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Family and Relational Rules

How Rules Affect Behavior And Attitudes

The task of identifying the outcome of family and relational rules is as important as identifying predictors of rules. Rules provide a guideline for behavior and a set of expectations. These guidelines often impact the children in families. For example, parental rules about smoking has been linked to lower levels of adolescent smoking (Proescholdbell, Chassin, MacKinnon 2000) whereas the absence of rules about the use of smokeless tobacco resulted in greater use by U.S. middle-school boys (Brubaker, Fowler, and Kinder 1989). Elaine Rodney and her colleagues (1999) studied the home environment and delinquency for African-American adolescents. They found that family rules—as well as time spent with the child—and home discipline were significantly related to incidents of conduct disorder (e.g., getting into fights, destroying property).

Family and relational rules also provide a sense of predictability and can impact relationship maintenance and satisfaction. The number of rules has been linked to the level of closeness between children and their parents. Mikulincer and his colleagues (1993) reported that Israeli-Arab adolescents who had more rules felt closer to their parents. This is not true for every culture or every family however. Mikulincer and his colleagues also reported that no such pattern was evident among Israeli-Jewish youth.

Family secrets. Perhaps the most profound impact of family and relational rules centers on the rules of communication. A majority of the research on relational and family rules has centered on communication rules. This is because a majority of the research on family rules is centered in family counseling. Satir, a family counselor, specifically addresses the freedom to comment. Freedom to comment rules address what can you say, to whom can you say it, how you go about handling disagreements or disapproval of someone or something, and how you ask a question when you do not understand.

Satir argues that fear on part of the family members has much to do with rules about taboos and secrets. Anita Vangelisti's (1994) research on family secrets supported this idea. Vangelisti identified three types of family secrets: taboo, rule violations, and conventional secrets. Taboo topics were activities that is often condemned and stigmatized by both family members and larger society (e.g., sexual preferences, extramarital affairs) and were often secrets kept by the whole family. Rule violations were activities that broke rules families typically try and enforce (e.g., premarital pregnancy, drinking, partying) and were often secrets kept by an individual family member. Conventional secrets included information that is not usually wrong but is considered inappropriate to talk about with non-intimate others (e.g., health problems, traditions). Each of these types is associated with fear on the family member's part.

Satir also argues that family secrets can be detrimental to the health of the family. She specifically argues that family rules about taboo topics can hurt the child later. Families who avoid discussing a "fault" in a family member (e.g., a relative is in jail) often have children who "grow up to be adults who see themselves as versions of saints or devils instead of living human [beings] who feel" (Satir 1996, p. 170). Satir believes an individual's and family's health is a result of the freedom to comment on rules. This belief is supported by communication research that found secrets impact family and relational satisfaction. Vangelisti found the families with more secrets were less satisfied than families with fewer secrets. This was especially true when family members held secrets from other family members. Roloff and Ifert (1998) also found that relationship partners who had more taboo topics were less satisfied.


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Mikulincer, M.; Weller, A.; and Florian, V. (1993). "Sense of Closeness to Parents and Family Rules: A Study of Arab and Jewish Youth in Israel." International Journal of Psychology 28:323–335.

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Rodney, H. E.; Tachia, H. R.; and Rodney L. W. (1999). "The Home Environment and Delinquency: A Study of African American Adolescents." Families in Society 80:551–559.

Roloff, M. E., and Ifert, D. (1998). "Antecedents and Consequences of Explicit Agreements to Declare a Topic Taboo in Dating Relationships." Personal Relationships 5:191–205.

Satir, V. (1988). The New Peoplemaking. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Satir, V. (1996). "The Rules You Live By." In Making Connections: Readings in Relational Communication, ed. K. Galvin and P. Cooper. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing.

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Smetana, J. G. (2001). "Middle-Class African American Adolescents' and Parents' Conceptions of Parental Authority and Parenting Practices: A Longitudinal Investigation." Child Development 71:1672–1686.

Turner, L. H., and West, R. (1998). Perspectives on Family Communication. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Vangelisti, A. (1994). "Family Secrets: Forms, Functions, and Correlates." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 11:113–135.

Yerby, J.; Buerkel-Rothfuss, N.; and Bochner, A. P. (1990). Understanding Family Communications, 2nd edition. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorsuch Scarisbuck.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsFamily and Relational Rules - Rule Transmission, What Affects The Rules, How Rules Affect Behavior And Attitudes