A common issue that parents of adult children with substance use disorders grapple with is setting boundaries. They often ask me: “How do I set boundaries,” and “What boundaries do I need to set,” or “Why aren’t my boundaries working.”
And although the same undesirable symptoms of addiction tend to repeat with this problem, the specific boundaries required depend on many factors; such as the adult child’s behavior, the relationship dynamics between the parent and adult child, how the addicted child’s symptoms affect the parent and other family members, as well as on what a parent is actually willing to do.
However, a common mistake that parents make in this situation is that they attempt to set boundaries according to what they think will make their adult children change somehow: get better, be happier, seek recovery, stop using substances, etc.
Of course, it makes sense that parents would want to do this: they love their children more than anything and would do anything to make and keep them healthy, happy, and safe.
But, alas, as we all know (at least intellectually), we cannot make any other adult do the things we think it would take for them to find health and happiness. If we could, parents would eliminate any addiction problems as soon as they were aware of them.
Instead, we have no power when it comes to stopping substance use in someone else. And, many times, we don’t even know what would make our children happy – even when we think we do. Trying to control these things will only set us up for another battle and for our own distress. And we want to end the myriad battles that come with this illness. Instead, we want results.
So, rather than focusing on setting boundaries with the goal of changing behavior in their adult children, I help parents to begin focusing on their own goals for their own lives – just as they would be doing if their adult children were independent and healthy.
I work with parents to start a list of what they want to achieve or change in their own lives: How do you want to live? What do you want to STOP doing? How important are those things to you?
It helps to be as specific as possible.
Important topics to consider may include goals for physical and emotional health, career, finances, travel, fun, as well as others you deem salient.
In short, what results do you want?
I then help parents brainstorm boundaries that could address what they want to change in their lives and how they could achieve the desired results. What has to happen in order for that result to be possible?
Another important thing I suggest is that parents begin by choosing the smallest boundary that is necessary to achieve the outcome that is important to them. Sometimes, we don’t know what that is until we experiment.
But many individuals, in beginning to set boundaries, tend to be excessive. For example, if you don’t want to argue with your adult child; you don’t need to cut them out of your life if they start arguing. Instead, you can simply choose a smaller boundary that also gets you the same result – such as telling them you don’t want to talk about that and changing the subject. Only if the first and smaller boundary doesn’t get you the result you want do you then need to set another boundary.
It is also worth mentioning that boundaries are best communicated with love, respect, and in a calm tone when we are likely to actually implement them. Also, we need to consider and be willing to live with their consequences. Often, we communicate unrealistic boundaries ineffectively with anger and then later have no intention of enforcing them.
Many times, experimenting is required, and that’s okay. It’s all an opportunity to gain more information. It’s okay to not have all the answers as parents – we just can’t know everything.
All we can do is be loving and compassionate – to ourselves and our adult children, and take care of ourselves by living the lives we choose. When we set heathy boundaries, these are much more easily done. Then, we can be an example of health and resilience to our children, as well as give them the opportunity to find their own health and resilience, as only they can do.
Need more support? Join the Facebook group for Parents: a wonderful, supportive community where I have monthly Live Q & A’s to empower parents facing this issue.