How do I set boundaries with my adult child who is experiencing problems with drugs or alcohol?
International Family Drug Support Dayis February 24 every year. International FDS began in 2016 as a way to emphasise the importance of supporting families of people who are dealing with problems related to drugs and/or alcohol. The theme for 2023 is Support the Family, Improve the Outcome:
“When families are supported and given education on coping, communication and keeping safe, the outcome for everyone is improved.”
Families deserve support. To contribute, we’ve created this guide for parents who need to set healthy boundaries with their adult child who is affected by drugs or alcohol.
Parents of adult children often find navigating boundaries difficult, particularly when sharing a home. The process can be uniquely difficult when your adult child is living with you while using substances or in recovery from problems related to drugs or alcohol.
Breakthrough’s Anna Guthrie recently joined us in the peer support community to discuss the importance (and difficulty!) of setting boundaries with loved ones who are using substances. Boundary setting is an integral part of recovery, both for the individual themselves and also those around them. Boundary setting allows those being impacted by another's substance use to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed or even burning out. The danger of burnout can be particularly acute for many parents who are accustomed to prioritising their child’s health and wellbeing over their own, even if their child is now an adult in their own right.
Parent-child relationships change over time. As children and their parents age, power dynamics within the relationship shift. Adult children living with their parents can create a mutually caring and supportive environment. However, if drinking or drug use becomes a problem for one member of the household, it can begin to impact everyone in the home.
For parents, the initial instinct when our children are in trouble is to protect them and ensure they have at least the bare minimum to look after themselves. Setting boundaries can feel punitive or harsh. However, it is always paramount to protect your own wellbeing and safety. Remember: your child is now an adult. They have the capacity to make choices for themselves. Setting boundaries does not mean you are ‘giving up’ on them. You are just creating an environment in which you can protect yourself as well as your child.
Give yourself permission to prioritise your own wellbeing
It might go against your parental instincts, but giving yourself permission to prioritise your wellbeing is an essential element of setting boundaries that will also protect your child in the long run. Parenting is a lifelong commitment to look after and nurture our children. There’s a mix of highs and lows and always the acceptance of the unexpected, but when our children’s behavior is having a detrimental impact on us it is time to draw a line in the sand.
So how do we recognise our boundaries have been crossed?
The simple answer is: you will be able to feel it.
If someone around you asks something of you, or puts you in a position in which you feel uncomfortable, that is a sign they have crossed a boundary. If those feelings of discomfort are left for too long they can turn into resentment and eventually spill out in more abrupt ways.
What do we do when we feel our boundaries have been crossed?
Dr Wendy McIntosh has written about the importance of setting boundaries in the workplace, but her ideas carry across easily into the personal sphere. Dr McIntosh explains that when faced with situations that challenge our boundaries we have to ask ourselves “the hard questions”. In this case, that might mean:
- what about me?
- what about my health and wellbeing?
- what about my family, my friends, my children, etc?
By asking ourselves these questions we can determine what we actually need in a situation, and therefore work out what boundaries we need to put in place.
Why am I struggling to set a boundary?
If you’re feeling anxious about setting or maintaining a boundary, Dr McIntosh recommends an exercise to understand your own feelings. We’ve adapted this model for maintaining boundaries with an adult child, and provided an exercise to help you work through the model for yourself.
Model: Why it can be so difficult to assert family boundaries
Understanding why you find it difficult to maintain boundaries can help you to interrupt the cycle. Think about how different levels of the model are impacting you.
Level 1: Intrapsychic
How are your own moral values, ingrained beliefs, learning from childhood or your family of origin impacting you? For example:
- Was it safe to establish and maintain boundaries as a child, or were you punished for it?
- Was it rude to refuse an invite or request?
- Were you taught that it was disrespectful or unkind to say no?
Level 2: Interpersonal
How is your history and relationship with your adult child impacting your anxiety about boundaries? For example:
- Has your child reacted badly to being told no in the past?
- Are you fearful of what might happen to them if you say ‘no’?
- Do you feel you owe them leniency due to mistakes you have made as a parent?
Level 3: Family-wide
How is your family as a whole impacting your anxieties or decisions? For example:
- Are other family members also unable to maintain clear boundaries?
- Do other members of the family place the responsibility on you to solve your child’s problems?
- Do you feel judged when you attempt to establish a boundary?
- Do you feel judged because you haven’t established boundaries?
Level 4: Broader system/culture
These anxieties come from the broader community, society or culture you live in. This might include ideas about what it means to be a parent, stigma about substance use, or barriers to your child receiving treatment in the health system. For example:
- Do you feel you should be able to solve your child’s problems for them, because that’s what has been modelled by perfect tv families?
- Are you concerned that if you aren’t able to control your child’s problems, you’ll be judged by your neighbours, coworkers, or other groups such as faith communities?
- Do you feel like your child has no other options for support due to barriers to treatment?
Exercise: Chart the model
One way to make sense of the model for yourself is to draw a diagram of the four levels. We’ve created a printable worksheet to help you out.
You and your child are in the middle of the diagram. Around you, describe the influencing factors that complicate your desire to set boundaries. As you add to the diagram, think about how you can counter those anxieties and strategise to overcome them.
Here’s an example of how you might fill out the diagram:
Remember: You’re doing this out of kindness, to yourself and your child. It can feel uncomfortable setting a boundary, especially with a loved one. It may feel like you’re punishing them or being cruel, but you’re not. This is a way to protect both yourself and the other people involved.
Be clear and specific
Setting a boundary with someone involves clear communication. You need to tell yourself and your loved one:
- When and how they have crossed a boundary.
- What you expect from them in the future.
If you can, be specific. We’re all different and have different ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable. Be explicit about what you can and cannot accept.
The power of the pause
When we’re in a state of heightened emotion it can be hard not to get into a fight or flight mindset where it feels like every reaction needs to be immediate. Dr McIntosh recommends that rather than acting on your first, impulsive reaction, that you try to harness “the power of the pause”. If you can, take a break before responding when you encounter emotional or interpersonal conflict or requests that feel potentially harmful or like a violation of your boundaries. Use the pause to ask yourself what you really need and make more considered decisions.
Be there for yourself
Remind yourself: you can be there for your children and for yourself. Asserting boundaries gives you the space you need to do that.
Make it up as you go along
Boundaries aren’t set in stone forever. You’ll need to adjust them as you go along. Life isn’t static, neither is the process of recovery from addiction. Boundaries with loved ones will change as their circumstances do. Allow for flexibility — as long as you’re not compromising on your own wellbeing.
Remember: It takes practice!
Asserting boundaries takes practice. You’re probably not going to do it perfectly at first, but it will get better. As you learn, here are some resources that can help you as you learn to prioritise your own wellbeing:
- Check out Meet the Educator Q&A: Breakthrough’s Anna Guthrie presenting on personal boundaries
- Self-help resources from SHARC and Family Drug Help:
- Chat to your peers in the Online Community