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Creating Boundaries in Addiction: A Win-Win

Do you feel like your addicted child is running your home—and your life—whether that child lives with you or not? Are your emotional resources drained because you feel responsible for your loved one’s behavior? Are you living in chaos? Boundaries can help. When tied to your personal values, boundary setting is about getting your needs met, not punishing your child. You are actually taking care of yourself, modeling positive behavior, and creating an invitation for your child to follow along.

Setting boundaries is about building healthy relationships and is more likely to have a positive influence on your child than rule setting. Rules can be useful if they are set and everyone follows them. But when rules are continually broken, as is often the case when a substance use disorder (SUD) exists, yelling and punishment eventually break down the relationship. It’s a vicious cycle—the yelling increases, punishments get tougher and your loved one continues to violate your expectations. Even worse, your child may move further into addiction to escape the turmoil and control.

Boundaries, on the other hand, are not about control. Personal boundaries are limits people set for themselves as a way to protect their overall well-being, not as a way to manipulate someone else. This is an important distinction and one that can be recognized by your child.

How to Set a Boundary

Boundaries should support your values, so the first step is to establish your top three to five core values—values that are nonnegotiable, such as respect, honesty and trust. Next, think about how often that value is violated. If it’s often or extreme enough for you to notice that knot in your stomach, you’re frequently angry or your life is out of control, you need to set boundaries. For example, if one of your top values is respect, and your son or daughter yells or swears at you, you need to set a consequence for when that happens. The consequence could be that you remove yourself from the situation. Remember, this is not punishment for your child. It’s about protecting yourself and controlling the only person you have the power to control—you. Use this Values Assessment Tool to help you determine your top values.

Start small when setting a boundary so it is easier to follow through on consequences. It is better not to set a boundary than allow it to be broken. Your child will quickly learn you don’t mean what you say. It’s easier for you to not cover for your son the next time he has trouble at work than to make him leave home if he drinks again.

The Best Way to Communicate a Boundary

Discuss a boundary with your son or daughter before there is another violation. Choose a time when emotions are under control and your child is not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Communicate your boundary in a calm and respectful manner and state the consequence. Use “I” statements, focus on your experience and keep it brief. Using the value of respect, you might say:

I’d like to talk to you about something. It upsets me and I feel disrespected when you yell and swear at me. The next time that happens, I am going to walk away and go to my room.

If you have an adult child that lives away from home, this may be a phone conversation. In this case the consequence would be expressed as, I’m going to hang up the phone.

Fear of Anger When Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries, especially in the beginning, can feel scary and uncomfortable. Your child may be used to living without restrictions and will likely notice your new behavior—again, the only behavior you can control. Ask yourself if your loved one’s anger is her way of keeping you in check and getting what she wants. Remember, by setting a boundary nothing is being “done” to her. Her immediate “want” is being frustrated. Starting with small steps, such as I will not allow someone who has been drinking in the house, will make it less intimidating. Respecting other’s boundaries, a skill that may have been forgotten due to an SUD, will help your child begin to move forward.

Many parents mistakenly believe they should deny their own needs or that endless giving is part of being a good mother or father. Often, the biggest fear is their child will stop loving them. But it’s similar to when you set a boundary for that raging toddler who didn’t want to go to bed. You told him it was time to go to sleep and turned out the light. He was angry but did he love you any less? I imagine he just learned to go to sleep. And you had the evening to yourself.

The Payoff

Setting boundaries with children may sometimes deprive them of what they want—but it offers them what they need. Remember, the purpose of setting boundaries is to let someone know a behavior is unacceptable to you. Be prepared for a negative response. If you are setting a healthy boundary—from a place of self-care, not punishment—you will be better able to acknowledge the reaction: I understand you’re upset, but this is important to me. You will not back down or try to fix the response. You will have gained back a piece of your life.

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