Family rules provide clear boundaries related to expected acceptable behavior. They create a safe environment for children to learn and grow. When expectations and consequences are clearly stated and consistently followed, behavior problems often decrease. Establishing rules for your family is an important step towards creating the family life you want.

What Are Family Rules

Family rules are boundaries that you put in place to create structure in your family. These rules should be specific in order for them to be most effective. Family rules need to be clearly stated, have consistent consequences when they are not followed, and be age appropriate. It is helpful to discuss these rules with your children and to create a visual display. The rules can be broken down into three different categories of safety, expectations, and aspirations. When rules and consequences are clear, children are able to make an active choice in their behavior. The structure that you create through these rules can help your family function more effectively and peacefully.

Why Family Rules Are Needed

Rules create structure and set up expectations for appropriate behavior and functioning. Structure is very important for child development. When children have clear expectations and consequences that they follow at home, they can have an easier time adjusting to rules in other settings. Family rules keep expectations clear for everyone. These guidelines help define appropriate and expected behavior, as well as undesirable behavior. Although it is normal for children to test their boundaries, when you consistently follow through with consequences, this is less likely to continue.

Know Your Values and Beliefs

When establishing family rules, it is important that they are in agreement with your family values and beliefs. In order to keep them consistent, it is helpful to write out these beliefs and values. For instance, if respect is a value in your family, write down what this means to your family and why it is important. Younger children will have a difficult time understanding this concept unless the rules related to this value are specific. You could establish rules related to waiting your turn to speak, and knocking before entering someone else’s room and discuss how this relates to showing others respect. When your family rules align with your values and beliefs, they are easier to establish and follow.

Make Sure Rules Are Age Appropriate

Effective family rules consider the ages and developmental stages of your children. Young children need fewer rules as they rely on their caretakers to keep them safe. As children grow and require more freedom, more rules are also necessary. Teenagers often require the most rules as they strive to become more independent. Rules around staying in your room once you are put to sleep might be very important for your preschooler, yet not as relevant for your high schooler. Family rules will be most effective when the ages and developmental stages of each of your children are considered.

Have Clear Consequences

Rules are most effective when there are clear consequences. When everyone is aware of the rule and what will happen if it is not followed, they are able to make an active choice. If the consequences are inconsistent, the rules are more likely to be broken. Consequences that are either too lenient or too severe can be ineffective or difficult to enforce. The consequences should fit the situation. Such as, if you don’t eat dinner, you don’t get dessert. This is a more natural consequence that can be easier to enforce. When considering rules that involve safety, the consequences can be stricter in order to deter unwanted behavior from occurring. It is important to know your child’s values in order to establish meaningful consequences. Remember, consequences can be positive as well as negative.

Get Everyone Involved

Although the safety rules may be nonnegotiable, children can and should have input into some of the family expectation and aspiration rules. When children are included in the creation of the rules, they are more likely to abide by them. You could learn a lot about your children and their values and desires by asking what rules they think are important and why. You could also get their input on what consequences they believe to be most effective. While children shouldn’t have the final say on what family rules and consequences you implement, their input should certainly be considered. 

Renegotiate As Needed

To keep the family rules meaningful, you should renegotiate them as needed. When your children are toddlers, your expectations and their needs and abilities will be very different than when they are teenagers. Therefore, the rules and consequences should be adjusted accordingly. If your family situation changes, such as an elderly relative moves in, or you move to a busier area, the family rules need to be re-evaluated. The rules might also need to change when something that wasn’t a problem before becomes an ongoing issue. When an adjustment needs to be made, the entire family should still be involved in the process. 

Safety Rules

Family rules can be broken down into three separate categories. The first category is safety rules. These rules are put in place to keep everyone safe. The safety rules are often nonnegotiable, at least for a period of time. The rules should be clearly stated and the consequences should be rigid. This way you discourage, or encourage a particular behavior, which is the point of these rules. There should only be a few safety rules. A safety rule for a first-grader could be we only cross the street when we are holding a grown-ups hand. The consequence could be losing outside playtime for a set amount of time. For a teenager, a safety rule might be we put our phones on do not disturb when driving so we are not distracted. The consequence could be losing the car for awhile. If the safety rules are broken, the consequences are enacted regardless of why the rule was broken.

Expectation Rules

The next category of rules are expectations. These rules are put in place according to your family values and beliefs to make sure everyone is on the same page. There can be more than one rule under each family value. These rules can be stated positively to encourage the desired behavior. If a family value is being respectful and a rule under this value is to wait your turn to speak and not interrupt someone else who is talking, a consequence is needed if your child interrupts. The consequences for breaking these rules are much less severe than the consequences for breaking a safety rule. A consequence for a first offense might be a reminder or warning. If they continue to interrupt, they might have to apologize and finally, they might have to leave the room for a bit. Rewarding desired behavior is a good way to reinforce expectation rules. 

Aspiration Rules

Aspiration rules are the things that you aspire to do as a family. Maybe you want to eat dinner together, but conflicting schedules make this difficult. If this is one of your aspiration rules, then you can look at everyone’s weekly schedule and come up with a day that everyone can be together for dinner. It is then expected that everyone will be there on that day, or consequences will be enacted. Aspiration rules are flexible and often positive consequences are most effective. However, when an aspiration is put on the schedule, it then becomes an expectation and subject to negative consequences as well. Aspiration rules are important because they encourage activities that keep your family connected.

Family rules can help your family function effectively. If you are struggling to create and enforce family rules, counseling can help. When you establish clear rules with consistent consequences, your children, and entire family will benefit.

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