Setting boundaries

Many families of substance users put up with far more than they are really comfortable with. You might have told your loved one that if they behave a certain way ‘one more time’ then something will change – you'll call the police or they won't be able to come on holiday with you, or even that it won't be possible for them to continue living with you. But it can be easy not to follow through on these statements. However, setting and maintaining clear boundaries is essential for both you and your loved one. Not doing so results in chaos and uncertainty.

Have you ever issued an ultimatum and then not followed it through? What happened? Did you mean it when you said it? Are there steps you could take to make it possible to implement (if that is what you want)? Try not to make empty threats. Think through your limits, communicate them clearly and then follow through and do what you said you would do. If you aren't willing to do it, don't say that you will. It can be easy to make bold ultimatums in the heat of the moment. Try to avoid this. Instead, sit down with your loved one in a calm moment and communicate your decision clearly.

Some common areas to think through in terms of boundaries with your loved one:

  1. Money. Do you give them money? Is this appropriate for their age? Can you afford it? Are you comfortable with it? Does something need to change?
  2. Providing food, electricity etc.
  3. Cooking meals, doing laundry, running errands.
  4. Covering for them e.g. calling in sick to their workplace when they're hung over after a night out.
  5. Allowing them in the home when under the influence.
  6. Driving them around when under the influence.
  7. Having them live with you.

It can be very difficult to decide what is appropriate. To provide food, shelter, some meals and laundry for a teenager may be normal but what if they're still using and still expecting this several years later? Helping out in a time of crisis can easily become a way of life. What seems reasonable when someone is participating in family life can feel unreasonable if relationships break down and it feels like they are using you like a hotel. When is enough enough? Families feel scared or anxious of what would happen if they stopped doing these things for their loved ones. Would they look after themselves? Would they be homeless? Where would they go?

However, the toll on families can be huge. Sometimes there is no incentive for a drug or alcohol user to change because life is very comfortable for them as a result of this kind of practical support and a time can come when family members feel that things must change.

Finding local support can help you work through these questions and decide what is best for you and your loved ones.