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Setting Boundaries

  • Defining A Boundary
    • 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 using substances.

    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 treating them like a child?

    What are the risks of the boundary for everyone involved?

    Applying the 'using at home' example, the home and people within it may be safer if there is no use at home, but the person using substances 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 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 person who uses substances, 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 person who uses substances may not be 'made' to do something.


    "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 (it will help if there is some) will be made for changes in circumstances?
    • When and where will the boundary be set and commence?
    • Other family 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 key people are not involved and 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 members and the person using substances gain something from keeping the boundary. Boundaries set as revenge or to express your anger or to punish the person who uses substances 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 beneficial for supporting you.
    • Remember we live in the real world and not a fantasy one. The choice of a boundary is likely to be a compromise rather than the ideal you might like.
    • Be prepared to reward the person who uses substances for respecting and keeping the boundary. They often don't get 'payoffs' 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 as your communication style. Rehearse the conversation going the way you would like it to.
    • Remember your needs are equal to, not greater or less than 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.

  • If A Boundary Is Broken

    You can expect boundaries to be broken by people who use substances — especially when they are first put in place. They will often react to changes by pushing you and other family members to previous ways of behaving. They will probably be less motivated to change than you are. They will 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 do it?
    The first step is to recognise and acknowledge that it has happened. Then take a step back as you consider your response. It is very important to take time to consider everything rather than 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:

    1. What behaviour is unreasonable (focus on behaviour – not them as a person)
    2. What your feeling is about the behaviour (feeling – not blaming response)
    3. 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 then be necessary to restate and/or renegotiate the boundary.

    You 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 disparagement in the words of the person who uses substances and their behaviour – for 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 member, repair damaged property etc.

    Be consistent – 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.

  • Setting A Boundary

    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 person who uses substances. The skill to utilise is negotiation. It is important to build and maintain a dialogue between the person using substances and other family 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
    • Using 'I' statements. Start everything you say with 'I'. I think, I believe, I feel, I would like etc.
    • Taking 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
    • Working to collaborate rather than confront
    • Staying calm and focused on the task of setting the boundary even if the person who uses substances loses control
    • Modelling appropriate behaviour — it may bring them back on track

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

    Using 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:

    • Always look for win/win outcomes
    • Asking for what you want – not demanding or avoiding asking
    • Acknowledge power differences between you and the person who uses substances
    • 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 on to what is really important while being willing to let go of what is not important
    • Start easy and if necessary finish strong. Use your negotiation skills and then move on to 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 person who uses substances is fully involved and understands what the consequences will be
    • Make a clear agreement of what has been decided
  • 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
  • Support for You
    Setting boundaries and changing your relationship with a person who uses substances is difficult. It is especially hard if you are isolated and unsupported. Getting other family members positively involved is extremely important. Otherwise, phoning the Family Drug Support 24/7 Support Line on 1300 386 186, going to FDS or other support groups or even discussing things with a counsellor can be very helpful and empowering.
  • When Dialogue And Negotiation Doesn't Work

    This maybe means that the first boundary to ask for is that there is to be dialogue and negotiation. 

    If your attempts to achieve negotiation have not worked, you may then have to impose it. This can be done verbally and/or in writing. For example: 

    • I notice that whenever I try to discuss your drug use in the house you seem unwilling to talk about it. I tried to talk to you twice last week and you said "later mum" but it still hasn't happened. I cannot stop you using drugs even though I don't like it and I am fearful of about what might happen. I am worried that something illegal is happening in our house but am particularly concerned that you do it even when your younger brother and sister are here.
    • I assume now that you are unwilling to cooperate with me on this and therefore as a consequence I am not going to buy food or cook meals for you. Further, I have said that if there is one more instance of your siblings seeing you use, I will have to ask you to leave. I regret it has come to this and would prefer it if we could now have an open discussion about your drug use and the impact on the family. I love you and will continue to no matter what and I will continue to have contact with you!

    You will note that this letter:

    • Addresses their behaviour rather than attacks them as a person
    • Gives the impact of the broken boundary
    • Uses 'I' statements and not 'you' statements
    • Asks for the boundary to be respected
    • Is honest, open, direct and assertive
    • Is not aggressive
    • Is balanced
    • Sets out the boundary clearly as well as the consequences for breaking it
    • Leaves things open for further discussion, dialogue and negotiation
    • Gives the person who uses substances responsibility for their behaviour and the choice they made

    Communicating this way has three benefits. You get to say what is important to you and you say it in a way that is easier for the other person to hear. It also models good communication to the other person.

Family Drug Support Australia

Supporting families and friends of people who use substances as well as bereaved families in Australia.

SUPPORT LINE (24 Hours - 7 Days)
Phone: 1300 368 186

© Family Drug Support Australia / PO Box 7363 Leura NSW 2780 / ABN 49 081 764 258.
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