Boundaries is a word that gets bantered about all over the place in the recovery world. Actually it gets thrown around in all aspects of life. People devote extensive time to working on boundaries and setting limits within relationships. It is most certainly one of the key aspects of leading a healthy life. Without boundaries you can lose yourself and, in extreme cases, become involved in abusive relationships.

How do you “do” boundaries? What are the skills and guidelines for setting boundaries? Many times, a circular conversation ensues around setting boundaries:

Family member (FM): I don’t know what to do my kid just keeps smoking pot in his room and I have told him to stop.

Very Helpful Person (VHP): Well just set a boundary about smoking pot.

FM: How do I do that?

VHP: Just tell him. Stop smoking pot or there will be consequences.

FM: I tried that. He is still smoking.

VHP: That’s cause you didn’t set the boundary.

FM: What boundary?

VHP: The one about smoking pot.

FM: How do I do that?

VHP: Just tell him. If he doesn’t quit smoking pot there will be consequences.

FM: What kind of consequences?

VHP: Take his phone.

FM: I tried that. He just flipped out until I gave it back.

VHP: That’s cause you need to set boundaries about how he talks to you.

FM: What do you mean?

VHP: Tell him he can’t talk to you like that.

FM: He knows that. He does it anyway.

VHP: Well you need to get better boundaries…  I heard they are having a sale at Walmart. Two for one. Let’s go.

Maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit. I am the king of hyperbole. However, the process of setting boundaries is much more involved than a simple declaration of intent. There are entire books dedicated to the concept. Maybe we can keep it simple by focusing on a variation of the classic saying: Say what you mean!  Mean what you say! But don’t say it mean!  How does this apply to addiction and family recovery.

Football practice. rewards of recovery. family is restored

Say what you mean!

“Saying what you mean” is about consistency between one’s thoughts and words. It is a plea to be honest, to truthfully represent one’s understanding, state or intent when describing it verbally (Runion).  This is difficult for everyone. It gets especially challenging when addiction enters the picture.

Consistency between one’s thoughts and words presupposes that one has awareness of one’s thoughts.  It has been said that the average human being has at least 77,000 thoughts per day and the overwhelming majority operate below conscious recognition. Under the best of circumstances we have difficulty staying in the present moment. Our behaviors and words are influenced by past experiences and future considerations. It is hard to have consistency when you aren’t even sure what you are thinking. It is as if life “just happens”.

Now add in addiction and all the chaos, drama, and fear associated with that reality. I would argue that a family member living through a loved one’s addiction experiences post traumatic stress disorder. Traumatic experiences are encoded and frozen in the information processing system of the brain making thought recognition even more difficult. At any given time family members will be triggered and re-experience previous events and situations.

How can you say what you mean when you aren’t even sure what you mean?

Therefore it is important to gain an understanding of “what you mean”.  What is it that you want to see happen? What is the specific problem that you need to address? One of the ways helpers inadvertently confuse the family even further is by telling them “you need to work on yourself”. This muddies the water because many times the family actually wants to “help” their loved one. I’m hear to tell you. That is perfectly understandable.

After you work through “what can I do” family members will frequently come to the conclusion that they must change some of their behaviors. This is where the boundaries talk comes in. Some recommendations:

Identify “target” outcome-How do you want to be treated?:

Remember the target outcome is about you not about the other person. Ask yourself: What do I need to be different in order for my life to improve? Try to avoid focusing on the behavior of the other person excepts as it relates to you. A quick example:

Johnny returns from rehab and is living at home with you. He’s 22 and not sure about going back to school or going to work. Johnny tends to go out late with his friends. He is 22…the night starts for him at 10 pm. You are 50. The night ends for you at 10 pm. Johnny tends to come in at 1 am. You are frequently up all night waiting for him to come home. Even though you aren’t sure he is using your anxiety and worry gets the best of you. The lack of sleep is starting to impact your life. You realize you can’t go to sleep until Johnny is “in for the night”.

At first glance the issue seems to be Johnny not coming in at a reasonable time. Your impulse may be to break off a speech about a curfew and coming in at reasonable hour. However, for a 22 year old 1 am is reasonable.

The real problem is your lack of sleep.  So the target is: “I would like to get enough sleep” NOT a random curfew for Johnny.

This changes everything. Say what you mean in this case is translated as “I NEED TO GET A DECENT NIGHT SLEEP or you won’t be able to continue to live here. Something has to change about how late you stay out”.  The details of this can actually be worked out with Johnny. Maybe this means he agrees to come in at midnight. Or maybe it means he agrees to spend the night with a positive friend rather than come home late.

Mean what you say!

Meaning what you say” is usually about consistency between one’s words and subsequent related behavior or actions.  This is where the rubber meets the road. Meaning what you say implies that you can carry through with what ever limit you set forth when you “say what you mean”.

The most important part of this process is thinking it through before you set the boundary and discuss the limitations and associated consequences. If you make statements that you cannot carry through on your authority is significantly undermined. It is better to say nothing at all than to make an empty threat.  Of course, this is easier said than done. You need to develop ways of “pausing” before speaking on these subjects.

You also need to develop a team of people who can support in processing situations and exploring options. Parents for example, need to support one another in the decision making process. If there is disagreement around boundaries this will become a glaring problem when the boundaries are enforced. Sometimes a trusted coach or sponsor can help your family discuss these tough issues. Sometimes a therapist or counselor will be necessary. In some cases the parents will need to address deeper issues. The graphic below is meant to describe the importance of having crucial conversations regarding these underlying issues. Sometimes the “rules” and techniques (boundaries) need to wait until the foundation is shored up. For example, its hard to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding boundaries if mom thinks dad is “just not a good parent” and “does not want the best for the kid”. This will require clinical support to work through these complex issues.

In addition to parents, it is sometimes necessary to bring extended family into the discussion. Grandparents for example are intimately involved in many kid’s lives. Extended family members and friend have influence. They need to be on the same page with many of the boundaries that are set in these situations.

Furthermore, parents and extended family should discuss ways to give each other respite and support. Recovery is a process not an event. A marathon not a sprint.


Once the boundaries are agreed upon it is important to stay involved with your support system so that you can carry through over the long term.

Even more importantly, it is important to communicate these expectations clearly to your loved one. This is where the final part of the formula comes in.

But don’t say it mean!

Addiction is a beast. It can bring out the worst in all of us. The addicted individual will engage in outrageous self destructive behaviors. Stealing, lying and manipulating may become common place. If you aren’t careful your loved one will have you believing that 2 + 2= 8.

In turn this can bring out frustration in the family. Family members can lash out in anger and say things in aggressive ways. Impulsive statements about “throwing you out” become commonplace. Clear communication is going to take an effort. There is no easy way to maintain your cool in the face of an addition related crisis. However, here are some general guidelines:


Perhaps most importantly is recognition of your “hot buttons”. If you are going into a potentially conflict laden situation gaining awareness of what gets you fired up is very important. You may need to ask for feedback from you spouse or other family members in order to identify this. Many times these issues fall into our “blind pane”. However, identifying these potential trigger areas is vital to successful communication of the boundaries.


  • Don’t confront the person when they are under the influence. Wait until the next morning. Unless it is immediate crisis and person is danger to self or others in which case enact emergency services.
  • Rehearse the conversation.
  • Bring bullet points or a script. The addicted individual will try and get you off track and will bring up things unrelated to boundaries. Stay out of the weeds.
  • If the boundary involves outside forces (ie…the person needs to be evicted, the person needs commitment, etc…) make sure you have all the extraneous details worked out. Paperwork, phone calls to rehab, list of shelters.  Bring this to the meeting. Again, having a family coach or a group to support you in this preparation can be helpful.
  • Have the conversation when you have energy and you are not already emotionally depleted.

I want to go on the record. This is all easier said than done and none of it is an exact science. Please become involved in local support groups and seek out professional assistance as you prepare for these conversations. Managing boundaries is hard enough. Addiction makes is downright overwhelming.