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Child Development

12 Parental Prohibitions that Still Limit You in Adult Life

Understand the impact of childhood injunctions to liberate yourself.

In their work as therapists in the 1970s, Robert and Mary Goulding noticed a pattern of 12 typical prohibitions that people hear from their parents in childhood that seem to carry through into adulthood. The prohibitions are "given out of the parents’ own pains, unhappiness, anxiety, disappointment, anger, frustration, secret desires.” (1979, p.34) The Gouldings called these the 12 “Don't Injunctions." Children who are continuously subjected to these injunctions may grow into adults who limit how they view and experience the world. Here are the 12 injunctions.

1. Don't be/don't exist.

This is one of the most harmful injunction messages. Perhaps the parents did not want the child in the first place. Maybe they felt that their child's needs were too much for them to satisfy at the moment. Such parents may have subtly communicated to the child, effectively sending a very painful message: “Don't exist, as we, along with the rest of the world, don't need you.” Children who grew up with such a message may be very hard on themselves as adults. They may even hate themselves and thus treat themselves harmfully.

This is a surprisingly common injunction. When parents or caregivers mentally or physically abuse children, this injunction is conveyed clearly, as abuse is a way to symbolically erase someone out of the world, or diminish their presence.

2. Don't be who you are.

This injunction is sent by parents who haven't actualized themselves in life and find their lives unfulfilling. They might see their child as a narcissistic continuation of themselves, so they want their child to live the life that they themselves did not have but could have had. Some parents do not want their children to be themselves, but to be someone else, usually a more convenient version of themselves.

Maybe your parents wanted you to be more like them and less like you. Maybe they had different expectations of your appearance or your personality. Maybe they wanted you to be a different gender. Such a parent will give fear-laden reasons for the child to not go out and be themselves in the world. They do not want their child to do what the child wants if it does not coincide with what the parent wants. Adults who have been given the injunction of, “Don’t be who you are” may lead quiet lives and, in some extreme cases, find it hard to take even the smallest of risks to get their needs met and discover who they truly are.

3. Don't be a child.

Parents send this message when they want their child to grow up faster than he/she is able to. They may direct this injunction especially to the first-born child, expecting them to be more of an adult, to help around the house more and to look after their siblings, especially in cases where the parents are still young. Some parents might also expect their children to parent them, relying on their children to comfort them and give them advice. This message burdens the child with too much responsibility and prohibits him/her from fooling around and acting silly, as children do.

Growing up accompanied by this injunction, children try not to be noisy or messy. Basically, they try not to be children. As a result, they findi it difficult to enjoy a good time and just be happy when they grow into adulthood. They also have increased feelings of guilt for not meeting the bar set by parents.

4. Don't grow up.

This message may be directed to the youngest child in the family or the child that serves as the only link keeping the parents together as a couple. They know that when this child is grown, there will be nothing left between them.

Such parents might suggest that the world is more dangerous than it is. They might be overprotective and not allow their child to explore the world by themselves. Some parents might not have grown up themselves and wish to stay young by identifying with their child.

They will enable childish behavior and dependent immature acts. They might also try to delay the child in leaving the nest. The consequences of imposing this injunction are difficulty becoming independent , difficulty adjusting to the world as an adult, and perhaps needing a long period of adjustment to figure it all out.

5. Don't make it.

This injunction is meant to prevent success. Achieving success may be dangerous in a family if someone has been punished for it or has not been able to deal with its consequences, so they resort to self-destructive patterns of behavior. This message might also come from jealous parents. A kid may be provided with unreasonable expectations or standards that he/she is expected to meet, preventing their chances of success.

This injunction causes a dread of achievement and a lack of self-confidence in adulthood. Someone may believe that they are worthy only of failure and therefore lack ambition and long-term goals.

6. Don't do anything.

"Don't run." "Don't climb high." "Don't get dirty." Parents who deliver such messages tend to do everything in place of the child or just induce passivity in them. They might be too worried about their child's safety. The injunction can also come from a parent who may be jealous of their child's abilities. Parents who give such an injunction could have been afraid themselves of life's opportunities and thus resent their child’s endeavors to take advantage of his/her own opportunities. They might feel threatened and not want their child to be more successful than they are.

The child might obey the “Don't make it” message by sabotaging his/herself without being aware. Such children may start things, but not finish them. They may also struggle to make decisions, as they think that the world is against them and their efforts will be inhibited.

7. Don't feel.

Some families tend to not express feelings, so the parents get upset, embarrassed, or angry when their child shows their genuine feelings. They retreat to anger or denial, shutting their child out of his/her emotions or trying to distract them. They might say things like, "Boys don't cry" or "Nice girls do not get angry."

In such families some feelings might have been allowed to substitute for others. For example, a parent might resort to anger instead of other negative feelings such as shame, fear, or sadness. They might sound angry a lot in order to conceal sadness, as the latter is not allowed in the family. When a child grows up with such an injunction, they struggle to understand and express how they feel at various points in their lives. They may seem nonemotional and are often afraid to express themselves in a relationship.

8. Don't think.

When a child starts to question everything as a toddler, the parents get annoyed. They discourage the child from further exploration. Such parents don't like it when a child has a different opinion than theirs. They may get easily irritated when presented with uncomfortable questions or are asked to explain things.

Some parents undermine confidence in their child's ability to handle problems by injecting themselves between the child and the problem and appointing themselves as the only one who’s able to provide solution or direction. The child then grows up dealing with any difficulty in the most simplistic and noncreative ways, expecting the parent to stand in for them. Alternatively, they can be very conservative in their thinking, accepting their parents' traditional ways of thinking without developing their own free thoughts and coping strategies.

9. Don't belong.

The child's parents may have prevented him/her from meeting with friends. The family might have had some secrets that they did not want exposed, thus limiting outsiders from visiting them or communicating with the people from the extra-familial world. Such parents may pass judgment on their child's friends or any group to which the child is attached. They also tend to move around a lot, preventing the possibility of settling down and belonging in some place or to some permanent group.

Such a family can cut the child's connections because they unconsciously want the child to belong only to the family. The message conveyed is, "If you are not with us, you are against us." Children in such families can grow into adulthood with suspicions about other people. They might not fit in because they lack an understanding that there are many different people with many different values.

10. Don't be close.

When parents are uneasy with intimacy, they send this injunction. They place little value on closeness and affection, and they might not demonstrate them altogether. Their children often interpret their cold demeanor as physical and emotional detachment, aloofness, and an indication of the the desire to be apart and separate.

A parent may be unwilling to create an emotional bond with their child. So, in order to avoid the familiar anguish of feeling rejected, the grown child resolves not to get close to others.

11. Don't be important.

This injunction is being sent in families that organize their life around the needs of some other person within them. There can be either an ill or an emotionally dependent child or an aged adult in the family around whom all attention centers. The parents consider another child to be either useful or of service to another family member. The child's needs are being stifled, their voice silenced, and their importance diminished in comparison to the needs of one or more other members.

When such a child grows, they might feel unimportant. They have a tendency to neglect themselves. They find it difficult to connect with their body and to trust themselves and their needs. Their goals might be either unclear or revolve around other people's needs.

12. Don't be well/sane.

The parents imposing this injunction pay attention to their children only in emergency situations, particularly when they are ill or in danger. It is nearly impossible to obtain affection from such parents by being healthy or stable. As a result, in trying to be loved, children either get sick frequently or put themselves in unsafe and dangerous situations.

When such a child grows up, he/she believes that the only way to get love and attention is to suffer. As a result, whenever they want to develop relationships, they destabilize their life.

Are these messages familiar to you?

As children, we comply with numerous injunctions that our parents impose on us, which become quite limiting as we grow older. As adults it helps to understand that we may be holding these injunctions in our subconscious, allowing them to influence our behavior and limit our freedom of choice. Being able to identify these injunctions, so that we can separate ourselves from them, makes our life less restraining and more fulfilling. And that’s what therapy helps to accomplish.


Goulding, R. & Goulding, M. (1976) Injunctions, Decisions and Redecisions Transactional Analysis Journal 6:1 January 41-48

Goulding, Robert L. & Mary M. (1979) Changing Lives through Redecision Therapy. New York: Grove Press Inc.

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