Lesson 5 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance family

Resolve Family
and Rule Problems

By Peter Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

Updated 03-25-2015

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/fam/roles_rules.htm

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-5 articles on evolving and enjoying high-nurturance ("functional") families. The series exists because the wide range of current social 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 + unawareness] 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.

      This article offers:

  • perspective on family roles and rules, including role confusions, conflicts, and strain.

  • brief perspective on stepfamily roles and rules; and...

  • options for avoiding or resolving significant role and rule conflicts.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it   

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • how to use family systems ideas

  • basic Q&A about families

  • ways to analyze and resolve typical relationship problems 

      Try saying your definition of "family roles" out loud. Then compare it to this:

About Family Roles

      Premise - 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 family systems and other human and animal groups.

      A role 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



family friend


aborted child


sister in law





mother in law




niece / nephew

embryo / fetus



adopted child



foster child

brother in law



nanny / au pere


baby / toddler

half sibling


son in law

       A role is not a person - e.g. the role-title son designates (a) a genetic and ancestral relationship with parents and grandparents, and (b) set of social responsibilities ("sons should obey their parents") - not the male who accepts them. Implication: if "Manny is a harsh father" (a role) it does not mean he is a "bad" person!

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 this role

Unclear: one or more family members are not sure what their (or someone's) role is.

Unstable: responsibilities shift randomly and/or with the environment

Disputed - members disagree over who has what responsibility, in which circumstances

      And roles can be...

Assumed - taken on spontaneously; or...

Freely 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 respective primary needs. 

      In high-nurturance (functional) families, all adults and children are...

  • clear on and comfortable enough with their several concurrent roles (e.g. daughter + granddaughter + sister + niece), and they...

  • 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 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 Procrastinator feels she is better at managing tasks than my true Self.")

      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.

Family Role Conflicts

      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). They range from minor to major, and may spark divisive loyalty disputes and relationship triangles. 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...

Family Role Confusion

      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 with them?

Can you think of such confusions among your family members?

      Significant or chronic role confusion may indicate a deeper personal problem: unrecognized psychological wounds causing personality disarray, which can cause personal identity confusion. Clarity on your social roles is part of knowing who you are as an individual

      Is there a "best way" to handle role confusions?


      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.

      A third related problem is...

Family Role Strain

      Role strain happens when an adult or child...

  • doesn't understand their role/s or what's expected of them;

  • feels unable 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 confidant);

  • 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 "drinking buddy"

  • 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, ambiguity, etc.


  • All family 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;

  • Where appropriate, explain to any kids what role strain is in language they can understand;

  • 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;

  • Use effective-communication 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 resolve such problems, follow the links.

      Now let's explore a related family-system element...

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 them.

      Adults, kids, and infants un/consciously evolve hundreds (thousands?) of behavioral rules to promote security and 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 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 dominant 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 Rules...

      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 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 "Which 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 how home and family rules are made and enforced enables adults to identify and resolve inevitable conflicts over rules and consequences.

      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. 

...and Consequences?

      To promote order and safety, rules require some sort of meaningful 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...

  • relationship basics,

  • everyone's personal rights, and...

  • effective communication skills.

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 here.

      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.

Stepfamily Roles and Rules

      Do 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 stepfamilies.

Stepfamily Roles

      Typical intact stepfamilies, 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.

      Typical 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 half-sister.")

In my 36 years as a stepfamily therapist, this is rare.

Stepfamily Rules

      Multi-home 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 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. Without adult 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.

Reality Check

      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  ?)

The 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 job (role) description is, (b) why they're valuable to us all, and (c) how to make and implement one that works. (T  F  ?)

We family adults are...

  • 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  F  ?)

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  ?) 

My true Self (capital "S") is responding to these items now, so there's little chance my answers are significantly 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 remarriage. This article...

  • offers perspectives on family roles, rules, and consequences;

  • 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 ''someone else''?

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