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About Boundaries

Hand stopping dominoes from impacting the rest of the chain

A boundary is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a limit on what is reasonable’. One of the areas that families of substance users have difficulty with is in setting boundaries that are effective and manageable.

All relationships where people live together need boundaries in place to develop trust, stability and respect within the relationship.

Effective boundaries give a sense of security and respect.

When a substance user lives in a household, boundaries often get stretched to the limit or even broken down completely – giving the family members a sense of helplessness. One mother said “It was like our home had been taken over by a tyrant. We all had to walk around on eggshells while he did whatever he wanted, if anyone said anything he threatened suicide or moving out onto the streets”.

Family members firstly need to remember who pays the rent, the mortgage or owns the house. Giving away power through fear or threats is not effective and will only lead to more chaos and anxiety. The truth is that the drug user would be at a disadvantage without a place to stay. They usually know this very well.

There are three stages to effective boundary setting:
  1. Defining the boundary and consequences that everyone agrees on and can live with

  2. Setting the boundary and communicating the understanding of all parties

  3. Keeping the boundary

Action learning is a useful concept here because the truth is that boundaries need setting and modifying many times. So there is a constant process of setting, reviewing, modifying and resetting. So it is always important that you don’t see boundaries as totally set in concrete.

Why set boundaries?
  • They encourage the user to take more responsibility for their behaviour

  • They help the user become aware that their behaviour impacts on those around them

  • They model a healthy and safe way for people to coexist, even when there are difficulties

  • They help the whole family to minimise the harm and negative impact of substance use and the attendant behaviours

  • They help break down the negative roles that members get stuck in i.e. mothers rescuing users, users relying on others to accommodate them, fathers getting angry etc.

Remember the key FDS principle – you can never change anyone else no matter how much you want to. What you do have total control over is you, your behaviour and how you respond to situations. The great thing about this is that if you do change yourself it may then provoke change in the other.

Defining the boundary

Once you understand the reason for setting boundaries, you want to be crystal clear on what the boundary is.

  • What is the issue, circumstance, area of concern?

  • What do you need to achieve?

  • Examine your motive in wanting to set this boundary. Is it in response to clear thinking about an area of concern or is it an angry response to a set of circumstances?

If the person wasn’t using substances would you accept the behaviour? In other words it is important not to treat people differently just because they are substance users.

Know the distinction between them as a person and their behaviour

Even ‘I’ statements can be phrased in more positive ways on occasion. Note the difference between: ‘I don’t want you living at home when you’re using!’ and ‘I don’t want you to use drugs in our home!’

  • Is the boundary encouraging them to be responsible for their life, the choices they made, their behaviour and the impact on those around them or is it just treating them like a child?

  • What are the risks of the boundary for everyone involved?

Using the ‘using at home’ example, the home and people within it may be safer if there is no use at home but the user may be at more risk if they then use outside the home.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Options and consequences have to be considered and each family/whānau may take different approaches. Child safety and protection should always be a serious consideration. The rights of young children need to be the most important element.

  • Set clear consequences for what happens if the boundary is breached.

  • Consequences should be negotiated together including the substance user and may be graded from mild to severe.

  • Consequences need to be appropriate to the breach and everyone needs to be able to live with them.

  • Any action tied up in the consequence needs to come from you – the user may not be ‘made’ to do something.

Example: ‘Because you used at home twice last week I am going to look for alternative living arrangements for you’ – rather than ‘Because you used drugs last week you now have to go into rehab.’

  • How will you ‘measure’ if the boundary has been kept?

  • Is there a time limit on the boundary or does it goes on indefinitely?

  • How often and when will you review the boundary?

  • What flexibility – and it will help if there is some – will be made for changes in circumstances?

  • When and where will the boundary be set and commence?

Get the whole household involved

Other family/whānau members of an appropriate age who live in the home should be party to the agreement partly to prevent ‘divide and rule’ circumstances. It will be no good setting a boundary where the key people involved disagree with the boundary.

  • Is the boundary realistic at the moment in the current circumstances?

  • Can a win/win be achieved? In other words, set the boundary in a way that you, the other family/whānau members and the drug user gain something from keeping the boundary. Boundaries set as revenge or to express your anger or to punish the drug user are doomed to failure.

  • When will the boundary commence? Immediately or is there a need for a commencement date?

  • How will you get support from within yourself or from others to be able to set and keep the boundary? How will you deal with harmful feelings and other issues that may arise? Support groups can be very important for supporting you.

Be prepared to compromise

Remember we live in the real world and not a fantasy one. The choice of a boundary is likely to be a compromise rather then the ideal you might like.

  • Be prepared to reward the drug user for respecting and keeping the boundary. They often don’t get ‘pay-offs’ and it will encourage them if they see that keeping the boundary is appreciated.

  • Prepare and rehearse the discussion on setting the boundary. Imagine their likely response. Be prepared for negative reactions. Use ‘I’ statements. Rehearse the conversation going the way you would like it to.

  • Remember your needs are equal to not greater or less then those of others. Your needs are worth respecting and you are entitled to set and have boundaries kept.

Take your time and get it right. You can’t change other people but you can change your response to them – which may in turn invite them to change.

Setting boundaries

Having thought about the boundary you would like to set and being prepared to talk about it, the next thing is to set it with the substance user. The skill to utilise is negotiation. It is important to build and maintain a dialogue between the user and other family/whānau members – this will work well if negotiation skills are utilised.

Effective dialogue involves:
  • Listening to each other.

  • Being open and honest.

  • Respecting the other person – not necessarily liking their behaviour.

  • Accepting and understanding their point of view – even when you don’t agree.

  • Use ‘I’ statements. Start everything you say with ‘I’. I think, I believe, I feel, I would like etc.

  • Take responsibility for your actions and contribution to the situation.

  • Not taking responsibility for other people’s behaviour, actions and choices.

  • Acknowledging both your own feelings and the other person’s feelings.

  • Appropriately expressing your feelings e.g. ‘I am really angry that you are using in front of your brothers’ rather than exploding and becoming aggressive.

  • Recognising the need for all to exercise their rights and responsibilities.

  • Work to collaborate rather than confront.

  • Stay calm and focused on the task of setting the boundary even if the user loses control.

  • Modelling appropriate behaviour may bring them back on track.

Effective dialogue builds trust

Effective dialogue builds trust, which can lead to people taking more risks with being honest, open and taking responsibility.

Use the transactional analysis model we are trying to work with – Adult to Adult dialogue rather than Parent to Child or Child to Child dialogues.

Developing effective negotiation skills includes:
  • Always looking for win/win outcomes.

  • Asking for what you want – not demanding or avoiding asking.

  • Acknowledging power differences between you and the drug user.

  • Checking their response to your request and how they feel about it.

  • Not making assumptions regarding their feelings, thoughts or desires.

  • Collaborating and being flexible. Being prepared to give some ground and compromise.

  • Holding onto what is really important while being willing to let go of what is not important.

  • Starting easy and if necessary finishing strong. Use your negotiation skills and then move onto imposition if necessary.

  • Agreeing the terms of the boundary – when it will start, when you will review it and the consequences of the breach of the boundary. Make sure the substance user is fully involved and understands what the consequences will be.

  • Making a clear agreement of what has been decided.

If a boundary is broken

You can expect boundaries to be broken by substance users – especially when they are first put in place.

They will:

  • often react to changes by pushing you and other family/whānau members to previous ways of behaving

  • probably be less motivated to change than you are

  • usually hope that you will be unable to keep boundaries in place based on their previous experience of you giving way.

If a boundary is broken you need to respond quickly, appropriately and assertively.

How to respond if a boundary is broken

The first step is to recognise and acknowledge that it has happened.

Then take a step back as you consider your response. It is really important to take time to consider everything rather then reacting from feelings of frustration and anger.


  • I believe our agreed boundary regarding ——————– has been broken

  • I feel ————————– about this

  • We need to discuss this. (You may need to negotiate whether right now is the time to have a discussion or to set a more appropriate time.)

In making your initial statement you need to include:

  • What behaviour is unreasonable (focus on behaviour, not them as a person)

  • What your feeling is about the behaviour (feeling not blaming response)

  • Say what you want to do now or restate the boundary

For example

“When you broke the agreement about using in front of your brother I felt let down, sad and angry. I ask again that you honour our agreement”.

It may be necessary then to restate and/or renegotiate the boundary.

You also then need to implement the consequence for breaking the boundary. It is really important that you don’t let them off the hook for the consequences.

You may need to develop a ‘broken record’ technique – especially if they become defensive or start justifying their actions i.e. “Yes I hear what you are saying about why this happened but I still need you to keep to the agreed boundary!”

It is important to comment on disparages in the substance user’s words and their behaviour – example – “I notice that every time something like this happens you always say sorry but then you carry on as if we didn’t have an agreement”.

You should then request that things be put right – repay money taken, apology to an affected family/whānau member, repair damaged property etc. Be consistent.

Tips for dealing with a boundary that has been broken

When making the above statement it is important to remember a few things because as with any new skill it needs to be developed, practised and refined.

  • Be assertive but not aggressive

  • Begin with the word ‘I’

  • Maintain eye contact

  • Speak from the same level – don’t stand over them. Avoid pointing, jabbing your finger or raising your voice

  • Be prepared for them to try and put you off track, appeal to your emotions, argue, get angry etc

  • You may even need to have another person as a mediator or negotiator but if you do it is important that they trust the other party and the other party doesn’t take sides

You are neither all powerful nor powerless. You do have influence and you do have bargaining power. You can ask for what you want, say no to what you don’t want and invite them to do the same.

If they apologise, be gracious but consider both their words and how they say it. Actions speak louder than words though.

Keeping a boundary

The last stage in the process is keeping the boundary. This is done by:

  • Observing if the boundary is being kept

  • Acknowledging that it is being kept or if it is broken

  • Responding appropriately if it is broken

Written and adapted by Tony Trimingham FDS Australia from various sources, especially the website of Adfam, UK. Adfam is a similar organisation to Family Drug Support Aotearoa New Zealand and Family Drug Support Australia.

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