness, hostility, and loneliness.

Step 3 Final Check

Lastly after you have thought about and examined your rules, why not check them out against the following questions:

  • What are your new rules?
  • What are they accomplishing for you now?
  • What changes do you need to make now?
  • Which of your present rules fit?
  • Which have to be discarded?
  • What new ones do you have to make?

In conclusion, we have seen how rules can be a very real part of the structure and functioning of the family. Setting family rules takes continuous effort to bring about continuous improvement. New awareness, new resolve, and new hope can enable you to change the rules of the game and create win-win outcomes for your family.


Credits: Based on the research of famous American author and renowned family therapist, Virginia Satir.

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